Sunday, December 07, 2014


To mine simply means to dig deep for hidden treasure. The psychology of the miner is very interesting. The miner commits so much energy into digging, even when there’s no physical guarantee of striking it rich.

I recently took a class called “Analytics lab” at MIT. This class was composed of a select group of 40 students (out of more than 400 MBA and graduate students) who were passionate about digging deep into data to unlock hidden patterns and treasures. Since this was an action-learning class, I and my teammate were commissioned to provide free data-mining consulting services to a client based in Boston. After countless hours of mining our client’s data, we made startling discoveries that were capable of doubling their revenue within 2 years and elevating them to the level of big brands such as IBM. This company was so excited, they asked us to join their company.

Now, those treasures had always been locked up in their data, but they never took the time to find them. In order to find treasures, you must disconnect from daily routine, and channel your energy into focused mining and exploration in a specific area. In today’s world of social media, people are being increasingly distracted. They cannot focus on anything. They know a little of everything, but are not experts in any area.

A petroleum engineer will tell you that you have a better chance striking oil if you dig 20,000 feet in just one place, rather than digging 500 feet in 1000 different locations. It’s called putting all your eggs in one basket. When Elisha burned up his Oxen and followed Elijah, he put all his eggs in one basket and mined deep into Elijah. Years later, Elisha received a double portion and had the power to make others wealthy in just one day. Friends, I urge you to mine deep into your area of interest, even if it costs you in the short term.

God bless

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Scaling up Investments in Social Enterprises

SaafWater (a social enterprise in Pakistan) had a vision to tackle the huge problem of access to affordable clean water across the developing world and their noble objective was to systematically use social entrepreneurship to solve this problem that was faced mainly by the world’s poor. They saw the opportunity to leverage existing ideas and technologies in achieving their objective. Just as any business would do, they did their market research and felt rest assured that a total addressable market of over 4 billion people more than validated the business case for their socially beneficial for-profit venture. 
Even better, they didn’t have to build their product from the ground up; the CDC had a water purification technology that had been waiting to be harnessed. Choosing a beachhead market wasn’t difficult either. Karachi, a large city in Pakistan had a ready consumer market with over 15 million residents, and the SaafWater team didn’t have to try too hard to find a willing sales-force. They only had to bear the initial cost of providing training plus performance-based incentives to get them moving.
SaafWater’s key innovation was around the business model and supply chain network. This is often the hard nut to crack in emerging markets, so they focused on this and grew the business organically. They sought to achieve a simple and straightforward two-fold objective: build a profitable company and prevent 500,000 cases of diarrhea per year per city.

In my opinion, they took a smart approach in pursuing this objective by using a for-profit vehicle. This allowed (or forced) them to apply the rigor and outcome based approach that characterizes private sector driven investments. It is obvious the problem of access to safe drinking water isn’t new, but has certainly seen (and continues to see) a lot of activity and investment from foundations, governments and non-profit organizations over the years. Sadly, this problem has just refused to go away. Why is the reason for this, you might ask?

The reason is not far fetched. These non-profit approaches have failed simply because they’ve lacked consistency and sustainability, and do not have the right incentive structure. Governments, foundations and non-profits have limited budgets and often have other bureaucratic and donor-related constraints that make it difficult to pursue their programs to logical conclusions. In addition, they have different incentive structures from non-profits. Non-profit organizations are often judged by how much they are able to raise and spend, and evaluated less by how effective they have been at tackling development issues. Their focus is often on popularity and acceptability, rather than on fact based results and quantifiable performance, so the problems seem to stick around despite huge investments.
I believe for-profit ventures and the private sector play the most critical role in advancing society. All other actors simply play hygiene or enabling roles. I also believe that nearly all social problems in the world today are amenable to some type of for-profit venture. Private sector organizations have very clear measures of success that everyone understands. When they fail, they are effectively punished by the market and when they succeed, they are rewarded with more resources and better access to markets. This is how Coca-Cola, Google, Microsoft and Toyota conquered the world. Could you imagine if we left drug development and biotech development to non-profit ventures? Where would medical practice be today?….. unthinkable!

What are the limits to social entrepreneurship?
Social entrepreneurship currently suffers from a perception problem. Even though social enterprises are technically classified as for-profit ventures, they are still seen by much of the world, and by many investors as belonging to the same broad category of non-profit ventures and NGOs. The reason is many people (including investors) have mental models that interpret doing good and doing business as two mutually exclusive endeavors. Social entrepreneurship is however a revolutionary attempt to bridge these two perhaps, distinct objectives and craft out visions that marry both into a harmonious union.

