Connecting Kenyan tech entrepreneurs with global expertise

Business incubator, 4Weeks4Life, is the brainchild of Swedish businessmen Zakaria Hersi and Daniel Lundin who want to connect Kenyan startups with other entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and stakeholders from Sweden.

Zakaria Hersi is one of the founders of 4Weeks4Life

How we made it in Africa’s Kate Douglas asked Hersi about Kenya’s entrepreneurial environment and the role of business incubators in Africa.

Tell us a bit about 4Weeks4Life

The aim was to create a platform for entrepreneurship to stimulate local growth, which shall consist of a ‘mobile’ accelerator programme that can be plugged onto existing infrastructure – where we can connect multiple networks of young entrepreneurs who want to help aspiring entrepreneurs in developing countries to grow. 4Weeks4Life is an ecosystem that connects mentors, startups, investors and stakeholders.

Already we have two startups going through our programme and they are connected to mentors, but in our first year we are looking for ten startups. So at the end of the programme it will be a four week intensive exchange with a delegation of the foremost entrepreneurs from Sweden coming to Kenya with expertise in each field and culminates in a demo day with both international and local investors. We are looking for startups in e-commerce, technology, mobile, business and clean technology.

Why Kenya? What is it about this market specifically that caught your attention?

There are many factors, such as the mobile/internet subscribers growth and the ever growing middle class, that makes Kenya a market to compete on a global level. Also Vision 2030 shows a clear indication of the goal that Kenya, as a country, is trying to reach, but also that it’s a hub for East Africa in every aspect. My experience and background in Kenya played a big part too, because I set up two companies during my tenure in Kenya. So during two weeks in July both Daniel and I set off to Kenya and met with different local stakeholders to assess the market and the need for our incubator. The first phase will be in Kenya, but we are looking to plug into other countries in Africa such as Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda.

When we say mobile incubator we mean it is an innovative incubator that can be accessed online and connects entrepreneurs to mentors around the world. So the idea is to plug it into an existing infrastructure, because we believe there are a lot of great institutions working on a grassroots level helping aspiring entrepreneurs. The main factor is not to compete with them but to grow their network and give them access to our larger global network for knowhow, mentors and funding. There are a large number of well educated young students graduating each year with no job security, so with such a large knowledge bank available why not teach them how to set up their own companies and launch global companies? We want to give the possibility to everyone to set up and be a part of a large, strong African tech ecosystem.

Where are you finding these entrepreneurs in Kenya?

We have met a lot of partners that have been very open and welcoming while we were in Nairobi. Not only will we have a call for applications, but we are going to cooperate with Strathmore University and their incubator iBizAfrica. We have already taken part in listening to 20 startups’ pitches and we will work closely with our partners. We will also partner up with iHub.

How would you describe the role of incubators in Africa?

There has been a large surge of incubators in past years with the toll I think at 45 or more in the whole continent. So it is great that a larger African tech ecosystem is being created but it is also important; we want local infrastructure to access the knowhow available and allow them to grow. Local ecosystems created by local entrepreneurs and stakeholders are important, plus there also needs to be an exchange were entrepreneurs in Europe and the US learn how to do better in Africa. It is important not to let a brain drain occur in Africa, where the best African startups are uprooted and taken to the US. The likes of Stockholm and Berlin have created their own tech ecosystems with many global startups, such as Spotify, Klarna, Wrapp and Izettle, popping up from these cities and expanding internationally. It’s important to create such an ecosystem with many local startups that can mentor and cater to each other as the years go by, creating a sustainable and self sufficient tech community that can rival Silicon Valley one day.

In your opinion, how does setting up a business in Africa differ to setting up a business in European markets?

That’s one thing both Daniel and I were discussing and realised it is two different worlds based on our personal experience. In Sweden you have many government institutions that give out grants, mentorships, and helps with business coaching to everyone that wants to access it. So setting up a company is much easier with such a large support system helping out. While in Kenya such a support system, which will guide you through the bureaucracy and all the red tape to help an aspiring student set up a company with all the resources easily available, doesn’t exist.

Drawing from your experience, what advice would you give to people outside of Africa who are considering setting up a business in Kenya?

Take your time to get to know the country and its customs. To come from overseas with the mentality “in my country we do so and so” is wrong. Don’t force your concept and ideology on Africa, get to know the culture and take your time to do research and talk with different groups. Learn from people’s experience of setting up businesses and contact your local embassy and trade council which will have a lot of insight on what you need to do. I personally always talk about Kenya’s available opportunities, but be prepared and it will be worth it.