MEST Africa Marks 10 Years Of Investment In Tech Startups With Cape Town Summit

MEST Africa Marks 10 Years Of Investment In Tech Startups With Cape Town Summit

The Ghana-based Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) has seen it all since it launched in Africa in 2008, expanding across the continent and investing millions in tech startups.

To mark its 10th birthday, MEST, which recently launched a host of incubators in various African cities, held the MEST Africa Summit in Cape Town, bringing together the main players of the African tech scene to discuss its progress.

After a welcome talk by MEST founder and CEO Jorn Lyseggen, the conference got down to business with the United Nations of Tech panel, as representatives of various ecosystems across Africa convened to argue where the best places were to launch tech startups.

Lungisa Matshoba, chief technology officer (CTO) of South African fintech startup Yoco, said he believed Cape Town was the best place to launch a startup given the access to talent the city offered, but iROKO CEO Jason Njoku stole the show by claiming any startup – wherever it launched – would have to end up in Lagos given the size of its market.

Wherever an entrepreneur launches their business, there are positive developments to take note of. Panellists such as Aisha Pandor and GirlHype CEO Baratang Miya agreed there has never been a better time than now to launch a startup as a female founder, while speakers on the Impact Investing panel said investors were successfully marrying impact with returns when it comes to investing in startups in Africa.

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Representatives of banks and startups espoused the merits of collaboration to foster financial inclusion, while the Creative Meets Tech panel discussed how tech is disrupting creative industries.

“Anyone with any kind of device can create any kind of content and distribute it,” said Catherine Lückhoff, CEO of Nichestreem.

“As a continent we are able to create content and tells stories that travels beyond continental borders. We used to keep content and not share it, and it is now being shared by the network effect, and artists are travelling
beyond their comfort zone and making money from it.”

In a fireside chat, Julien Decot, director of platform partnerships for EMEA at Facebook, discussed his company’s efforts to build communities on the continent.

“In order to serve all those people, there are a lot of building blocks. The first one was connectivity, so we started a very large-scale programme about four years ago and have connected tens of millions of people,” he said.

tech startups
A variety of panelists discuss issues affecting African tech startups at the MEST Africa Summit. Photo – MEST

The second day kicked off with a panel based around agri-tech, in which Oswald Jumira, head of innovation partnerships at Liquid Telecom, said tech could help farmers access markets and manage their farms like never before.

“One thing African farmers need to learn a lot more is the outward side, because it has to be market-driven. I need to know who I am going to sell my produce to, I should know the price at which I’m going to sell it, and then I look backwards at how much inputs I need, how am I going to manage the logistics, the mechanisation,” he said.

Sunesh Bhoola, CEO at uLima, said it was vital to get the right balance between technologies and approaches to serve as many people as possible.

“It is a tough environment. We have a smartphone app, a USSD platform and a web page. So any farmer that is looking for information, we have made it available for them,” he said.

“You have to understand the market you are. Tech needs to be both inward and outward, depending where you are. Do the farmers need assistance managing their fields and crops? Then you go that way. But if it is an established farming country, the farmers know what they are doing, there’s masses of produce and they don’t know where it is going to go, then you start to look at the outward, and start connecting the buyers and sellers. It is market by market, each African country operating in a different way.”

Healthy debate among tech startups

Moving on to the blockchain panel, in which Wala CEO Tricia Martinez said zero-fee approaches were the best way of solving the financial inclusion problem.

“People focus on access, but there is a larger underbanked population who by choice don’t use banking. Access isn’t their issue. They are fed up with the inefficiencies of the global financial system, and they are avoiding fees,” she said.

Regulators must do more to assist blockchain companies.

“Most of the regulators have no idea about anything to do with this technology, and you can’t regulate something you don’t understand,” Martinez said.

Funding for startups was also a discussion point, with Polo Leteka, CEO of IDF Capital, calling for more female investors.

“It is important for us to see more women in this space, because investing tends to be an environment where you invest within the networks that you are accustomed to. Women tend to huddle together and the boys tend to huddle together, and invariably what that means is that the boys will primarily invest in male-owned businesses,” she said.

“It is important to profile women in this sector. I believe that profiling women gives other women permission to come into the sector and feel that they also belong in the space. So gender-lens investing is a very key theme of what we do. As a woman and as a leader in the industry I think it is important that we become more and more visible.”

Pule Taukobong, managing director of CRE Venture Capital, said African companies can solve global problems.

“We’ve seen Nigerian companies go to Indonesia, we’ve seen companies that make all their money overseas but are based in Africa. We can compete globally,” he said.

That is music to the ears of MEST, which has done so much to promote that idea, and attendees at the event, as the African tech space moves into a new stage of development.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.