New Beginnings in the Silicon Savannah

The Hunt for Hustle

When I decided to move to an emerging market, I was looking for two things: a strong flow of investment dollars and hustle. My compass pointed towards Nairobi, Kenya — a city that has entered a new era of economic viability unforeseen prior in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rooted in the success of Safaricom’s mobile money giant M-PESA, I saw a maturing technology ecosystem unfurling in Nairobi, including global players like Uber and a growing pool of talent and start-ups solving everything from energy efficiency to the health-wealth gap. I knew moving to East Africa would place me at the core intersection of venture capital and technology in an emerging markets context — and I wanted to be part of the action.

But how to get there? In early 2015, I embarked on a hunt to find the organization that would allow me to move to Kenya and work directly with growing, innovative businesses to help them scale. With two years of experience working with private equity funds and conducting due diligence on M&A transactions under my belt, I wanted to take my analytical and quantitative skills and use them to make a serious and sustainable impact in an emerging market. I heard about I-DEV from a friend working in Nairobi, and through the interview process I was struck by the quality of the team’s backgrounds, the go-getter culture that cultivated curiosity and creativity, and the opportunity to be part of a growing, passionate organization. Trading in my desk job in Chicago for field work in East Africa was an easy choice for me, and I’ve never looked back since.

Interviewing refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya

Not Your Typical Consulting Engagements

Since I arrived to Nairobi’s dynamic innovation hub, I have thrived in the creative environment. By working across I-DEV’s Insight & Strategy Group and Investment Advisory Group, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate firsthand with African small businesses to develop locally-driven market strategies and piece together the core building blocks they need to grow and scale. I regularly meet with investors to discuss the future of the m-commerce and renewable energy sectors and help funnel their capital into deserving businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa. Altogether, I have worked directly with over 50 impact and traditional investors and 30 small businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, including helping close one of the largest seed rounds for a tech company in East Africa for Twiga Foods and publishing an investor report highlighting the trends in the East African tech sector, #TIA:East. The unique and diverse insights I’ve gained through these experiences have given me the context to understand the full range of challenges to operating in Sub-Saharan Africa and how to best position myself to be the most effective and valuable advisor to help businesses find creative solutions to grow.

Earlier this year, I was part of a team on a World Bank engagement to assess the viability of private sector market entry of clean energy products in Kakuma Refugee Camp, an initiative meant to bridge the gap between the ballooning refugee crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa and the United Nations’ stagnating budgets. In this role, I and two others headed to the arid drylands of northern Kenya to assess market opportunities and apply a private sector lens to uncover and develop sustainable models for refugees to access affordable energy-saving products. I-DEV’s analysis resulted in an unprecedented revelation: there is an incredible opportunity to empower refugees as consumers, and introduce the sale of clean cookstoves or solar panels in a refugee camp to reduce household energy costs. I-DEV’s market-based perspective allowed me to think critically and innovatively about a population the world tends to associate with NGO handouts, not with robust marketplaces where energy efficient products and consumer financing are available to refugees.

With our Investment Advisory Group, I have also been working with a pair of Kenyan brothers who created a mobile remittance application, called SimbaPay, to create faster, cheaper channels for the African diaspora in the U.K. and Europe to send money back home, disrupting the “Western Unions” of the world. The founders recognized a problem — an antiquated and expensive brick and mortar remittance model — and decided to turn it on its head. This type of hustle to solve problems is infectious. I see it in the entrepreneurs I meet with on a daily basis in Nairobi; I see it reflected in the ingenuity, learning on-the-go, and perseverance of the I-DEV team; and I see it influencing the way I think and go about solving complex issues for my clients. This hustle is why I originally chose to move to Nairobi over one year ago, and it’s why I joined the team at I-DEV — a team that is dedicated to proving that high-impact practices create stronger companies, economies and countries and championing collaborative capitalism.

36 Hours to Lima, Peru

I-DEV’ers are no strangers to travel, and are encouraged to explore as well as share and gain knowledge across different sectors and regions. I-DEV is unique in its global reach — with regional offices in Africa (Nairobi, Kenya), Latin America (Lima, Peru), and headquarters in San Francisco, I-DEV projects span the globe, allowing I-DEV’ers the opportunity to experience different economic, cultural and business dynamics around the world. My mother is Peruvian, and I grew up spending my summers in Lima with my Peruvian relatives. So, when an opportunity opened up for me to head to I-DEV’s Peru office for a 2-month consulting engagement, I couldn’t say no! Thirty-six hours later, I arrived in Peru to jump headfirst into a project to help a top European fresh fruit and vegetable distributor, and one of its leading mango suppliers in Peru, to develop a first-of-its-kind impact program to offer life-improving benefits to employees and farmers in the supply chain, leveraging Fair Trade premiums. Our goal (and challenge) was to develop a program that would not only create stronger and more widespread social value for employees and farmers than through resource-intensive, one-off charity projects, but also pay for itself and generate zero costs to the company. This project allowed me to delve deep into the new wave of CSR programs, which are designed with an investment approach, and seek to create triple bottom line value for businesses and their stakeholders. Through my time in Peru, I’ve come to realize and appreciate the global nature of I-DEV’s business, its reach and knowledge across continents, and the passionate, bold minds that make up the international I-DEV family.

Focus group with agricultural workers in Piura, Peru

What’s Next?

In just over a year with I-DEV, I’ve worked on capital raises and consulting engagements with businesses ranging from a vanilla manufacturer in Madagascar to a Nigerian air ambulance provider. What has struck me most from my work is the significant gap in funding for these high growth small businesses. This “missing middle” in growth capital for African businesses holds back the SME ecosystem in Sub-Saharan Africa. The lack of capital restricts growth, forcing companies to limit their production capacity, or halt their market expansion plans into a new country.

Because I’ve seen firsthand the negative effects of this funding gap, I’ve developed a long-term passion for blending finance and international development to strengthen economies in emerging markets. In the future, I hope to pursue an MBA to further hone my leadership and management skills; long-term, I’d like to work for a venture capital fund to help catalyze the entrance of international and local investors in Sub-Saharan African businesses, and help fill out the capital map across the technology sector in this part of the world. The training, support and exposure to such diverse clients and needs that I’ve acquired at I-DEV is invaluable preparation in line with my future career goals.

My advice to others interested in this space is to be part of the action. That doesn’t necessarily requiring moving to Nairobi, Lagos, Addis, etc. But it does require the following:

(1) Surround yourself with the dynamics of whichever emerging markets hub most interests you. For African topics, I highly recommend Quartz Africa and following thoughts leaders like Ory Okolloh on Twitter.

(2) Attend conferences and volunteer with relevant organizations in your spare time. In Nairobi, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor at the WE CREATE Women’s Entrepreneurship Center and African Garage, a start-up accelerator for early stage companies.

(3) Most importantly, find an organization that will invest in your development and support you in realizing your goals — for me, this has made all the difference.

Like what you read? Give Kristy Willard a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.