What started as a conversation among friends, culminated into something big. So big that a team of three Italians working in the Venture Capital (VC) and Digital Marketing sectors ended up traveling thousands of kilometers from Southern Europe to Kampala, the capital city of Uganda.
The Three Musketeers
Antonello Bartiromo, a VC partner, Andrea Censoni, an investment analyst at Dpixel VC firm, and Lorenzo D’Amelio, Co-Founder and Innovation Strategist at BTREES - New Media Agency, were the chief architects of the tech meeting in Uganda they creatively dubbed #StartupUgandaRoadTrip. The initial conversations they had with Martino Ghielmi who has been in and out of Uganda set the ball rolling. Ghielmi is the founder the first Afri-Italia tech blog which showcases and highlights tech stories about Africa to an Italian audience which knows close to nothing about the tech renaissance in Africa.
It is not imperceptible to imagine that an average Italian still thinks of Afrika as terra incognita! A place full of flora and fauna, but backward in social and economic development.
The three musketeers confronted a bevy of these stereotypes head on about the tech scene(s) and the general way of living in Afrika in a lean, yet aggressive way. If anything, it was a telling and fun joyride.
Startup Training And Mentorship
The main event of the Startup Uganda Road Trip was the tech meeting. This was a two-day event conducted on 22nd and 23rd to equip startup teams with business modeling, valuation, and marketing skills. The training was organized in partnership with Outbox Hub, a tech hub and incubator located in Kampala.
The turn-up was fairly high with 10 teams in e-commerce, digital payments, EduTech, e-health, fashion, and education among others. They were run through the fundamentals of lean business models which were made popular by Eric Ries (mentored by Steve Blank) in the bestseller “The Lean Startup”. The premise is to put a startup concept to the test with as minimal resources as possible to augment or reject assumptions about its business case. Some people have called this the MVP – the Minimum Viable Product. This session was led by Andrea Censoni and Antonello Bartiromo.
The next session was led by Lorenzo D’Amelio who ran the teams through marketing their products and services. It’s ipso facto, the majority of the best-selling products are those that have been marketed best. Leveraging off his experience in digital marketing and strategy, he called on the teams to exploit social media and ephemeral avenues of reaching out to a market dominated by young and techno savvy people. In fact, according to the most recent census data (2014) in Uganda, over 78% of Ugandans are under the age of 35.
Throughout the two-day session, intensive one on one sessions were held between the startups and the trainers and mentors to iron out the details of the business models and go-to market strategies.
Fire And Glory
The highlight of the day was the pitching competition among the ten teams; from the very first day they had been run through the modalities of pitching in a way that is convincing to investors and yet devoid of sensational projections.
The team of jurors consisted of seasoned entrepreneurs in the Ugandan tech scene like Joseph Kaizzi of Thinvoid, Joshua Mugisha former CEO Brightermonday Uganda and now founder of e-commerce startup Qwicart, Federico Tonelli, who runs iFish Farm, an aqua-tech fish project in Kampala and Amy Robinson - Software Product Manager of Fenix International. It also had professionals like Felix Idraku who works with the E4Impact, Ancel Bwire who is a business development professional at Global Business Labs Kampala, and Aaron Tindiseega who is the Country Manager at Uber Uganda.
The startups put their best feet forward and presented like their lives depended on getting nods of approval from the jurors. A staccato of slideshow with bullet points, projections, strategies were baked in catch phrases that played out before the audience.
The judges were kind but incisive in questioning and counter-questioning the presenters. It was a baptism of fire.
Cometh the hour, cometh the glory.
After the teams spirited and heated presentations, it was time to see who had emerged top. Antonello made it clear that there were no prizes and it was only for the glory (and must I say learning). This was augmented by Joseph Kaizzi who emphasized the need to go out to the market and test the business assumptions firsthand in the application of their learnings.
The winner of the night was Soma Africa, an EdTech startup which enables students and parents to apply for schools at different levels in Uganda. It takes away the burden of paperwork which many schools have to deal with in while vetting prospective students.
The first runner-up was Feyti which is a drug verification system which leverages the power of mobile to enable patients or buyers of medicine to verify the authenticity of the drugs. It caught attention because of the resurgence of fake drugs on the market time and time again.
The second runner-up was PayRainbow, a FinTech company which provides a mobile wallet to pay for a myriad of products on the internet.
In passing, were other and equally strong teams like ClinicPesa, Munowatch, Muhogo, Giraal Africa, Wekebere, Openweb Market and Trustfinity.
The training and mentorship and pitching sessions were just a tip of the iceberg for the #StartUgandaRoadTrip. The main point of the trip was to exchange ideas, expansion of networks and learning more about Uganda/Italy startup ecosystems.
While it was telling that Uganda, to date, doesn’t have any running VC office, not one, it wasn’t far from the truth about the pains and struggles startups have to go through to raise that much needed funding. In the same vein, some of the pains shared in Uganda were equally felt in Italy such as the lack of mainstream appreciation of tech startups. Definitely Italy ranks much higher than Uganda on this pecking order, however in comparison to UK or Germany, stakes are not in the Azzurri's favour. Conversely, Uganda is not as vibrant as Kenya or even as welcoming and enabling as Rwanda.
To deal with the issues at hand, Antonello recommended:
The need to emphatically address issues of difficulty in accessing capital. There’s only a few angel investors and expensive debt at annual interest rates about 25%. The need to explore alternative sources such as the capital markets could seem farfetched but worth the try. Fair enough the Uganda Capital Markets have a segment for relatively smaller but growth oriented companies. Also, they could cross-list on favourable exchanges like the Alt-Xchange in South Africa.
The need to address the lack of startup education is dire. The majority of the teams mentored had no solid understanding of economics, financials and the market at large. It calls to put in place specific initiatives for a kind of companies startups could or should become that are not just a miniaturized version of "traditional" companies.
The need to interlink strategic players in the innovation ecosystem who are often disconnected is much need. This enables innovation to become a repeatable process through the exchange of knowledge, personal relationships, urban context, among others.
Taking these learnings objectively is one of the many steps to the road to redemption, and maybe new beginnings. Exchanging knowledge and engaging with other ecosystems would certainly bear insurmountable results. It is, and indeed, it would be a matter of time.
We just have to keep our noses on the grind.