We need entrepreneurs who will say no to corporate jobs, says tech school MEST

Ghanaian tech startup Dropifi, a web messaging platform which replaces the ‘contact us’ form on websites with a real-time widget that finds out the purpose of the enquiry, has won a number of international awards for its innovation. Earlier this year, Dropifi became the first African startup to join a leading US accelerator after it was selected for the 500 Startups Accelerator programme in Silicon Valley.

MEST trains technology entrepreneurs in Ghana.

MEST trains technology entrepreneurs in Ghana.

Dropifi’s co-founder and CEO David Osei is a graduate of the Accra-based Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST). MEST offers training, mentorship and financial support to aspiring software entrepreneurs in Africa with the hope of creating globally successful companies.

According to Richard Tanksley, senior faculty member at MEST, selected students go through an intensive two year training programme which involves “10 hours a day of learning and working till midnight”. Their final exam is a six minute pitch to MEST founder Jørn Lyseggen who has invested in 75% of the startups to come out of the course, including Dropifi.

“Jørn believes talent is talent everywhere. Talent is equally distributed across the globe, but the opportunities are not. The only reason Facebook and Instagram didn’t come out of some country in Africa is because people didn’t have the opportunities. [They] didn’t have the education, access to software training, they didn’t have the mentors and the bandwidth. At MEST what we are trying to do is level that playing field,” says Tanksley.

MEST receives nearly 1,000 applications from aspiring students but only admits 25 for the two year programme.

“We choose people who are really passionate about starting software development companies. You don’t have to be a genius. You don’t have to be a coder. In fact, half of the people don’t even know how to code when they come in.”

Tanksley explains that a big challenge for MEST is that most of the selected students are very “smart” and likely to receive job offers from well paying companies.

“We need people who, if some bank offered them a job, they would say no,” says Tanksley. “We have people who try to poach our students all the time because by the time they graduate they are the highest trained software developers in West Africa. They are entrepreneurial, they are smart and they know how to run businesses. So we have to choose people who are really passionate about starting their own business.”

Ghana’s technology potential

While Ghana’s technology industry is not as advanced as in other countries like Kenya, Tanksley says the industry is quite vibrant and holds a lot of potential.

“It is pretty vibrant. You have got interesting innovations coming out of Ghana. There is a company called RLG which was started by [Roland Agambire]. He started assembling laptops and mobile phones in Ghana which is incredibly ambitious because there is very little manufacturing in Ghana. We have a good number of software companies too.”

While other companies are targeting the market in Ghana, MEST is teaching its students to target global markets.

“That is where the money is. Ghana is really small. There are only 25m people. If you have people in Ghana writing software for other Ghanaians then you are moving money around Ghana. How does that help Ghana?” asks Tanksley. “But if you have a Ghanaian who writes software for the US market you [are] pulling money from the US into Ghana. All the jobs and wealth are being created in Ghana which could change the GDP of the country.”

Tanksley cited Dropifi which “has 9,000 customers, none of whom are in Ghana” [and] Retail Tower, which “has more than 15,000 customers outside Ghana”.

“When you look at markets that aren’t your own, you find unique solutions to problems that they might not be looking at,” he says, adding that MEST students are encouraged to build companies that offer solutions to challenges within and outside Ghana.

Multi-million dollar exits

MEST has invested in 16 startups since 2008 and hopes to see multi-million dollar exits in the near future. Tanksley says it is only a matter of time before “Instagram billion-dollar exits” begin to happen in Africa.

“However, African entrepreneurs will have to start many companies before we have huge exits. In Silicon Valley not every company that starts is successful, same here.”

Tanksley advises entrepreneurs to do lots of research and interact with people to find out what their problems are.

“Part of being an entrepreneur is you learn to see the opportunities,” says Tanksley. “Build a viable product. Fail early or fail fast. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Don’t be afraid of failure. There is stigma against failure [in Africa] and we have to get over that. If you are starting a company, there are chances that your first startup will fail. You just have to learn from that and move on.”