Entrepreneurship training for African startups? Stakeholders disagree

While entrepreneurship is an essential aspect of the economy of most African countries with entrepreneurs acquiring knowledge from different sources, tech entrepreneurs in West Africa that desire to get empowered and supported to build their products and launch into the market desire to do that at either of the region’s two leading tech entrepreneurship incubators — the Co-Creation Hub (CcHub) located in Yaba area of Lagos, or Accra-based Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST).

Even though these two incubators are both supporting tech entrepreneurs to build tech solutions for critical problems in their respective regions, their approaches are largely different. MEST trains students to become entrepreneurs but CcHub does not believe in entrepreneurship training as is largely done in different parts of the world.

All students at MEST pass through a 12-month fully sponsored training program during which they are trained about software development and entrepreneurship.

Mest writes:

The program provides rigorous entrepreneurial training and extensive hands-on project work, designed so that entrepreneurs-in-training (EITs) master industry-proven methodologies for software development. This coursework is supplemented by a series of guest lectures, featuring the experiences and insights of internationally-recognised executives and successful entrepreneurs.

But CcHub’s Co-Founder Bosun Tijani said they see entrepreneurship training in Africa differently.

“We don’t train startups at CcHub; we are an entity that don’t believe in entrepreneurship training. A lot of people believe in that but we have our psychology, philosophy and reasons why we don’t believe in training,” he said.

He said entrepreneurship is more “personal”, not necessarily something that someone could be trained for. But he admitted that there are several stakeholders in Africa’s tech startup ecosystem that offer entrepreneurship training to startups.

According to him, those that are promoting such training are doing so because it is their only way of remaining relevant in the ecosystem.

“You can’t really train people to become entrepreneurs because becoming a businessman is by choice, it’s something you decide to do and you’ll find out that training is not what is going to get you set because if your business is not successful in 12 to 24 months, what’s going to separate you from the person who is desperate to be taught how to become an entrepreneur is the motivation; it’s that inner drive that is going to keep you going — and they don’t teach those things. What we do with our entrepreneurs is to give them personalised support,” Tijani argues.

The personalised service and support which CcHub offer to its entrepreneurs include providing them with what they don’t know about the business they want to start. Tijani said each business has entirely different requirements and he supported CcHub’s stand on entrepreneurship training by giving several examples of successful tech companies whose founders did not have any form of entrepreneurship training before launching their products.

Read more: Why startup incubators in Africa just don’t work

He said, “Somebody could come and say as an entrepreneur you don’t know the basics of accounting and law. To be honest, you don’t need that as an entrepreneur. If you come to CcHub, we have an accounting team that will sit with you and help you draw templates and samples of how you can record your bookings and at the end of the day, every week or every month, they balance your account for you using software.

“What we need to do is work with you one-on-one, help you understand the market, and approach that market; how do you come up with a solution that will really help you to solve that problem that you’ve set out to solve? It’s more difficult than people can imagine because tech in this environment is still in its early days,” he says.

He continues: “We’ve also assumed that we know what people want to use but by the time you finish building it, people don’t want to use it the way you built it. So you get to the market and you learn from it. At that stage, if you are one of those that all you do is engage in trainings, you’ll get frustrated. But if you are passionate about doing the business, you will quickly learn in the market, go back to the drawing table, redesign the solution and push it back to the market. This is the kind of support we offer and entrepreneurship is that way.”

But Wennovation Hub, Nigeria’s premier accelerator, offers training to entrepreneurs and its executive partner, Wole Odetayo justified this by pointing to the low-experience capital in the ecosystem.

“The experience capital in the African ecosystem is still very low. What that means is that there is nobody to point startups in the right ways — even the mentors are from the conventional world that cannot necessarily teach young companies exactly what they want to know as an innovator, but can point them in the direction of what they should do if they are setting up business in that region or field,” he said.

African startup mentor, Michele Grosso, agrees with Odetayo. He noted that while African entrepreneurs have amazing drive and hardworking spirit that cannot be seen elsewhere, most of them lack the basic business skills that are expected from anyone that wants to start and run a business.

