Unreasonable East Africa, Startup Accelerator Tells Young Africans It’s OK To Fail
Joachim Ewechu grew up wanting to be an entrepreneur and when he realized other young people in Uganda had similar dreams, he decided to figure out a way to make them come true.
Ewechu is CEO and co-founder of Unreasonable East Africa, part of the U.S.-based international business accelerator, Unreasonable Institute, for entrepreneurs who want to address social and environmental issues.
Unreasonable East Africa, which started in 2013, helps African for-profit and nonprofit startups that have a positive social or environmental impact integrated into their models.
Failure, it turns out, was a driving force for Ewechu.
“When I was right out of school, I was trying to start a couple of businesses with my parents, but they kept failing,” Ewechu told Akilah. I thought about creating a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs to combat this problem and co-founded Angels Initiatives, a business incubator in Kampala. I also co-founded and managed one of Kampala’s first co-working spaces, Mara Launchpad.” This led to Unreasonable East Africa Institute.
Through Ewechu’s Unreasonable East Africa, young entrepreneurs can receive mentoring, entrepreneurship training, capital sources, and an extensive support network.
Mentoring is not a popular concept in Ugandan business, Echewa told AFKInsider.
He spoke to AFKInsider about why he brought Unreasonable East Africa to Uganda and what he loves about African entrepreneurship.
But first, a few words about a word. the Unreasonable name was inspired by a quote from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, Nobel Prize winner in literature and co-founder of the London School of Economics. The quote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in adapting the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”
AFKInsider: Why did you co-found Unreasonable East Africa?
Joachim Ewechu: Growing up in the Ugandan lower middle class, the large gap between those that have and those that do not has been increasingly evident to my co-founders, Kate Hanford and Mandela Ivan, and me. Despite the consistent flow of aid money into our country and region and the success of large multinational companies, the gap has remained largely the same in our lifetimes. Even with the encouraging emergence of companies using market-based solutions to promote social and environmental improvement in recent years, many of these innovative companies fail in their early stages.
As the founders of one of Uganda’s first co-working spaces, over and over we saw companies fail to build the teams, fail to find the customer base and fail to raise the investment they needed to survive and grow. This led us to build Unreasonable East Africa as a new means of bridging the gap between those that have and those that do not by giving entrepreneurs that are advancing the needs of people and the planet the knowledge resources and tools they need to succeed.
AFKInsider: So how does Unreasonable East Africa work?
Joachim Ewechu: We accelerate the growth of early stage companies in East Africa, focusing on for-profit and financially sustainable nonprofit businesses across diverse sectors with positive social or environmental impact integrated into their models.
Every year, an exclusive group of intensely vetted companies spends five weeks with us in Kampala, Uganda, during which we match them with the knowledge, mentorship, connections, and financing they need to grow and enhance their impact. With our customized and resource heavy support, we ignite the potential of 20 or more high-growth companies annually to create positive impact through things like providing access to basic human needs, creating more jobs, generating income and reducing poverty.
AFKInsider: What were some startup challenges?
Joachim Ewechu: It’s been a long journey, and we are always learning new things. Notably, finding the right talent to work with us. It has been hard to find people that blend the right skills with the right cultural fit for the organization. We now have an amazing team though anticipate that this will continue to be a big challenge as we grow. It’s also a challenge we see the companies we work with face frequently.
It is also a challenge being able to recruit mentors in this region. Mentorship is not popular as a concept but we are seeing movement from successful entrepreneurs to become mentors which is amazing.
Also, being able to fundraise for both us and our companies in the region is a challenge. I think the concept of institutional investing is just starting to develop currently which is a really exciting time for us.
AFKInsider: How did you fund the startup?
Joachim Ewechu: Our main source of revenue has been philanthropic funding. Our current main funders include the Unreasonable Institute, Segal Family Foundation, DOEN Foundation, Halloran Philanthropies, Rockefeller Foundation and other high net worth angels and individuals. We also charge our entrepreneurs a small fee to attend our programs every year as well and are now validating a business model where we charge our entrepreneurs more to attend our program but have a flexible payment structure to make it really easy on the company.
AFKInsider: What are your goals for 2016?
Joachim Ewechu: In 2016, we will be focused on continuing to strengthen our value proposition and product to our entrepreneurs. We are really excited about the progress that we have made here so far, launching Unreasonable Labs, a five-day program for earlier stage companies and continuing to validate our business model.
AFKInsider: You also have Unreasonable TV. What is this exactly?
Joachim Ewechu: Unreasonable TV is a concept by our founding partners, the Unreasonable Institute. This has evolved over time though to Unreasonable.is which is an online resource and gathering place for entrepreneurs hungry to solve the world’s biggest problems. World-renowned serial entrepreneurs, investors and global thought leaders publish daily articles and videos focused on advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs. The content is designed based on the real needs of entrepreneurs who operate on the front lines.
AFKInsider: What is it like doing business in Uganda?
Joachim Ewechu: My colleague, Kate Hanford, recently wrote this incredible article (“What Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know About Working in East Africa”) that mentioned something about this. Operating in Uganda and East Africa in general has elements of both simplicity and complexity. Systems here are in some cases less formal or organised, giving a company more flexibility to do things how they want. At the same time, the lack of formal systems doesn’t mean that systems don’t exist; on the contrary, there are many ways a company is supposed to do things, they just aren’t written down or Google-able. Learning how to operate within these rules is an art and skill that can dictate life or death for a growing company.
More specifically, whether intentional or not, the Ugandan system is not so supportive of small business. It is well intentioned, but does not come through to facilitate the growth of companies. Tax law is complex and burdensome. Knowing the right people gets you far. Large organizations enjoy comfy relationships with the government that ease their tax and legal obligations, which only makes it easier for them to crush a small competitor if they so choose. The banks are also risk averse, making it hard for companies to access capital. In addition, the investment ecosystem is still in its very nascent stages with little or no angel financing.
Despite all of this though, there is so much hope and we are really optimistic. With our work and the work of many of our other partners across the region emerging, it only gets better. More and more wealthy individuals are starting to pay attention to what it would mean to invest in young companies, banks are starting to question their strategy and gain interest in these young companies, more entrepreneurs are starting more businesses, many successful people want to engage and offer mentorship, and many young people are looking to work with companies, specifically engaging in the impact space. It is an exciting time, it’s only going to take a bit of time, but the shift is happening.
AFKInsider: On your website you list “failures.” Why?
Joachim Ewechu: Great question. This ties back to a combination of our values. We believe in militant transparency and thus find it OK to tell the world where we have had false starts. We also believe in experimenting boldly and doing what works. We know we are going to fail sometimes but the magic for us lies in recognizing when we have failed, understanding why we did and working to improve and not to fail again in the future. Because of the work we are doing, because we are treading a path that many people elect not to take, we are bound to fail sometimes. I guess the question for us always is whether we are be able to stand up when we have failed and learn from it.
AFKInsider: What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
Joachim Ewechu: The people we work with. I love our team, our entrepreneurs who are all building really cool companies, our mentors who are all hungry to transfer their knowledge to our companies, our funders who are such amazing partners and our pipeline partners who relentlessly help us find good companies. Being surrounded by inspirational people inspires me to build bigger.