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

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

Initially, the EITs' master industry-proven methodologies for software development and instruction is provided by accomplished practitioners. The program also draws upon the transformative zeal of teaching fellows who are recent graduates from premier universities such as Oxford, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, among others. Learning is further enriched through guest lectures, seeking to drive home the insights and experiences of executives and entrepreneurs of global renown.

The next rite of passage is through the MEST incubator. Successful EITs with approved business plans are offered the opportunity to transform their ideas into thriving businesses. The Meltwater Foundation awards them seed funding, ranging from $30,000 to $200,000, in exchange for a minority equity stake. The consequent returns are recycled back into the foundation’s work.

By providing seed funding at such an early stage of the start-ups, the Meltwater Foundation is also bridging the “pioneer gap,” which exists due to conventional venture capital’s need to avoid certain types of execution risks in certain under-developed ecosystems.

In addition to catalysing funding, the MEST incubator makes available physical infrastructure and access to a global network of advisers and contacts. Evidently, this comprehensive system underpins the rapid strides MEST is making in its endeavor. This unique approach to identifying, educating and coaching entrepreneurs is already producing some spectacular success stories in the form of companies that are vying for global recognition in terms of quality, innovation and execution.

Under the ethos of “once MEST always MEST,” the Meltwater Foundation continues to provide mentorship support to the companies once they emerge from the MEST incubator. World-class executives and entrepreneurs, with relevant target market insights, serve as board members or company advisers. This ongoing mentoring support is indispensable in optimizing the chances of international commercial deployment.

Admittedly, exit opportunities for new enterprises are rather limited in Ghana. However, given that the underlying nature of tech enterprise has global appeal and replicability, the MEST start-ups are encouraged to think globally. Increasingly, successful outcomes are corroborating the intent.

For instance, Retail Tower, one of the MEST-incubated companies, is a partner of choice for Amazon. Acquisition is likely to be another fertile avenue as global players decide to strengthen their presence in Africa. Very recently, the Dutch company GenKey, which is a leading provider of biometric ID management solutions, acquired MEST-incubated ClaimSync, a medical claim handling solution provider founded on the belief that smart technology leads to better health care.

Fostering entrepreneurship promotes the vision of creating jobs and wealth locally in Africa. Toward this end, MEST wants to support entrepreneurs who actually go on to become role models — who inspire upcoming generations across Africa. Part of this process is that MEST encourages the incubated companies to share stock ownership with employees. One hopes that this model spreads across Africa.

As the newly appointed director of the MEST incubator, Neal Hansch plans to help “accelerate and extend MEST’s reach across Africa and onto the global stage.” It will be interesting to see how the organization navigates the unenviable task of scaling impact. This will require not only adherence to core processes, programs and ideals but also incessant calibration to local needs and resources.

There are already efforts afoot to pioneer new models that can expand the impact well beyond that commensurate with organizational size. As Jeffrey Bradach posits, “the new frontier in the field of social innovation is finding ways to scale an organization’s impact without scaling its size.” If MEST can address this conundrum, then it will have made unparalleled headway in addressing the most critical challenges confronting our societies.

John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford.

Pankaj Upadhyay is a graduate of the MBA program at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford and is a development expert.

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