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What is the mission of Seedstars World? What is the long-term goal?
Seedstars world is a global competition held this year in 20 countries. We are focusing on emerging markets and strategic eldorados for the startup ecosystem. But in the future, we plan to be present in all continents and hopefully next year, we will expand in new countries. The principle is as follow: we go in each country and organize a pitching event. There are up to 20 startups for each local competition and only one startup will be claimed the regional winner for this country. We work with regional partners – incubators, accelerators – for the selection of startups. All the regional winners will be invited to come to Switzerland for the final competition. They will compete against each other for the prize of global winner to receive equity investment within their startup.
This is the mechanism of the competition. But behind this, the mission, the long-term vision is to create a network of entrepreneurs all around the world. Also, we hope to become the middleman between European investors and startups in emerging markets. We want to show European investors who are often afraid, there can be safe investments to make in Africa, Asia or Latin America and real credible partners and entities to work with.
Over the last 3 months you organized competitions in 8 cities from Russia & Azerbaijan to the UAE & South Africa, what have you learnt from this experience?
The cultural clash is crazy from Russia, Central Asia, to the Middle East and Africa, so many differences from one local ecosystem to another. And even from one African country to another. But while we met startups that had completely different backgrounds in every aspects – culturally, socially, economically – when we came down to the reason why they are entrepreneurs and why they are launching their startups, they were speaking exactly the same language. At the end of the day, an entrepreneur in Russia, in Azerbaijan or in Accra wants to change something in his city, his country. They all want to have an impact on their environment and the world.
Is the motivation different in emerging markets than in Europe and the US?
I think that the motivation is the same for any entrepreneurs anywhere in the world and that entrepreneurs all share similar characteristics. Maybe one thing in emerging markets we can consider is that they might have more hunger because they have less access to funds, to international coverage, to mentors. So the game is a bit harder for them, they have to fight more to be recognized. But the will to be a change maker defines any entrepreneurs in the world.
How much does the startup culture differ from one country to another? Have you noticed specific cultural behaviors that shape startup models?
In Russia, the startup ecosystem is very much implemented compared to Azerbaijan or Rwanda. There are a lot of tech companies, many VC funds, accelerators, incubators and government initiatives. While in Azerbaijan there is only one incubator in the whole country. There is everything to do there and the government does not know yet how to support entrepreneurs. In Rwanda, there are a lot of initiatives from the government to promote the entrepreneurial mindset that is still very much missing there but very strong in Kenya and South Africa.
The stages of the startup / tech ecosystem are different from one place to another. Some are just beginning; others are very mature. In Ghana, the network and the startups are amazing because of the great accelerators and incubators that coach startups there. It all depends on the quality of the ecosystem. You can see the difference between a startup that has been mentored, namely part of an accelerator/incubator and a startup that has been acting on its own. In my view, these programs are really necessary for startups in general.
Can you tell us about this African tour and the great startups you met on the road?
Africa scared us the most because it was the most complicated region in terms of logistics to get visas, to find cheap hotels since tourism isn’t yet very developed. There are also negative images about Africa in terms of security especially in Nigeria; and when we arrived in Rwanda, we had the genocide in mind. So we had assumptions at first, but in reality it was the most exciting and beautiful experience. People are extremely nice and generous and startups were generally quite good and impressive especially in Kenya, a very hot tech scene with great programmers and developers. Our winner in Accra, Retail Tower, is an example of an African startup in the e-commerce business that is being recognized internationally. Our winner in Lagos, SimplePay they want to be the Paypal of Africa, that’s a very smart move, because paying online in Africa is still very difficult and finding the right online payment solution is a challenge at the moment.
Overall, we saw startups with traction, metrics, big consumer base, there are facts that show us that there is a bright future for startups in Africa.
Can Africa close the gap with the rest of the world in terms of tech innovation thanks to the digital revolution?
Africa is so diverse, with so many countries that it is difficult to give one answer. In some countries, like Nigeria with over 100m population, the market is huge and there is still everything to do. Rwanda is not yet technology-driven, the simple fact being that the internet penetration is still very low. Cape Town is like Europe; Kenya is catching up very quickly with great e-commerce businesses that are booming. Overall, there is still everything to do, so think of any business that works well in Europe, you could launch it in Africa. A lot of the local startups have understood that it is just a matter of time for economic opportunities to boom, for the purchasing power to increase and they are ready to tap into the market. So I do believe that the digital revolution can boost the economy and transform the African continent.
One important point to underline is that consumer behavior with regards to mobile is more advanced in Africa than it is in Europe. Africa is definitely a mobile-first continent. In Kenya for instance, it is crazy how people do all their payments through Mpesa, i.e. you can pump into someone paying his gas bill through mobile, something you would never see in Europe. And this is a trend in the whole continent. But beyond payment, mobile is seen as a tool to solve social and political issues and a lot of startups are proposing apps in this way. Our winner in Rwanda wants to help patients with diabetes or Cancer who need to follow a very strict diet and this app would send messages and reminders about the diet they need to follow on a daily basis.
Are African startups looking for a local or global impact? Do they have the ability to GoGlobal and conquer other markets outside of their country, region?
Among the criteria of selection of Seedstars World, startups need to scalable at the international level. All winners can potentially tap global markets. Going global, they all have it mind. Some are focusing more at first on their local and regional markets and eye the African continent as a next target. But they all have the potential to be successful at a global level if they put the right resources and strategy into it. Then there was one Specific startup Retail Tower in Ghana that has clearly a GoGlobal mindset from the beginning. 90 % of its clients are outside of Ghana, mainly in the US, Canada, Europe and South Africa. Many African startups, especially those in e-commerce focus on larger markets and then they ultimately have to look beyond their country and region.
Now heading to Asia, what are your expectations?
Everything we experienced so far was beyond our expectations, so we think it might also be the same. In Bangalore, Singapore, Beijing, the ecosystem is very well developed, so this might shape the startups there. We expect to see a lot more accelerators, incubators, VCs, co-working spaces, tech events than in the UAE and Africa.
You can check all regional winners on Seedstars World website. You can vote your favorite startups online: the top 5 startups following the online vote will be able to join all regional winners in Switzerland for the final competition.