Why supporting Sub-Saharan African start-ups should matter to the UK

The Baobab Network works with African start-ups that are solving real problems their founders have seen day to day, from helping farmers improve their yield to giving children in rural areas access education. Co-founder Toby Hanington speaks with GrowthBusiness on the network's growth journey.

Toby Hanington was just another disillusioned millennial when he left university in Bath, gripped by the urge to do something that would have a social impact. Now, he is at the helm of The Baobab Network alongside co-founder Tom Fairburn, driven by two main goals: to bolster Africa’s most promising, socially beneficial and robust start-ups, while changing the way big corporates think about innovation.

Here’s his start-up journey.

How did the Baobab Network start and why?

We devised the concept of The Baobab Network over a beer, reminiscing over time spent at university. The corporate world was not what we had expected, and like many of our ‘millennial’ peers we had become disillusioned at the lack of social impact we were having through our work. Having had a very diverse and dynamic learning experience at university, we were also surprised at the approach our employers took to talent development. We were subject to monotonous, classroom based learning sessions which were adding little to our professional learning, and this was frustrating.

Aligned with this, a boom in disruptive technology start-ups in Sub Saharan Africa. We spent some time investigating the start-up ecosystem across the continent, and consistently saw the same problems being faced; notably across fundraising, talent and missing skill-sets. Knowing that the majority of people could not or would not give up their well-paid city jobs to help such start-ups, we designed a two week programme on the ground in Kenya, matching the skillsets of consultants with the problems being faced by the start-ups.

Is the Sub-Saharan market very different from other regional markets? How does this impact entrepreneurialism?

Over the last few years, the start-up scene in Sub Saharan Africa has developed into something very exciting, especially in the tech space. As ecosystems in cities like Nairobi and Kigali have improved, so have the quality of ideas and businesses. The support for entrepreneurship is really growing – in Rwanda for example, all schools teach Entrepreneurship – and there are now numerous accelerators and incubators across the continent.

Entrepreneurs are building solutions to big problems in their markets, with a real focus on financial inclusion and payments, healthcare, agriculture & education. We work with start-ups which are solving real problems their founders have seen day to day – helping farmers improve their yield or helping children in rural areas access education for example. This is different from the UK or US where we see start-ups trying to find problems to solve – do we really need another photo editing app?!

What are some of the biggest trends you’ve seen in Sub-Saharan start-up world?

I think there have been two main trends that we’ve seen. We’ve been amazed at how relatively simple technologies, when applied in an innovative way, can have a huge impact on the lives of consumers. For example, using simple text message platforms to spread educational content, or using GPS tagging to help people access healthcare services – quite simple technology in the grand scheme of things, however it can be extremely powerful.

Probably the second biggest trend we have seen is the sorts of challenges tech entrepreneurs face day to day. The majority of the companies that we work have difficulties in scaling their businesses, as they may not have experience in raising finance or building sales pipelines. We meet a lot of very talented tech entrepreneurs whose software skills are second to none. However, building a business requires a lot of different capabilities, and it is the core commercial that many companies lack.

What are the top obstacles for entrepreneurs in the region?

The ecosystem is still at a very early stage, and this is the key difference when compared to the UK or US for example. Key aspects like early stage funding, access to talent and the ability to access international customers remain a challenge, and these are all areas that we are trying to support.

What is your most memorable moment at the helm of the Network?

In late summer 2016 we met with Crowdcube to discuss our business and within six weeks we were live and crowdfunding. We were able to create a video on the ground in Nairobi which really brought to life our story and the stories of our consultants, start-ups and their potential investors. We successfully fundraised in 10 days, and we feel this was a huge step for us. No longer were we 2 guys with an idea, but we had 107 investors who shared our vision. The money has allowed us to expand our sales strategy, grow our team and expand our offering.

What are your growth plans?

Geographically, we will be helping start-ups in Zambia, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa over the next 12 months, with the aim of having a presence in 10 countries by the end of 2018. We are also looking at helping corporates across the UK and USA with their talent development, with the aim to open an office in New York in early 2018.

As a business, we will be looking at growing into a couple of new spaces too; firstly we would like to start investing our profits into the start-ups we work with, and secondly we would like to help scale the start-ups we work with across the continent and potentially globally.

Why should businesses or entrepreneurs in the UK care about the Sub-Saharan start-up world?

It’s a fascinating space. We work with some of Africa’s most exciting entrepreneurs and get to see how disruptive technologies are solving some of the continent’s biggest problems in such a challenging environment. Such start-ups have little or no resources yet are still able to produce amazing products and services. Corporates in the UK or USA can learn a lot; start-ups teams are lean and agile. These are not things that big corporates are famous for, and so such exposure can have a powerful effect on those involved. By working with such start-ups, exposes  corporates to an environment where every decision counts and risks needed to be calculated very quickly.  A single conversation could lead to a fundamental pivot in strategy and can provide corporate staff with a unique platform in which to learn and develop their skills. By working with world class entrepreneurs corporates can learn how to innovate and build solutions to real market problems. Corporate innovation programmes are often slow moving, classroom based and don’t lead to tangible solutions being built. When people who work in clearly defined roles, putting themselves in an entrepreneurial mindset exposes people to completely different ways of thinking.There is a cultural push now to make big organisations more ‘intrepreneurial’, and so opportunities to work alongside African startups can have a lasting impact on corporate teams, as they take skills back into their day jobs.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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