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How this Accra-based incubator is nurturing entrepreneurs to build pan-African products

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on the contrasting views of some African tech stakeholders, including Lagos-based CcHub’s Bosun Tijani, on the usefulness of entrepreneurship training programmes in ensuring the success of startups in the various African markets. While there are some who don’t entirely believe in entrepreneurship training, some institutions and incubators do have various programmes for entrepreneurs.

Ghana, Accra-based Meltwater School of Entrepreneurship (MEST) is probably the continent’s most revered institution that equips tech entrepreneurs to compete in the pan-African mobile and to scale globally. With numerous success stories in its company profile page, Neal Hansch, the incubator’s MD is someone to listen to when it comes to tech entrepreneurship education in Africa.

When asked why MEST has a comparatively higher quality of entrepreneurs emerging from its programme, Hansch said the journey actually starts from the point where entrepreneurs are recruited.

“Recruiting is a big part of our programme. We recruit into the program folks that we think have the right drive and desire to be entrepreneurs. This has a big impact on the kinds of entrepreneurs that come into the programme,” Hansch told Ventureburn.

Basics of MEST curriculum

While supporting the school of thought in favour of entrepreneurship training, the incubator MD said that “teaching entrepreneurs” entails equipping them with the specific skills entrepreneurs need to succeed. He agreed that there are some qualities and skills that cannot be taught.

“You can’t teach desire and drive, commitment and all that,” he said.

Read more: MEST incubator looks to Kenyan talent in regional expansion

At MEST, he said, entrepreneurs are equipped with what they need to become effective tech entrepreneurs. This starts with teaching them how to code, build applications and mobile apps. “That’s the technical side of what we train,” Hansch said. In addition, entrepreneurs at MEST, are exposed to a core hard skill set which includes online marketing.

“You need to understand how your business will scale and the economics of your business. How do you price a product? How do you define your metrics for success? Not ‘I have a great idea, I want to build a mobile app, I want to upload to an apps store and see what happens’. You have to figure out what is the definition of success? How do you measure how people engage with the app?”

MEST, Hansch said, teaches a technical aspect: building a tech (software) company, as well as teaching a core business skillset that entrepreneurs need to have.

He said: “How do you deal with partnerships? How do you pitch to investors? How do you articulate the market you are going after? Access to the media — when is the right time to do that?”

“Our training never ends. Even with our accelerator programme and through other channels, we continue to support our entrepreneurs will skills, marketing, new technologies, design, and others.”

But many incubators, accelerators and hubs in Africa encourage their entrepreneurs to focus on just building their products, launching into the market, iterating and reiterating along the way, and providing necessary support services as the need arises. Responding, Hansch said the approach taken by any incubator will be determined by their aims and objectives.

“Our mandate and focus are different from those of other accelerators and incubators. And what an accelerator would do is largely determined by their relationship with their entrepreneurs. We are interested in building and supporting the technology ecosystem across the continent. At MEST, when entrepreneurs come, they don’t have to have an idea or prior experience, we help in building them. But at other places, what they are essentially doing is supporting teams around a concept or product. The kinds of people you are dealing with will determine your approach. There are different models from Lagos to Nairobi and across the continent,” he told Ventureburn.

MEST’s 2016 agenda

Revealing what MEST will be focusing on this year, Hansch said a new set of entrepreneurs will be completing their training, MEST will be opening new locations in Lagos and Nairobi, and its venture fund will kick off.

Read more: 8 exciting African startup programmes and accelerators to watch in 2015

“We have three focuses in 2016. One is completing the training and graduating another set of entrepreneurs, secondarily will be getting our locations in Lagos and Nairobi established and ready to go for the incoming graduates, and third which we recently announced is the launch of MEST venture partners which is our associated venture fund which will starting out in the first half of 2016,” he said.

Probing further, I asked what MEST is trying to achieve with the fund. He said through the venture fund, investors would be able to invest in entrepreneurs from all over Africa and from companies that have come through the mentoring programme.

“They will invest in the best entrepreneurs in the markets that we are most delighted about. Benefitting startups don’t have to come through MEST training programme. We will be interested in all the best portfolio companies in Africa,” he said.

Author Bio

Paul Adepoju
Paul Adepoju is a media entrepreneur, published author and award-winning Nigeria-based freelance journalist. He speaks regularly at major African technology events including NigeriaCom and Nigeria eHealth Forum. More