Africa Is On The Move

Steve and Jean Case see what the future could look like during a visit to M-KOPA in Kenya.

I’m in the air flying to Accra, Ghana, having left Nairobi, Kenya behind this morning as I continue the journey through Africa. There’s a sense of sadness as I leave Kenya, a beautiful place full of hope and promise that is so misunderstood by those who’ve never traveled there before. In my role at the Case Foundation, most of my prior trips to Africa have been focused more on the NGO and public sectors looking at challenges facing Africans and those interventions that address them — from maternal and child health, to HIV/AIDS, malaria and clean water. But this trip is different. It is entirely focused on the budding entrepreneurial ecosystem that is very much alive in Africa, with Nairobi helping to lead the way. Together with my husband and our senior Case Foundation team, we came to explore an exciting new generation of entrepreneurs that is addressing many critical challenges facing Africans and doing it through the prism of business — combining their entrepreneurial spirit, a focus on innovation and a rigor in measurement and management that business demands. What we found along the way was simply amazing.

In recent years, Africa has represented a number of the fastest growing economies in the world. And while we recognize they benefit from a low base to start with, most people who follow these things understand that something big is happening here and it represents a significant shift in the potential for the future of the continent. Indeed, in recent years, a catch phrase describing this opportunity sums up what many observe: “Africa is open for business.” New capital has come to the continent thanks to new funds from leading names in private equity such as the Carlyle Group and Blackstone. And, the nascent movement of impact investing has brought additional investment, much of it targeted toward the innovative startup sector in a few regions that are showing great promise, including Nairobi.

A new generation of exceedingly bright and capable young Africans — many of them educated at the best universities in the world — are bringing forth new enterprises that can dramatically impact the quality of life and potential prosperity of Africans across the continent and beyond. These ventures tackle challenges from sanitation to education to electrification of the most remote regions. In addition, many of the “best and the brightest” from around the world are flocking to Nairobi with a passion to use their talents and abilities to make a difference in the world. Many of these young people could easily land roles in Silicon Valley, London, Dubai or Paris. Yet they choose to come here.

After several days on the ground in Nairobi it couldn’t be more clear why it has earned the nickname “Silicon Savannah.” While four days on the ground certainly doesn’t make me an expert, it does provide me the opportunity to be a witness and to report out some of the most remarkable things we observed. Our 15-hour days consisted of site visits to some of the most exciting and innovative startups and pitch competitions, which also included investments in the winning companies and meeting and talking with entrepreneurs — by my count, several hundred.

The Case Foundation’s activities on the ground were designed to be a part of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), a three-day gathering in Nairobi that attracted entrepreneurs, investors and leaders in governments from around the world. Kenya and the United States co-sponsored GES, and thus, President Obama traveled to Kenya to be a part of the gathering and to speak of his own belief in the power and potential of entrepreneurs to create a better world for all. My husband, Steve Case, joined the President in his role as a President’s Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, or PAGEs as they are known. President Obama is the first sitting President of the United States to ever visit Kenya, and the Kenyans went out of their way to show their appreciation as American flags lined the streets during the conference.

While our interest in startups in Nairobi was far reaching, we brought a special focus to inclusive entrepreneurship. Our first day did not disappoint as we hosted 10 female founders of impressive social enterprises including a mobile/data application that helps small farmers build credit scores from their transactions; solar-powered irrigation pumps and roofing tiles with embedded solar technology built in; and the first in-country, local kids programming for television, that the founder referred to as “Sesame Street for Africa.”

The next day, we had the opportunity to spend time at the iHub in Nairobi, home to many exciting new startups. We had known iHub’s founder, Erik Hersman, prior to our visit, but now we understood why iHub had attracted such a buzz from afar. Erik has built a remarkable facility and significant program to aid entrepreneurs as they are getting started. Truly a world-class facility, iHub plays a central role in the momentum of the startup ecosystem in Nairobi.