21st century capitalism may have also contributed to the dichotomy between doing business and doing good. Few can argue against the great technology and economic gains that capitalism has delivered to the world in the last 50 or more years. However, many also believe capitalism has fueled narcissistic and/or acquisitive tendencies that have produced few billionaires and countless peasants, and the Forbes list has a great way of reminding us that half of the world’s wealth is still controlled by less than 100 people.
Therefore, the investment community tends to look towards “pure” business ideas when they want to make huge capital investments, while they continue to reserve smaller amounts of capital for “social” entrepreneurs who they still consider as next-door neighbors to non-profits.
This problem of access to capital will continue to prevent social entrepreneurs from scaling up their ventures in ways that could deliver huge global impact comparable to global for-profit success stories such as Google and Amazon.

The good news is that there are more opportunities today than before with the increasing acceptance of the social entrepreneurship model and the creation of more social enterprise and impact investment funds across globe. Overall, the future of social entrepreneurship seems bright, but there are significant challenges to overcome.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Incubators and Entrepreneurial Support Systems for Africa

Incubators and accelerators have now emerged as a potent entrepreneurial resource for kick starting and accelerating high-potential innovative startups across the world. However, each region has its nuances, and that includes Africa.
While other regions such as Europe are still learning to deal with fear of failure, Africa already has more than its fair share of entrepreneurs. However, this seeming advantage has not translated into global mega corporations for Africa. The reasons are not far fetched. Out of the wide range of possible reasons for starting a business, empirical studies have shown that survival and the need for alternative income are leading motivating factors. Essentially, entrepreneurship is viewed as a potential parachute that could be used to escape the pit of poverty. The negative implication of this is that the few enterprises that initially succeed do not have world domination wired into their operating framework, and lack a strong motivation to take over the world, since that was never the objective. Enterprises also tend not to survive more than 2 generations, due to weak regulatory and institutional support mechanisms, and poor corporate governance.
Incubators and venture support systems in Africa should take note of these peculiarities as they work with entrepreneurs in Africa. Unlike Europe, entrepreneurial activity is already high, so the focus should not be to motivate Africans to start businesses. Rather, strong mentorship should be provided to aspiring entrepreneurs in visioning, corporate governance and long-term strategic thinking. In addition, access to basic resources and physical infrastructure is a significant barrier for entrepreneurs. The very high cost of doing business, especially in major African cities such as Lagos and Nairobi are also a major obstacle. Venture incubation programs should provide shared resources such as internet access, electricity, office space and food as these are absolute necessities for budding entrepreneurs, who often have no reserve income to draw on while working on their venture. Incubators may also need to go beyond idea validation. They need to provide robust target market evaluation and product launch support for African entrepreneurs, as there are not very many independent success stories just yet.

Relevance of western entrepreneurship approaches to different sectors in Africa
Unlike in the West where there is a wide range of mature industries, Africa’s best growth opportunities are concentrated mostly in four or five broad industries, based on the McKinsey’s “Lions on the Move” report. Therefore, entrepreneurial efforts in Africa should be focused on sectors that offer the best opportunity, based on market demand, quality of regulatory framework and the overall macro-economic status. Technology and mobile startups across the world have a fairly similar approach to launching and scaling their products but sectors such as consumer goods, agriculture and infrastructure tend to be more sensitive to local or regional nuances. In 2014, Nigeria’s ranking on the Ease of Doing Business Index was 147, Ghana was 67, South Africa was 41 and Rwanda was 32. These figures show that African countries have very different environments, and the Regulatory and institutional frameworks are at different stages of maturity. Each country has its peculiar strengths (and weaknesses) based on its resources and strategic priorities. The general lesson here is that there is no such thing as an Africa strategy. Africa is a continent of 52 unique and peculiar nations with varying interests and differing levels of political and economic maturity and stability. Therefore, entrepreneurship approaches should be evaluated and optimized for each country, and should incorporate internal and external risk assessment frameworks that are relevant to the economic and political realities in each country. A one-size fits all approach is never going to work.

Is the Rocket Internet model relevant to Africa?
This is like asking whether products sold in the West would find application in Africa - of course! Unfortunately, this question isn’t that relevant today, because Rocket already has more than a dozen startups across the African continent, and a good number are doing really well.
Rocket companies are now in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and counting. I know Rocket quite well because I worked at Nigeria’s fastest growing ecommerce platform just last summer and my host company’s greatest competitor was a Rocket Internet Company. As I said earlier, Africa has 52 markets that are unique in their own right. The odds are that there is at least 1 of these 52 markets that is amenable to the wonderful startup ideas that have their roots in the West.

Africa is pretty much open for business, and all ideas that create value and produce wealth are very welcome. Rwanda, Ghana and many more African countries are seeking the influx of foreign capital and foreign ideas to rapidly grow their economies. Today, nobody really cares about where ideas come from. They just need to make sense, and they need to be executed to perfection!