Go to school, and get a nice job with an NGO or a large multinational. This was the ambition for many African young people two decades ago. But today, with numerous young graduates joining a competitive job market, opportunities to work with large companies are dwindling.
While there are many start-up companies popping up all over the continent, many graduates still view working for an early-stage business as inferior compared to a large company. Start-ups therefore often struggle to attract the talent they need.
But most people don’t understand what it means to work for a start-up, says Stéphane Eboko, chief revenue officer at Kenya’s Ma3Route, a crowdsourcing platform for traffic information.
The French-Cameroonian holds a master’s degree from leading French university Sciences Po, and certificates from the prestigious Columbia Business School.
Although he could land a job with a large company, given his academic achievements and professional experience, Eboko chose the Kenyan tech start-up. He sees it as an avenue to be an “explorer and discover new things”.
Ma3Route is a mobile, web and SMS platform that enables commuters in Nairobi to share and access information on the state of traffic flow, road conditions and even accidents. Eboko is excited about solving mobility challenges in emerging cities like Nairobi.
“There is a big thrill in being part of a team that is innovating and pioneering something new. There are not many fields nowadays where one can look back and say this hasn’t been done before,” says Eboko. “I also am passionate about building local solutions to local challenges. Big corporations unfortunately tend to have global strategies that don’t necessarily relate to [local] communities.”
Seeking a challenge
German national Natalie Groh holds a master’s degree in business and economics. She previously worked for a global management consulting firm in Munich, but took a one year sabbatical and came to Kenya. Initially she worked for an NGO where she admits to not having felt “very challenged”. So she started looking for other opportunities.
Groh is now a senior special projects associate at Mobius Motors, a Kenyan automaker that is building Africa’s first mass market vehicle. The company manufactures a vehicle specifically designed for the continent’s poor road conditions.
Benefits of working for a start-up
Both Eboko and Groh note there are many benefits to working for a start-up. First is the opportunity to build something big. Today’s cash-strapped start-up could be tomorrow’s Facebook or Google.
If she worked for a big auto company, Groh says she would probably only be involved in procuring one tiny part of a car engine. “But at Mobius Motors, in a month I got to see how a car is developed and built. I see everything from the first screw to the final car.”
With smaller teams, employees in early-stage companies tend to do more than just what their job description states, amassing skills and experience in diverse fields.
For people interested in starting their own business, Eboko says working for a high-growth start-up can equip them with valuable insights as they get a first-hand view of what it takes to run a business. One could also rise through the ranks much faster than working in an organisation with thousands of employees.
“I can walk up to the department head or the CEO and talk to them. I don’t have to write an email to their secretary to ask for an appointment,” says Groh.
“[At Ma3Route] we have rabbits in the garden, and we do pizza on Fridays,” says Eboko. “We have built an environment where everyone has that sense of being part of the team. In a big, global company one is somewhat restricted to hitting their targets. In a start-up we all perform together, and if we fail, we fail together. Everything is intertwined so you feel like you have control on what is going to happen later, and that empowerment is there.”
Different way of thinking
But working for a start-up is not for everyone and requires a different outlook on life.
“You need to have an appetite for risk and innovation, and the will to challenge yourself. In a start-up there is much more autonomy and so a lot is expected from one individual,” says Eboko.
While in large companies there are many hierarchical levels that one can climb over several decades, it is possible to start as a manager in a smaller company.
“However, there is a certain end [especially] if you work one or two levels under the founder,” says Groh.
Another disadvantage is the lack of structures and processes in a start-up.
“A lot of things are still in the making, and a lot of things are probably trial and error. At an established car manufacturer if you asked someone how to solve a problem you would probably be told, ‘take handbook ABCD and read page 200’.
“In a start-up you’d have to find your own way and live with the question of whether or not that was the best solution,” Groh explains.
There is also the risk of the start-up collapsing, and employees sometimes have to make do with lesser pay.
“But I don’t need that much money here in Kenya. Rent and everything else in Germany is much more expensive,” says Groh.
She plans to work for a start-up again when she returns to Germany, and reckons her experiences at Mobius Motors will come in handy when job-hunting.
“They always ask: ‘Have you worked in a unique environment?’ My answer will be: ‘Yes, I worked for a start-up in Africa’. There will be no questions after that. I really love being here, but I also think this is valuable experience for my future career prospects,” says Groh.