MIT's Ali Diallo explains why the Zambezi Prize for Innovation is not just another startup competition

During any given month, there is a startup pitching competition, hackathon or demo day happening somewhere in Afrika. Many have argued that very little has resulted from these startup pitching events, and one such recent example is the case involving South African startup, TechnoVera, which previously won a City of Johannesburg startup hackathon and pitching competition and yet ended up being sidelined when the Gauteng Health Department decided to pilot a similar solution manufactured by a German company.

One such event is the Zambezi Prize for Innovation which is open to early-stage technology startups from Afrika that promote and advance financial inclusion. It is being organized by theMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation.

I caught up with Ali Diallo, Global Programs Manager for the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, to understand what makes the Zambezi Prize for Innovation in Financial Inclusion different, how it adds value to Afrika's technology startups, and what it is all about.

MIT Zambezi Prize for Innovation in Financial Inclusion
Zambezi Prize for Innovation in Financial Inclusion

iAfrikan: People have criticized that there are too many startup pitch competitions and similar happening across Afrika, aren't you worried that the MIT Zambezi Prize for Innovation in Financial Inclusion just becomes "another one"?

Ali Diallo: It is true that we are now seeing a proliferation of pitch competitions and prizes across the continent. I believe the Afrikan tech scene is experiencing a shift: the celebration of entrepreneurship is not enough anymore and many, if not all stakeholders (entrepreneurs, investors, and other parties) are now asking for more robust programming centered on mentoring, training and skills development, especially at the leadership level. This is precisely what MIT’s Afrikan competitions such as the Zambezi Prize and the Inclusive Innovation Challenge are addressing: The finalists of our prizes earn an opportunity to attend an exclusive leadership boot camp and to learn from great leaders. They become part of the MIT Legatum family which gives them access to more long-term opportunities such as speaking engagements, investor introductions and mentoring. Building a great solution is not enough to win an MIT Legatum competition: one also needs to demonstrate principled leadership qualities and an inclusive approach to innovation, corporate management, and strategy.

For those who've never heard of MIT's Legatum Center, can you tell us a bit more what it is all about?

The Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT is a hub for MIT students, faculty, departments and global entrepreneurs who are passionate about entrepreneurship in frontier markets. So far, we have supported close to 300 entrepreneurs from 26 countries through more than a dozen programs and initiatives. We are based at MIT Sloan School of Management and we are a member of the MIT Innovation Initiative and of MIT-Africa, the initiative that encompasses the Institute’s global priority for collaboration with Africa in the areas of education, research and innovation. We empower future leaders with the entrepreneurial skills they need to succeed and our capstone initiative is the Legatum Fellowship Program which provides entrepreneurs with a world-class education and substantial tuition support. We also provide seed grants, Entrepreneur-In-Residence mentoring services, workshops, research, thought leadership and global opportunities to emerging market leaders and entrepreneurs. These global opportunities include Open Mic Africa, a yearly conference and networking tour across Africa and the Zambezi Prize for Innovation in Financial Inclusion which is sponsored by the MasterCard Foundation. In 2018, the Legatum Center partnered with the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge, the flagship initiative of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE), to bring its $1 million competition to Africa. Both competitions are now live and available to all African startups and entrepreneurs. Together, the MIT African competitions provide close to $1.5M in equity-free funding opportunities and significant pathways for Africa-focused entrepreneurs.

What is the ideal type of Afrikan startup that should apply for the MIT Zambezi Prize for Innovation?

We are looking for early-stage startups that are addressing at least one of the 9 financial inclusion challenges the Prize focuses on. The ideal startup would showcase a solution that is highly innovative and that has an impact on the ecosystem, especially on the unbanked and communities who are at the bottom of the pyramid. Our definition of financial inclusion goes beyond the standard fintech approach: We welcome startups that address financial inclusion by leveraging unique innovations both at the solution and strategy levels. We are also looking for principled leaders who are driven by a purpose and who exhibit great inclusive leadership qualities.

On that note, how is the MIT Zambezi Prize for Innovation different from the others?

Aside from the principled leadership approach, one predominant theme of the Zambezi Prize is the entrepreneur’s journey: Winning the cash prize is just the beginning. After the award ceremony and some cohort-building activities with the other regional winners of the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge, all finalists will be flown to Boston to attend the MIT IIC Global Gala for a chance to win the Grand Prize of the IIC. After this event, they will participate in the Zambezi boot camp on the MIT campus where they will have an opportunity to learn from various MIT mentors and African leaders from the diaspora. After the boot camp, they will benefit from contact introductions from the MIT Legatum family, media coverage and speaking engagements. Because our prizes are designed to provide a 360-degree learning experience, the finalists will also contribute to the MIT Legatum Africa Strategy by sharing their knowledge of the continent and of the tech space. The Zambezi and IIC finalists are principled leaders who are shaped to make a strong difference in Africa and we strongly value their opinions and insights.

Another key differentiating aspect of the Zambezi Prize is its collaborative nature: The Zambezi Board, which consists of some of the greatest African and American leaders, helped identify the financial inclusion challenges that are the foundation of the competition, with great input and support from the MasterCard Foundation. The prize itself was designed to complement the work of other great initiatives in the space. For instance, it is perfectly aligned with the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC) as its financial inclusion track: winners of the Zambezi Prize are recognized and celebrated as the African winners of the IIC and get fast-tracked to the global IIC prize with up to $1 million available. At the ecosystem level, the Zambezi Prize is supported by great regional outreach collaborators and many ambassadors, including the finalists of the 2015 edition who went on to build great friendships and business relationships with one another. They truly embody the collaborative spirit of the Zambezi Prize.

Anything else you'd like to share with anyone reading this who might be interested?

I encourage all Afrikan startups and organizations to apply to the two MIT African prizes which are now live until the beginning of June 2018. If your startup is early stage, has a for-profit model and focuses on financial inclusion, the Zambezi Prize is a great way to showcase your innovative approach to solving one of the financial inclusion challenges. If you run an organization that focuses on either income growth, job creation, skills development, opportunity matching or technology access, you may apply to the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge, even if your organization is a non-profit. With these two highly diversified prizes, MIT is proposing an inclusive approach to supporting African entrepreneurs and startups. We look forward to contributing to the empowerment of as many African startups as possible and to provide even more educational, funding and training opportunities in the near future.


Cover image credit: Ali Diallo, Global Programs Manager for the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT.

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