We also hosted a pitch competition at iHub that featured eight social enterprises competing for a $100,000 investment. The winner was Ojay Greene, a mobile solution founded by a female entrepreneur, Yvette Ondachi, that enables small-scale farmers to access mainstream markets with their goods thereby improving profits.

After the thrill of learning more about some of Kenya’s most promising early stage startups, we had a glimpse at what the future could look like for them with a visit to M-KOPA, a company providing pay-as-you go solar solutions that enables access to a consistent, safe source of electric light. The brilliance of M-KOPA is that it leverages how mobile payments have broken through in a big way in East Africa. It is no surprise that a co-founder of MKOPA was also behind MPESA, the mobile payments platform.

We were also pleased to spotlight and spend time with a number of organizations that we’ve invested in through the Case Foundation and personally. We were especially excited to visit with one of our social enterprise investments in Nairobi, Sanergy. Sanergy’s model is unique — one part of its business provides clean, serviceable toilet and hand washing stations for those without access to local sanitation. Sanergy then collects the waste and turns it into organic fertilizers for farmers and feedstock for animals. This virtuous cycle, in addition to be being eco-friendly, enables Sanergy to have diverse revenue streams and a sustainable business model, while providing as their core focus interventions that can save lives and improve well-being.

Housed within the iHub is another one of our investments, BRCK. The company is in many ways furthering the mission we began with at AOL: democratizing access to the Internet by offering a rugged hardware product that can enable anyone, nearly anywhere — even in the most remote parts of the world — to access the Web. But BRCK’s “killer app” is actually fueled by its partnerships with educational technology organizations in Kenya and beyond, enabling the company to push valuable content to kids in schools throughout Africa.

And during GES, we had the delightful privilege to celebrate the launch of the new $13.2M Village Capital fund, which will leverage its unique peer-selected approach to invest its capital in companies that are tackling some of the world’s biggest social challenges. As investors in the fund, we’re particularly excited about its focus on supporting entrepreneurs located outside of traditional hotbeds of startup activity — including those in Africa. Ross Baird, Village Capital’s executive director, who has, along with his team, been an invaluable part of our time here in Africa.

On my last day in Kenya, I took a bit of a turn from the heavy focus on startups to better understand the promise represented in this next generation of Kenyans. To do so, I had the true pleasure of joining the Zawadi scholars, first for a church service together and then for a roundtable lunch. The Zawadi scholars is a program started by Dr. Susan Mboya-Kidero, daughter of Tom Mboya — a celebrated hero in Kenya who was assassinated in 1969. When Tom was a young man he had the rare privilege of meeting a (then) young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, Jr. The two became friends and as Tom created a vision for a scholarship program to enable young Africans to come to the U.S. for college. Senator Kennedy became a great champion of the idea in the U.S. Ultimately, the Kennedy Foundation provided the seed funding to enable the program to launch, enabling the first class of Africans to study in the U.S. under the program many know as the “African Airlift,” which was subsequently supported by the U.S. Department of State.

Dr. Mboya created the Zawadi scholars in honor of her late father and his work. The Zawadi scholars provide scholarships to outstanding young African women to attend college in the U.S. It was my sheer delight to meet this remarkable group of young women including some who had recently graduated and who were working for impressive U.S. companies in Africa such as IBM, some who were still in college, and still others who were preparing to leave for their freshman year. Single mothers solely responsible for large families raised most of these young women and many came from remote villages without the benefit of electrification, clean water or the dignity of a toilet. Yet, they have excelled academically in areas such as science, engineering, finance and economics. Most will attend some of our nation’s most prestigious schools. Each shares a vision for a new Africa. Whereas the old picture of Africa as a distressed continent, perennially reliant on foreign aid is what many see, these remarkable young women see Africa as an opportunity to seize — with hope and promise for a vibrant startup and business sector that lifts individuals and fuels a better tomorrow.

For me, after witnessing the impressive startups in Nairobi, combined with the strong engagement of women in building great new enterprises, I have come to share the view of the Zawadi scholars. Africa is on the move.