How It Takes a Village To Build a Winning African Startup
Cellulant recently stole the limelight in the African startup scene when it bagged 47.5 million dollars from Rise Fund. A company for Africa by Africans, in Africa, it started as a music ringtone business that completely transformed to become a digital payments platform serving 140 million people across 11 countries.
Recently, I had the honor of listening to a talk given by Cellulant’s co-founder and Group CEO Ken Njoroge at Nairobi Garage. It was one of those talks I wished every young African aspiring entrepreneur could hear. His story was very inspiring not only because of what he said, but also because of what he did not say.
He did not drop any foreign names that have become popular when some entrepreneurs talk about their background. There was no mentioning of Harvard, Stanford, Merrill Lynch, McKinsey or PwC. Instead, he talks about Nakuru’s Menengai High School, Strathmore and University of Nairobi.
His story is as local as it gets.
Another thing that struck me was how he did not say, “I single-handedly built this business.”
Instead, he acknowledged all the people who helped him along the way, including family, friends, staff, even landlords who wouldn’t get their rents on time. In other words, he exemplified the idea, “It takes a village to build a company for Africa by Africans, in Africa.”
Ken started two businesses, the first being a web development firm called 3mice which he later sold, and the second is Cellulant. So what does it take to make it as an entrepreneur in Africa?
Concrete Foundation/Solid Value System
The concrete foundation hinted here goes against the mainstream cultural narrative young entrepreneurs might hear such as, “You have to be connected to the right people. You have to come from the right tribe. You have to be comfortable with being corrupt because it’s the only way to make it in this country. You have to have studied abroad. You have to have enough starting capital.”
Instead, Ken talks about how he was raised by a single mother, how he didn’t have a lot of money growing up, how he dropped out of University of Nairobi, and how he started both businesses with no capital.
The concrete foundation, instead, was the value system that his mother instilled within him that focused on hard work, thoroughness at work and respect of others. He quoted her as saying, “Never let the amount of money you have in your pockets determine what you can and can’t do, or who you are.”
This helped him cope with the challenges of being an entrepreneur as he could mentally separate his sense of self-worth and ambition from the reality of having little money at the beginning of the startup. And because he grew up without money and was thus not used to the comforts it could bring, he was okay with having no money for a while.
What him and his co-founder, Bolaji Akinboro were not okay with was giving up or corruption. As cited here, “Right from the outset, we have adopted a strong stance against bribes. We believe that innovation wins the day, not bribes.”
Other values they built the culture with were honesty and transparency with everyone, whether it was their own staff, family, business partners or companies that owed them money.
This does not come easy when someone is in a position of leadership because everyone looks at them as though they have all the answers. Yet sometimes they don’t. This sort of vulnerability is one of the four pillars of courageous leadership according to author and research professor Brene Brown, with the other three being clarity of values, trust and rising skills. In her book Dare to Lead, she defines vulnerability as the uncertainty and risk that comes with emotional exposure, and while popular opinion might view it as soft, it’s actually brave.
It’s not always Unicorn and Rainbows
Raising an eye-popping amount of 47.5 million USD in capital without a white co-founder inspired a lot of excitement, since the next big investment during the first half of 2018 among African startups was Branch at 20 million USD according to a report by Weetracker. But while that result attracts so much awe, looking under the hood shows the amount of hard work that went into achieving it. They had to compile a list of potential investors — 60 in their case — do their homework on who made decisions, prepare and make pitches, fail, find out what didn’t work so they could go back to the drawing board and repeat.
Two years and 400 pitches later, they received only 1 yes and 59 no’s. This makes you realize that persistence is a much-needed trait if you’re going to be an entrepreneur.
Know Your Why
And what usually feeds this persistence is a strong why, a strong reason to continue despite all the obstacles that exist in your way.
For Cellulant, it was the recognition that this startup’s story was bigger than the co-founders and their own personal egos. Cellulant is all about being a really transformational force in the continent, reducing poverty, changing every element of the traditional cultural narrative when it comes to entrepreneurship in Africa.
Focus on What Matters
Ken’s final advice to entrepreneurs was not to get caught up by the hype of the most recent technologies but to instead focus on the things that matter. The things that won’t change, like understanding the problem you’re solving in the market, and focusing on building and delivering a high-quality solution that’s better and cheaper than the competition.
Focus on going into the market and getting paying customers to validate your idea. That’s what business is really about. It’s not about the money or the recent lifestyle that has become a fad nowadays.
His story paves the way and offers hope to millions of Kenyans who subscribe to the belief that what it takes to make it in Africa is corruption, or fancy foreign names in their educational and work history.
Co-written with Amina Islam