The workplaces building Africa's business future
- 25 September 2012
- From the section Business
Thomas Ssemakula is an impressive young man.
Smartly dressed in a shirt and tie, he has just come from a meeting with an investor who has agreed to fund his agricultural services start-up. He smiles widely, his happiness infectious as he talks about how his business got started.
"I started Brave East Africa without a coin on me. That was June 2010 when I finished my final year at Makere University, I was doing bachelor of animal production at the college of veterinary medicine," he says.
Inspired by his single parent mother, Mr Ssemakula set about creating what he hopes will become a multinational agribusiness that helps east African farmers build profitable and sustainable businesses.
"My mother has been father and mother, supporting the family slowly through her work. I wanted to follow the same path."
The first step was to find somewhere to work from. But with no money options were limited - so he came up with the idea of trading veterinary officer services for a seat in an internet cafe, run by a group of farmers.
Writing for a newspaper about agriculture, in return for having the name of his business and contact details prominently displayed, attracted customers, bringing precious funds to invest in the business. Finally he was ready to move to an office environment which would allow him to meet clients and investors and to be taken seriously.
Setting up on your own in east Africa isn't cheap. Not only is there rent to consider, there's furniture, utilities and the internet connection that remains prohibitively expensive for ordinary Ugandans.
So instead Mr Ssemakula decided to become a member of the Mara Launchpad, one of a new breed of home-grown co-working spaces and innovation hubs in Kampala.
"If you're working from home or out of your car here in Uganda people don't take you seriously," says Mara Launchpad's Nigel Ball.
"They're worried because trust levels are lower, and if you don't have an office how do they track you down if things go wrong."
Providing office space is a simple thing to do, says Mr Ball. But what the Launchpad wants to do is give technology and non-technology companies credibility in the eyes of potential clients or partners.
"Getting the right kind of office that projects the right kind of image, that's in the right location, at the right price, is not an easy task," he says.
There's a large open plan room filled with desks, with wifi connectivity, as well as various meeting rooms. In the room next door regular Friday night innovation events are held, organised by the Mara Foundation and the Angels Finance Corporation, the people behind the Launchpad.
Business incubation and mentorship is available, as well as a six week acceleration program that runs twice a year.
Over the last couple of years, tech hubs and other co-working spaces have started popping up in towns and cities worldwide.
For emerging economies, the services and advice they offer can have even more impact than in the developed world. Taking the lead from the granddaddy of them all, Nairobi's iHub, they are spreading rapidly across the African continent.
In an office block on a residential street in Kampala, Barbara Birungi sits at her desk with a cup of tea. She is the manager of the Hive CoLab, less a co-working space than a start-up incubator. Technology entrepreneurs who fit their criteria can spend two years based in the open plan offices.
"It's not about strict business. It's also about coming here to share your ideas, and collaborate. Because out of sharing and collaborating come ideas," says Ms Birungi.
"Apart from just offering them a space we see how we can take an idea to the next level. Because many startups fail within the first two years of existence."
As well as regular events and Mobile Monday innovation sessions, the incubator offers mentoring and support finding investors, helping them to protect their intellectual property.
"We have seen examples where investors actually take up someone's idea, and because there's no paperwork, there's no proof they have done that," she says.
Kampala's newest space is Outbox, a co-working space and technology start-up incubator and accelerator that counts Google among its partners.
Richard Zulu is a co-founder. He says working with developers and realising they needed help to get them to the next level pushed him to open the hub.
"It's very important that the people that start these places share the same passions as the people that work in them," says Mr Zulu.
"A place like this creates a focal point, where you'll be able to meet A, B, C, D people in the tech community. Through the co-working initiative it drives entrepreneurship and innovation through the participants of the space.
"The core is community."
The space specialises in mobile and web start-ups, and Outbox is already home to at least one award-winning business.
Senegalese-born social entrepreneur and blogger Marieme Jamme mentors founders and managers of some of Africa's technology hubs.
She believes that while the hype surrounding the new hubs is increasing the visibility of African developers, the type of mentorship available in the Ugandan hubs is vital to their success. And it's not available at all of the spaces opening up across the continent.
"You have ideas generated within those tech hubs, but they don't know how to scale those businesses. They have the business acumen and the passion, but they don't know how to go through setting up that business, or writing that business plan.
"You'll find out that 90% of them don't know how to do it. But when an investor comes in they hide their discomfort, and pretend they know how to do it. This is African pride, this is inside the African mindset.
"It's not because they're not good people, it's the way the mindset works."
Another problem according to Ms Jamme is the gap between theoretical and practical knowledge when it comes to coding and development.
"That's why it's very important for us to go back and say, it's ok if you don't know, and work out how you help these entrepreneurs scale their businesses.
"How can you move the coder from a coder to a CEO?"
Mr Ssemakula is certain coming to the Mara Launchpad was the right thing to do.
As well giving farmers agricultural and financial advice, the company is working on technology to link the farmers to high-value markets using text messages.
"The Mara Launchpad has changed my business by providing me with a professional business environment that commands more credibility in the eyes of my customers, in this case the farmers, who find me in such a setting and they see my business as a serious business."
His dreams of sitting at the helm of a multi-national agribusiness are becoming more tangible, with plans for his first branch office in Nairobi, Kenya.
"[The Launchpad] has given me access to free business mentorship and how to go about being an entrepreneur in a practical way."
"I'm glad to be here."