Startups have the potential to be a powerful force for Africa’s development. At the same time, there are many obstacles standing in the way of realizing this potential. During the process of building several startups in Africa, I experienced some of these challenges firsthand. These experiences, which I’ll be sharing with you here, are what led to the genesis of Engineer Africa
Startup Experience #1: Parcel Angel
Early in 2017, I joined forces with four engineers to build a startup called Parcel Angel. Parcel Angel was based on an Uber-like business model, democratizing package delivery on the African continent.
In the process of building the company from the ground up, we hit several challenges related to basic infrastructure. Limited communication and transport infrastructure restricted our expansion. As a for-profit company, we realized it was beyond our ability to fill these gaps. We tried to engineer solutions around these roadblocks, but we could not afford to divide our focus — early-stage startups usually need to put all of their energy towards product development in order to survive.
After a while, it became clear that we needed to make some sharp pivots in our business model to have any chance at success.
Startup Experience #2: Commodity Trade Platform
Later in 2017, I partnered with a successful businessman who owned a few franchises and some premier real estate in Ghana. We set out to disrupt the commodities sector in a number of African countries. Our goal was to increase market access and sales for African producers.
To achieve this goal, we needed to increase the visibility and accessibility of African commodities, so that anyone, anywhere, could easily search through available offerings, make a purchase, and have their goods delivered within days instead of weeks, and at much lower prices than are currently available.
To bring this vision to life, we began developing a plan to invest in e-commerce technologies and distribution centers to build an efficient supply chain. As our research into this venture continued, we continuously ran into logistical problems that made it difficult or impossible to guarantee short delivery times. Many of these problems were due to the condition of the transportation systems in the countries where we wanted to deploy our solution.
Startup Experience #3: You get the point…
Later, in mid-2018, I joined yet another venture focused on innovating in Africa, but you probably see where this is going by now.
Infrastructure related challenges are pervasive in Africa. I’ve been involved in several ventures in North America, but the challenges we faced were never related to infrastructure to the absence of basic services. Everyone knows that building a startup is an arduous process, even in ideal conditions. To say that doing this without access to base-level infrastructure is extremely difficult is an understatement.
The Next Step Was Clear
As I assessed my experiences in Africa, it dawned on me that I couldn’t be the only one engaged in building businesses in Africa and constantly facing infrastructure challenges. If the people who care about these issues could be networked into a community, I thought, we could work together to establish a better climate for startups in Africa.
I knew that some of the infrastructural challenges myself and other entrepreneurs faced could best be solved by local governments or non-profits. When I considered the grueling task of soliciting help from local governments in Africa to develop targeted infrastructure initiatives, I realized that a non-profit would be a more efficient way to take on key challenges.
I started Engineer Africa as a nonprofit aimed at alleviating startup struggles. The primary goal is to make it easier to start and maintain businesses in Africa.
How Engineer Africa Can Deliver
For Engineer Africa to achieve its goals, we need all kinds of individuals, startups, organizations, and companies with business interests in African countries to come together and continuously assess the fundamental challenges they are facing. By channeling our collective energy, we can effectively take on infrastructural issues. This in turn can stimulate business success across the continent.
What We Are Doing Now
We are just getting started, but we have managed to generate a lot of excitement so far, and we are hoping to keep this momentum by spearheading multiple project-centered engagements. We are currently focused on organizing meetings globally in order to build a broad-based community of people who have business interests in Africa.
Our meeting format started out with several features, including:
● Hosting talks from folks who are or who have already delivered value on the African continent.
● Lightning rounds for projects or startup pitches.
● Workshops on doing business in Africa.
● Developing focus groups by the various engineering disciplines or competencies to accelerate business outputs or deliverables.
● Providing networking opportunities.
Since then, we’ve been formalizing our organizational structure, and started with the planning and execution phase of projects on the ground that address pain points of doing business in Africa.
For an updated deep dive into our vision and organizational philosophy, check out this book that we wrote on the potential of engineers to be a catalyst for Africa’s transformation.