SmartCamp - Putting African Startups on the World Map

Companies in China, Europe and North America are looking to some countries in Africa to invest. While growth may have somewhat stalled in other parts of the world, some countries in Africa are experiencing growth despite the harsh terrain.

Co-Creation Hub in Nigeria and a host of other innovation hubs around Africa have been playing a role at providing some basic tools and services required by startups to be able to thrive. We have iHub in Kenya, Google's Umbono in South Africa as some of the examples.

On Friday, 18th July, 2014, in Nigeria, IBM in partnership with Tech4Afrika put together a meet up in Lagos.

Part of the day's event was the SmartCamp event. I had the privilege of speaking with Adeola Alison at the new IBM Innovation hub that is soon to be launched. She is the business development manager for IBM West Africa and she told me more about what SmartCamp is all about and why IBM is spending money to provide an innovation space for startups for free.

Allison is also in charge of ecosystem development for IBM West Africa.

Adeola Alison - IBM West Africa Adeola Alison - IBM West Africa

IBM SmartCamps are exclusive events aimed at identifying early stage entrepreneurs who are developing business ventures that align with IBM’s strategy.

iAfrikan:Why SmartCamp?

Adeola Alison: The SmartCamp is part of a global initiative—IBM Global Entrepreneurial Program.

We are seeking out local startups that are working to solve local problems. But we are not stopping there; we also encourage them to think global. While their solution is built to serve the local market, it should also have commercial viability, not just locally, but globally.

The fact that that IBM is a well-known brand acts credibility to the local startups that enroll and are selected to be at SmartCamp. This innovation center is where IBM showcases its breadth of experience.

Software and consulting are free for the startups to use. Whether or not the startups are part of SmartCamp or not, they are free to come and use the Innovation Centre where they’ll have access to a range of IBM software, mentoring, consulting with a space where they can have meetings.

Besides the space, what will you be providing the startups that come to use the IBM Innovation centre?

Access to the technology.

Look behind you and you’ll see the servers in that room. We are providing access to our consulting services—we do have a consulting practice, we have engagement rooms where they can discuss their ideas with IBM experts and get recommendations, feedback and mentoring.

At SmartCamp we are not just bringing the startups in to pitch their ideas and then judge them, but beyond that we have sourced for people in the local ecosystem who have a lot of expertise, technopreneurs, investment bankers, and some from the academia. These ones can advice the startups on how to package their ideas in such a way that they’ll be attractive to investors.

We have done a lot of work to build (an) ecosystem of mentors in addition to the access they have to IBM experts.

What’s in it for IBM?

We are not a charity organisation and I am a business development manager. It is difficult for us to come into Africa and be successful without partnering with the people that have indigenous know how. Partnering will help us to understand local challenges, be able to create solutions to them and then expand our footprint in the market.

We can not take an enterprise solution that works in matured markets and bring it down here and expect that it is going to work. The education is two-way. We are learning from them and they are learning from us.

Do you take equity in the startups that take part in SmartCamp as part of the Global Entrepreneurial Program?

We don’t own the business. We started SmartCamp only four years ago. We do not have a stake in their businesses too.

What we do require is that they use IBM tools.

That is what we know and that is what we can teach them. We do not teach them other people’s technology. While we do not expect them to use all of IBM’s technologies, or only IBM technologies, if they are going to add value to them, then they’re going to have to be using what we can help them with.

How do startups coming out of Nigeria compare to those coming from other regions, considering that IBM Global Entrepreneurship program is global?

To be completely honest, what I have found with

Nigerian startups is that many of them focus on just Nigeria as a market.

We are a global company at IBM and I usually encourage them to that you can be solving a Nigerian problem, but think global.

One key component that the judges look for is global viability. That is where I am seeing a gap in the Nigerian startup ecosystem. Before now, the startups in Nigeria have been challenged enough to build solutions that can be used globally.

In 2012, the winning startup at the Global Level was from Kenya (the Kenyan Startup is called Mobile Decisioning Africa Limited (Mo-De)).

Mobile Decisioning Africa Limited (Mo-De) from African Leadership Network on Vimeo.

And it was in 2012 that we brought the Global Entrepreneurship program to Africa.

Mo-De built their solution for the Kenyan market because that was what they know, but with our support, and the feedback they were getting from the mentor network we put together, they quickly changed their perspective and saw the global commercial viability in what they are building. Now, they have business not just in Kenya, but also in other African markets and other parts of the globe.

All of this was possible as s result of partnering with IBM and engaging with us through SmartCamp competition.

During the finals of the Global Entrepreneurial event—that Mo-De emerged as the winner—there were over 200 Venture Capitalists in attendance. You can imagine what that did to them in terms of exposure.

One of the key challenge they had when they started was that they could not get funding, not even fro their local banks. At the point that they engaged with us through the SmartCamp and won the competition, their local banks saw that they were matured and wanted to partner with them.

At what stage do you engage startups; at idea stage, incubator stage or after their first or second round of funding?

We try to engage them as early as possible. Our priority is not startups that have already gotten funding as they don’t necessarily need much help. The criteria for participating in the global entrepreneurial program is: the startup must be in existence for five (5) years or less.

IBM isn’t just here to sell and expand its footprint in Nigeria and other African countries, but they are reaching out through the Innovation center and the Global Entrepreneurial Program to affect startups.

It’ll be interesting to watch and see what breathe of fresh air they are adding to the startup ecosystem in Nigeria. When we speak about getting funds, that hasn’t been the issue for sometime in Nigeria now. It was the primary issue before. I can testify that we have more money chasing a few viable startup ideas.

If IBM was doing something similar to what Andella is doing or partner with Andela, then this should be good news to the Nigeria Startup ecosystem. Skill gap is one of the core problem the Nigerian ecosystem should be fighting now as the traditional institutions don’t prepare people with the core tech skills needed in the startup tech world.

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