How to Accelerate East Africa's Innovation Ecosystem

As a health innovation incubator operating in East Africa, Villgro Kenya has borrowed heavily from Villgro India's incubation model which majorly involves supporting local early-stage startups with funding, mentorship and providing access to relevant networks in the ecosystem. After over 5 years of operation in both countries, Paul Belknap gives his observations on the innovation evolution path of India vis a vis East Africa in an interview with Ordia Akelo.

Q; In terms of the stage of evolution, without necessarily following the similar path of India, what do you think about the EA ecosystem?

Paul : Kenya certainly is not as far along the journey as India is. I think it is moving faster but mainstream entrepreneurship in India is far ahead in terms of the number of exits and the size of the companies it has created.

Mentorship is key to increase the number of successful exits

We have not seen much of the willingness and ability of successful entrepreneurs to give back in terms of mentorship to startups is also lower. This can be due to the fact they are early into their entrepreneurial journey than most of the successful Indian entrepreneurs were when they were able to start giving back.

The fact that we have not been able to have as many successes yet means that there are less mentors.

The role of support Organizations

One of the positives is that there has been a lot of support organizations that have come in here relatively quickly and that is accelerating the pace of progress here. If I say India might be 15 years ahead I don’t know if that means 15 years, it might mean 7. Those organizations are effective they should be able to help East Africa catch up to India.

It’s really difficult to lump together East Africa, you can look at a few sectors like fin-tech & solar, they are certainly further ahead than India. The Healthcare sector has started to pick up in the last year or two.

Capacity Building within the Ecosystem

If you look at our pipeline numbers and loosely assign some quality ranking to the pipeline, quantity x quality has improved dramatically in the last 3-5 years that we have been active. It is much easier to find quality companies today than it was years ago. This can be attributed to more capacity building avenues like hackathons, workshops, and conferences within the ecosystem. These have been able to equip innovators with information on how to innovate for their end-users to ensure it is a product/service people actually need.

There are interesting differences between Kampala and Nairobi but if you were to try to average things up there is some room to catch up but it is on the right track.

What are some of the things that need to happen next at the ecosystem level - you mention support systems but as Kenyans what are some of the things we can do to accelerate our progress

Collaboration within the ecosystem

P: A lot of it boils down to collaboration, that is one thing that you saw a lot of in India and at least I haven’t seen quite as much of it here.

People's openness to sharing things that have worked and things that haven’t with other entrepreneurs, this needs to happen more. On thinking about how to as much as possible to skip further ahead in the trajectory/evolution of BPO-CopyCat-Innovation.

It is in some ways an organic growth mechanism to go through that kind of evolution because the skills and ability to build innovative stuff, it’s hard to go straight there so you have to go through that journey to some extent but as entrepreneurs, people can try as much as possible to think innovatively.

A lot of the support organizations are already working in that space but more can be done to encourage that collaboration.

More Innovation Events bringing together key stakeholders in the ecosystem

There is an emerging interest in Medtech entrepreneurship in Kampala and they have had events that have convened most of the people interested in that space. There needs to be more. Some of the work we are trying to do around the Medtech Biotech ecosystem is critical to getting people talking.

Big Wins

Some of these companies need to grow. We need a few more big successes. That will help drive further success. If we can have a company from our portfolio listed on the Stock Exchange for example or acquired by Big Private Equity money they will have demonstrated the ability to go from small beginnings to show there is a path to commercial success that will drive more sophisticated investment.