We had a chance to talk to Katie Sorro program manager of 88MPH about the wonderful work they are doing of helping African Startups get a footing in the competitive world of business. Take a look at our Q&A session.
Tell us more about 88MPH
Our accelerator program accepts ten to twelve, for a three-month training sessions. All the start-ups are mobile based platforms, and the common denomination they have is they are trying to solve problems that are unique to Africa and are using mobile based technologies to do that.
Why Nairobi and Cape Town and not Lagos or any other city in Africa?
We started off in Nairobi because it was a no brainer. It’s the largest place in the world for mobile money. The mobile technologies coming out of there, and the amount of people using mobile phones is tremendous. We came to Cape Town because Google was running a successful program called Umbono. The understanding was we would come to Cape Town and take over what they had started. So they gave us tons of money to scale the startup scene here. We are looking forward to expand to Nigeria next.
What determines which startups will be allowed in your programs?
We basically choose teams versus individuals; we look for new ideas that can scale across Africa. Then they must be mobile-based platforms. Our application forms are usually on an online platform. Each form consists of fifteen separate questions.
Do you prefer teams with two people or the more the better?
We look for well-rounded teams. Typically we select teams of two to four people. We select a team with a mix of tech guys who can code and create websites, and sales guys who can go out there and market the product.
I saw a job posting for techies to come and help the current startups in your program in Cape Town with coding. So it’s not mandatory to have a techie in the team?
It’s not a must they have a tech guy, but we find it works better if you have one tech founder from the beginning working full time. There are different ways of coding, and if there is one guy owning that process from the beginning and carrying it through, it usually works well.
We get many applications from startups where an entrepreneur has the business idea, but doesn’t have the means to execute it. So if we know someone outside the entrepreneur residence who can work well with the entrepreneur we match them.
What happens at the end of the training period?
At the end of the incubation period we normally have what we call a demo day, where we invite our vast network of investors, and angels, and entrepreneurs who would be interested in investing. All startups are given seven minutes to pitch their ideas. If you go to our website under portfolio, you can see past presentations.
How do you select your mentors?
When we partnered with Google, we had people who were mentors on Google’s Umbono program, so we have people from companies like Google, or mobile companies, and large fortune 500 companies as well as small successful entrepreneurs. What it really comes down to is going to all these local events and meeting potential mentors. We came down to Cape Town in November for the program that started in February. So we were down here meeting all the techies in preparation for the program.
Which year of November?
November 2012, in preparation for the 2013 program.
If someone wanted to join the program as a mentor, what would the process be?
They would just need to reach out to one of us. We have our contact information on our website.
Are there any requirements in terms of qualifications or experience etcetera?
We normally like to have mentors who have connections. We normally like to have someone who is well-rounded in the Tech scene, but also in the business scene in Nairobi or Cape Town. We are looking for mentors who are actually going to give a little bit of throe time. It’s one thing to come and talk to startups for an hour or two hours, but how much really can you give in terms of time? That is why we leave it to our mentors and our startups to develop a relationship after the initial mentoring sessions. Instead of forcing a mentor to work with a startup, it has got to be more organic. The mentor has to find interest in the startup and want to keep being involved in the long run.
I see that you are already set up in Cape Town, what about Nairobi?
Yes, we actually started in Nairobi. That is where we launched, and that’s where our main offices are. We already have a very successful accelerator program go through in Nairobi, and we are starting again in August. So for now we are helping out startups that are already working, but we really like to get word out there that the application is now open to Nairobi startups and that the deadline is July 15th.
What is the startup scene like in Africa compared to the rest of the world?
The infrastructure hasn’t always been here. Something else we found is the challenges in Africa are quite different compared to the rest of the world. The government has really been a large roadblock, especially in South Africa. There is also a lack of local talent to cater for all types of techniques, which is why we are always looking for talent from other parts of the globe where we have more technically savvy folks to get these startups up and running.
If a startup was based in let’s say Tanzania, and they had this great idea, and they wanted to join the accelerator program based in Nairobi, would you consider them?
