Kenya - entrepreneurship, funding, and technology

Note: I wrote this in 2015 after spending most of the year living and working in Nairobi. I have had enough people express interest in reading my notes that I thought I would share broadly.

Summary

  • I lived Kenya over the last 6 months and left feeling inspired. I believe there is tremendous opportunity for awesome entrepreneurs to build products for the East African market. In particular, I would be well suited to focus on something that bridges the gap between the West and Africa 
  • There is a lot of raw talent, fundamental problems that need solving, and plenty of enthusiasm and excitement around building technology companies
  • There are few excellent company builders / focused executors and a lack of a proper seed/venture firm or decent incubator. ‘A’ level entrepreneurs (silicon valley, local or elsewhere) who have built a successful business are sparse
  • Access to seed and early stage capital is difficult and the fundraising process is suboptimal due to the lack of proper local vc funds which leads to entrepreneurs chasing short term revenue and lack of focus on the long term objective - funding/focus is a chicken/egg problem

Startups and Entrepreneurs

  • Entrepreneurs are hungry, have lots of enthusiasm and there is a plenty of excitement in young talent who want to build something awesome.
  • Startups are solving fundamental issues vs. incremental issues in the west -  access to good education, electricity, health care and phone/internet. There are opportunities to build on top of these solutions or provide additional products and services that are already mainstream in the west - I’m particularly excited about financial services.
  • Entrepreneurs often have their fingers in lots of pies, can be distracted by too many ventures, and seem to be doing too much with too little capital and too few people. This leads to lots of half-formed businesses versus a few well built ones
    • Chasing (short term) revenue is required to grow businesses here due to lack of access to capital for early stage businesses
    • This is partly due to the opportunistic nature of working in Kenya, and more commonplace with local entrepreneurs
  • Entrepreneurs lack role models in the community that they can get mentorship from who can help them with product strategy, marketing, assembling the right team, raising funding, and scaling the business. Some missing pieces:
    • Best in class experience - understanding of what ‘great’ looks like
    • Successful Kenyan technology entrepreneurs - groups of people who have built and exited an excellent businesses in Kenya (or East Africa)
  • Foreign entrepreneurs are met with mixed feelings especially when it’s believed that they are only in Kenya for a fixed period of time. I believe that foreign entrepreneurs can add a lot of value by mentoring local talent especially if they have best in class global experience and hire local teams

Investment - Venture Capital / Incubators

  • Local funds either have very little capital to deploy or strict mandates about where they can deploy their capital because of conditions stipulated by their LPs - leads to defocusing in startups
  • Entrepreneurs looking to raise small seed rounds have a few options:
    • Raise capital from local angels who are not often sophisticated investors and often don’t understand what they are signing up for
    • Raise money as grants or from funds (with LPs who have strict investment criteria) and these come with conditions that often result in unnecessary/unhelpful changes in strategy
    • Go on long (many month) investment trips across Europe and USA which are also usually an uphill battle and often result in small ticket angels vs. larger funds
  • This current fundraising process feels inefficient and distracts entrepreneurs from focusing on their product and company from both a time and strategy perspective
  • Local incubators have unfriendly terms for entrepreneurs and are not run by successful entrepreneurs or investors
    • Incubators typically have many companies vs. a few companies with lots of mentorship and focus
    • $25k investment for 15-25% of the company plus terms which are not founder friendly e.g. ratchets, clawbacks, pushing to early exit
    • Many incubators have shut down their program as they could not find enough quality companies - I think this is in part due to the fact that they were going for scale vs. focused set of companies
  • Grant funding can be disruptive and distracting - companies are incentivised to abandon their vision in the ‘short term’ (to get the grant) and end up building a frankenstein company with multiple focuses which is hurtful in the long term

Working in Kenya - personal learnings

  • Talent gap still pretty significant (orders of magnitude worse than Silicon Valley, which is not surprising) although there is thirst for learning and a no lack of young people who are not afraid to work very hard
  • Mid-Skill workers care more about job protection than innovating and often see change/removing things from their plate as scary - will they lose their job, or not be good at the new thing we need them to do
  • Micromanagement is necessary to make progress - you can’t just email people and expect stuff to get done. There is constant checking in and auditing of people’s work. The level of trust still does not exist at the same level as working with ‘A’ level talent in a place like San Francisco
  • My decision point is between spending my time training, teaching and mentoring in East Africa or or serve this market from abroad (with an already high performing team) and travel back and forth as needed
  • Local:
    • Pros: Close to market - context, people, can really help mentor, market changing fast, partnerships easier
    • Cons: spending time on micromanagement v.s solving hard problems, personal life issues, quality of life
  • Foreign:
    • Pros: Better team quality, valuations, exit options, potential to build global business
    • Cons: not close to customers, coordination overhead, travel burden, missing important things