John Hoffmire: Smart development for Africa: Building entrepreneurship at MEST

Published: Monday, Dec. 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

As Africa awakes to its enormous promises and confronts the challenges that it must surmount, the recent World Economic Forum Africa Summit in 2013 reflected on how Africa’s entrepreneurs can be transformed into global champions.

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Editor’s note: Pankaj Upadhyay helped write the majority of this article

As Africa awakes to its enormous promises and confronts the challenges that it must surmount, the recent World Economic Forum Africa Summit in 2013 reflected on how Africa’s entrepreneurs can be transformed into global champions.

The key points that emerged were that, though entrepreneurship is growing rapidly in Africa, there are significant difficulties and barriers that entrepreneurs must confront. Lack of access to funding, insufficient infrastructure and inadequate skills and support services converge to create formidable challenges. Also, it was widely agreed that education is indispensable in furthering entrepreneurship.

It is a painstaking and lengthy process to adequately train, nurture, mentor and equip entrepreneurs. But it is amazing what people can accomplish with their innate drive, creativity and ambition in an enabling context. In this context, it is only fitting to discuss the vision and execution of the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST).

The story of MEST is gripping and its journey is moving. Born in Korea and adopted by a Norwegian family, Jorn Lyseggen, a visionary tech entrepreneur, is now catalyzing an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Western Africa. Lyseggen, who successfully created the SaaS (Software as a Service) Meltwater Group ($100 million revenue), felt impelled to make a profound social contribution, and this impulse crystallized in the form of Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology.

Lyseggen believes that while talent is evenly distributed across the globe, opportunities are not; further, he believes that money is cheap and the really valuable things are expertise, competence, passion and conviction. Clearly the core tenets of care and concern can transform not only individual lives but also the social landscape. This more engaged approach calls for a more substantive ongoing commitment but one that holds the promise of being more fruitful and fulfilling.

Based in Accra, Ghana, MEST has set itself the incredibly empowering objective of molding and mentoring the brightest and most passionate young minds. In a very short span of time, MEST has become Ghana’s leading tech entrepreneurship incubator and is home to successful start-ups such as Saya, Retail Tower and mPawa, among others.

MEST has firmly thrown its weight behind the ideal of investing in people even before they have a start-up idea. As Lyseggen puts it, “MEST is the world’s earliest early stage start-up. We invest in people even before they know how to program or even have a business idea.” The promising young people are provided a very enabling context and global exposure.

Every year, nearly 1,000 or so talented college graduates from all across Ghana and a few other African countries are put through rigorous aptitude tests and screening exercises to select about 25 exceptional candidates with entrepreneurial promise. The “Entrepreneurs in Training” (EITs), as the successful applicants are called, undergo a rigorous two-year training program that unifies the diverse elements of basic business fundamentals, entrepreneurship and hands-on training in software development.

The fast-paced, challenging, start-up environment prepares them for developing and launching software applications in the global marketplace. In addition to the inculcation of comprehensive and enabling skills, the program also prepares the EITs for what Lyseggen asserts are the “hardships of being an entrepreneur.”

The structured approach to fostering entrepreneurship is methodically sequenced to create the most favorable outcomes. The ideal of tech entrepreneurship and the nurturing model for MEST are closely tied to the values and core expertise of the Meltwater Group. The three-phase approach involves training, incubation and mentorship. With all the attendant support systems, the rigorous two-year program culminates in a cohesive transition to real-world tech entrepreneurship.

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