Yes, absolutely. We are looking for startups all over the globe, so if its Tanzania that is who we are looking for
What are some of the challenges facing startup founders?
The main problem for startups is mainly funding. So a lot of startups here are realizing that entrepreneurs and angel investors don’t know how to invest in tech companies in Africa. Whereas there has been a lot of investment in North America or Britain, there hasn’t been a lot of investment in technology in Africa. I think when investors look at economies of scales for startups; they may not see the short term success. There is more to do in terms of marketing, scalability and technology, and the money come in more of a long term scenario. So, we found that funding is absolutely the number one challenge.
What was your motivation for wanting to work with African startups?
What was interesting to me was that Africa has basically leaped in terms of technology. They went from the PC, skipped over the laptop and went straight to mobile. They are finding solutions to solve problems that are aimed at care and most of those are mainly on mobile, which is a very exciting place to be looking.
Are there any events you would recommend to someone venturing into startups?
We do have some events coming up that we are going to be hosting in Nairobi. (Katie promised to provide list). In July we are thinking of starting up a 48 hour boot camp to tie up with the application that we are doing. The Applications are already out on the website. And once the startup founders apply, we are thinking of doing an event where they come up to our space and we see them in action. So, taking twenty that have applied and working with them hands on, maybe a challenge to build a new product within a week or maybe do a hackathon. We are still working on details, but events like that would definitely be interesting to entrepreneurs who are thinking of applying for the program. We are also thinking of having what we call drink tanks at our venues. So that people can just pop in and learn more of our programs and just meet. We have about two hundred desks at our Nairobi office. It’s very vibrant, and there is a lot to be learnt, even if it’s just over a couple of beers for a couple of hours.
Looking at your website, your program has been featured in quite a number of publications like BBC, TechCrunch, Financial times, The Economist all of which are international publications. What about in Africa, what has the media reception been like?
We have had all types of tractions like Biz Central, IT web, and Human IPO. We have multiple journalists come to our demo day. So the reception has really been great, we also have a couple of journalists who are mentors giving startups a unique perspective.
You mentioned you like startups focusing on indigenous solutions to African problems, but if someone had an idea that had a more international focus would you consider them?
Yes. We are generally open to all ideas. If a startup can demonstrate that its scalable and it makes money, and it’s an interesting and unique idea that hasn’t been tried a million times before, and there is a market space for it, we would actually be interested in it.
Are there any other accelerators in Africa doing what your program is doing?
There are some accelerators but none give funding. The few accelerators around provide free working space and mentorship programs, but none of them are actually investing funds. We invest up to a hundred thousand dollars for each startup. So, if they succeed we succeed.
What determines the amount of money you invest in a startup since some startups are bound to get say a hundred thousand dollars while others will only get say ten thousand dollars?
We look at what is already in place. Do they have a website running, do they have a team together, is it complete or is it an idea. It depends on what stage they are in. If they have a product in the market they are likely to be valued a bit higher than a startup that has just got an idea.
If a startup came up with an idea and you gave them ten thousand dollars, a few months down the line they came back to you at an advanced stage of product development, would you consider giving them more funds?
Absolutely, we would fund them. And that is something I said earlier. Since we are investing our own money, we need them as much as they need us. Even after the accelerator period is over our money is still invested in the startup. So we are constantly following them and working with them, and introducing them to our corporate partners and media partners. We definitely want them to stay afloat and we do everything we can to get them funding, and support and partnership.
Since you were invited by Google to take over their South African operations, does it mean they are the ones who fund your operation?
Yes. They have given us a generous amount of money to continue scaling our operations here, and making it bigger and better. We have got more funds to work with so we are able to make more value propositions.
Is Google your only investor?
Basically they gave us the sponsorship money. In terms of investors in our mph88 fund, we are a private fund, but then we have a couple of well known names like Ford capital based here in Cape Town, we also partnered with Eagle fund, Han and bender who is CEO of fundable (spellings are not accurate),so it’s both individual and corporate.