The trip, organized by 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital seed fund and startup accelerator, was the group’s first to sub-Saharan Africa. For Andela — and other stops dotted across several other African countries — the unconventional tour provided rare direct access to powerful figures in Silicon Valley. It aimed to foster a relationship that could benefit the visiting executives and raise the visibility of home-grown African tech talent.
“The Geeks On a Plane visit to Andela Nigeria validates the increasing participation and relevance of Nigerian developers within the global technology scene,” Seni Sulyman, country director for Andela in Nigeria, told Devex via email. “I hope this visit will encourage further collaboration between Silicon Valley and the Nigerian tech ecosystem.”
Andela is backed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, GV (formerly Google Ventures), and the Omidyar Network, which sent a representative on the trip. Andela is no stranger to Silicon Valley, but other entrepreneurs and startups got a rare chance via Geeks on a Plane to pursue meetings at the Yaba District Ecosystem in Nigeria, the Enterprise Africa Summit in Accra, Ghana, and the Braamfontein Cluster technology hub in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Devex caught up with participants of Geeks on a Plane, and other experts on ecosystems for entrepreneurship, on the importance of, and the limits to, in-person visits.
“There is no replacement for in-person meetings to understand an entrepreneur,” said Doug Galen, CEO of RippleWorks, which connects Silicon Valley experts with social enterprises in the developing world. “Even more so, there is no replacement to understand the markets these entrepreneurs serve.”
Galen mentioned the value of the involvement of the U.S. Agency for International Development in the project. USAID announced support for Geeks on a Plane at the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, hailing it a prime example of a successful public-private partnership that could benefit both American and African businesses.
“You can talk and talk and talk as much as you want about the fact that it’s not actually that hard to invest in Africa,” Linda Etim, the former USAID assistant administrator for Africa, told Devex at GES 2017. “But when we’re actually talking to investors who have never been to Africa, they have a lot of misconceptions about what the markets actually look like and what’s actually possible.”
The USAID team, which included Danielle Cass, tech sector liaison for USAID, was knowledgeable on the conditions of the users and consumers of the products or services the “geeks” were exploring, Galen said, and this knowledge helped investors scope out opportunities most likely to drive impact.
While forums like GES can expose investors to opportunities in emerging market economies, trips like Geeks on a Plane demonstrate the benefits, as well as the constraints, faced by entrepreneurs working in those environments.
For example, Galen mentioned the constant brownouts — reductions in electrical power — the importance of offline working capability without access to the cloud, and the challenge of accessing basic products and services like a trip to the bank.
Africa still comes with a lot of question marks, said Maya Horgan Famodu, founder of Ingressive, which aims to direct global capital to African entrepreneurs.
“There is no better way to gain this understanding than to be on the ground, face to face, with the entrepreneurs who navigate the risks on a daily basis,” she said. “Having the in-person conversations allows interested investors to gain a more comprehensive picture of what is happening — and a lot of times I think they are surprised by how fast things are moving. Even where political and economic instability exist, the people of those countries and communities aren’t stagnant. They are creating opportunity for themselves and carving out an exciting space for international investors.”
Famodu has helped organize trips for 500 Startups, as well as other Silicon Valley-based incubators and accelerators, such as Y Combinator and TechStars. Several of the “geeks” on the 500 Startups trip had experience working in emerging markets, or on global development, as well as in Silicon Valley. For example, Scott Wu of Omidyar Network was formerly with USAID, and Heather Grady of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors is behind the Sustainable Development Goals’ Philanthropy Platform.
“It’s important for investors, tech ecosystem folks to make in-person visits. But the visits have to be very purposeful,” said Toro Orero, managing partner at the venture capital firm DraperDarkFlow, who is organizing the founder bootcamp SpeedUPAfrica 2017, in Lagos, Nigeria, in July. “I’d recommend investors coming in to make meaningful connections before trips, and continue the conversations when on [the] ground.”
Whether for a shorter trip or a longer stay, investors must visit with intent to act, Orero continued.
“Africa moves with action, and founders are motivated by it,” he said. “Action may not be immediate, but intent can shape the conversations.”
As 500 Startups expands its global investments, the Geeks on a Plane trip seems to have put Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa on its list of markets to explore further.
“I think it’s just getting started. We’ve seen it in a lot of other markets around the world — in Latin America, in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East where things are just getting started,” Dave McClure, founding partner of 500 Startups, said in an interview with CNBC Africa about the venture capital space in sub-Saharan Africa. “There’s a few brave and crazy souls like us, there’s also some folks who are very passionate and experienced on the ground, and we like to work with those folks.”
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