“This is probably due in part to lack of proper business education; they don’t have access to a wide international business community except at events like DEMO Africa which don’t happen every day,” he said.

He noted that most startups in Africa are born out of pure idea but an idea itself does not sell.

“An idea can be the best in the world but if it doesn’t answer a real and existing problem in the society, the idea doesn’t help,” he said.

Read more: CcHub’s Bosun Tijani: ‘Nigeria can’t move forward if we don’t use technology smartly’ [Q&A]

Grosso said he believes in entrepreneurship training said more startups in Africa would become successful if they are guided through the process of deleting the idea and starting from the problem the idea is trying to solve in the target market.

“Then you build up the idea, then you build the product. Entrepreneurs would also need access to teachers’ experience that would help in preparing them to face the external world.”

But Tijani affirmed that building a solution that solves a real problem is all that matters — and this is what should be the focus of entrepreneurs in Africa.

“If you build a solution that solves real problem, other people will do the admin work for you. The story of Google is a good example, Facebook is another. So all those things they tell us is a bloody lie that they are telling us because this is Africa and they think we don’t know what we are doing. What we should be doing is to break things, break boundaries, create solutions that a lot of people don’t know, create things that people will say this not going to work, and make it work. That’s what we need our innovators to do,” he said.

Entrepreneurs’ perspective

But one of Nigeria’s successful serial tech entrepreneurs Simeon Ononobi sees succeeding in tech entrepreneurship differently, he said he doesn’t believe it has much to do with whether an entrepreneur gets training on entrepreneurship or not. According to him, it’s mostly about the product and the entrepreneur.

Ononobi who founded SimplePay and MyAds said an entrepreneur should focus on building solutions that pay for themselves in terms of energy and time; he added that more efforts should also be placed on standing out.

He said, “For me it’s all about how do I carve a niche for myself? I research a lot, I do a lot of work, and I try to know everything. Even when I don’t, I try to get to the point where I can create something different. Take MyAds for instance, everyone knows about advertising but I asked myself how do I make it personal? How do I make the person enjoy the service and how I make the person enjoy advertising? I tried to create something out of nothing. When the product became finally available, many people were wowed. They asked me how I made it happen.

According to him, it takes energy and time for an entrepreneur to find his or her space — these are qualities that mLab Southern Africa Facilitator, Rulani Nevhufumba said many African entrepreneurs don’t have.

“Many people want to start something now, after two months they expect fruits. But they need to be consistent and they need to find the right idea and focus on it instead of finding something to work on now and tomorrow you change – and you keep on changing,” he said.

Ononobi added that everybody might do the same thing but not everybody gets it the same way.

“Not everybody in his own unique way does different things. What creates that magic is what stands you out. You have to create a way to create that magic around yourself,” he said.

Instead of going for entrepreneurship trainings, he said entrepreneurs need to work on getting a missing quality — hard work.

“Hard work is missing. If I tell everybody that I worked on MyAds for 12 months before I actually thought it was ready to come out, they won’t believe me. Even if you have an idea, you have to make sure that it is perfect – not entirely perfect but you have to get to a point where it is sellable, something that someone can see and say I can take this to the next level. Most entrepreneurs try to do two things that I always shun against which is try to be perfect or try to ask for too much.

“I want to build a product that will be relevant even when I’m no more so I focus on sustainability and that’s what most entrepreneurs lack. Everybody wants to jump on the gun. If you ask an entrepreneur today how much is your business worth? Even when the business is still in the oven they will tell you a million dollars or US$20-million. How can you tell me it is worth that much? Because someone on TV said so, someone at Silicon Valley said so,” he says. “You have to understand the environment you are in, you have to understand the players in the environment and try to fit in and change the way things are done. Don’t out-price yourself.”

He concludes: “As a startup, make yourself viable, make yourself interesting; make yourself wonderful to an investor. Whatever they offer you, take it, move to the next level. Be successful at one thing and every other thing will just work.”

Paul Adepoju


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