Sahara Accelerator started in 2017 as a Corporate-Sponsored and Venture-Backed Accelerator program looking to support post-revenue businesses in Africa as well as working with corporate companies and international organizations to adopt entrepreneurial solutions to address complex societal problems. The definition and focus of Sahara Accelerator have been evolving over time with respect to lessons we learned from the needs of the entrepreneurs we support and market demands.
The First Two Years
In the first two years of operations, we primarily focused on impact-centered acceleration programs. Some of the notable programs include; Amua Accelerator, Inspire100, e-Kilimo Accelerator, etc. The impact-centered approach of the accelerator program was highly inspired by the work we did with Human Development Innovation Fund (HDIF), Tanzania Bora Initiative (TBI), and Tanzania Medical Students Association (TAMSA) to nurture health-related solutions from medical and allied sciences students in the project called Mawazo Challenge. I can say without a doubt this program completely transform how medical students and doctors engage with the innovation ecosystem. I’m proud to see a lot of them currently working on cross-cutting projects between health and technology. Some of the most notable stories are the likes of; Pharmlink, AfyaToon, iMama, etc.
Impact-centered acceleration programs primarily work with social enterprises. Commercializing social enterprises is not easy work. We are happy to see companies such as Maisha Package, e-Shangazi, Harakati Za Lucy, and Mkwawa Arts Space are still operating in their fourth year. They have been able to build strong brands and work with different partners in the ecosystem. We are happy that they are figuring out their business models trying to survive and remain relevant in a very complex ecosystem without clear follow on funding and financial support. Impact investors are rare to find in our ecosystem hence some of these social enterprises won’t cross five years.
With e-Kilimo Accelerator there is no much difference. We accelerated eight startup companies and five are still operational; AgrInfo, Agritech, Jamvi, SkyGulio, and Agrobot. While some are struggling at least they are pivoting their business models to stay relevant. The problem is still growth stage financing. The seed fund can only help you to move from idea to MVP. It is always a challenge post MVP for most of these businesses. They are all struggling with their go-to-market strategy due to a lack of funds. They are not ready for commercial funds since most of them have un-proven and untested business models without market traction.
Investor Readiness For SMEs.
In 2018, we diversified our business model with the accelerator knowing impact-centered accelerator alone won’t help us to reach our goal of creating as many investor-ready businesses as possible in Tanzania. We knew something was missing in the middle, the growth fund hence we either fix that or at least expand our scope. Our first strategic partnership on this was with Global Alliance For Improved Nutrition (GAIN) Tanzania office. We designed an investor readiness program for nutrition-sensitive SMEs called Lishe Accelerator.
We learned a lot from working with traditional SMEs through Lishe Accelerator. We learned it is easy to help SMEs to raise commercial investment than startups. They have numbers, enough traction, and proven business models ready for scaling. Our hypothesis was right 5 businesses from the 20 SMEs we accelerated in two circles managed to raise a significant amount of funding. Some of the businesses which were part of the program include; Mkuza Chicks, East Africa Fruits, AFCO Investment, Organic Food Associates (OFA), etc also some of the business are in advanced stages of discussions with investors.
Through our accelerator, we have been working with different partners especially development partners to run innovation challenges or at least strategically involved with them.
Botnar Innovation Challenge
The Botnar innovation challenge was the second challenge we did after the Mawazo Challenge. Both Botnar and Mawazo Challenge had a specific interest in health. Innovation challenges are good for sparking interest and building new communities of innovators in specific sectors. For them to have real impact there is a need to have a very strong follow-up program that ensures access to industry mentors, growth finance, and technical support. We have learned this from running more than five of them. Otherwise, 90 percent of the ideas or project emerged will die in the first 12 months. If they succeed is because they have existing internal systems and structures for growth the likes of Yapili and Dr. Elsa. They were already startup before joining the challenge.
SADC Innovation Challenge
The same lessons we have learned while running the SADC Fintech Innovation Challenge with FinMarkTrust (FMT). The winners PhemAgri and LyfPlus succeeded at the national and regional levels because they came into the challenge with a very clear goal and strategic direction. Most of those who started at the idea level struggled to catch-up with the innovation sprint program. I know others who were part of the program might succeed because of the novelty of their ideas and quality of the team but the chances of succeeding a very slim without proper support. There is a need may be to design a specific program for them if the aim is to emerge innovations and ideas. We just need to make sure they move beyond decks and cool presentation to have actual solutions.
Makers Innovation Challenge
This is our first innovation challenge, targeting makers. We are still learning. We will share the lessons after the program on what are the best ways to accelerate startups that are involved in building a gadget in the African context. I’m very excited about what will emerge from this one.
Other Innovation Challenges
We have also been involved indirectly in other innovation challenges such as WFP Innovation Challenge, MAVC Innovation Challenge, Data For Local Impact Innovation Challenge, etc. The challenge is still the same how do you ensure a proper follow on support post the challenge to ensure the intended results (impact or commercial) are being attained from the program. All programs are doing good work in sparking interest and building new communities of innovators but very few solutions continue to survive and created the intended impact. There is nothing wrong with that. We just need to create and support more sustainable solutions.
Moving Forward What’s Next
Our focus will continue to be the same zooming in more structured and strategic programs that ensures continuation. We want to be able to increase the number of solutions that getting adopted and used by consumers. That is our primary goal.
Pipeline of Value
We want to position ourselves at the growth stage of startups by working with other hubs in the ecosystem. We encourage hubs and partners to look for an investor readiness program for their entrepreneurs to contact us. We are open to partnership. We feel more value is added to the ecosystem if we work at that capacity.
All innovation challenges we are involved in will be linked with our impact-centered acceleration program to ensure further support of the ideas or projects that emerged from the challenges. We are open to partners who are open to offering growth stage financing to the ideas and projects that emerged from the challenge. It is extremely important.
Impact Versus Commercial
We will continue to work with both impact-centered and commercial-oriented business startups and social enterprises. Primarily focusing on the growth stage supporting them with investor readiness services. We are open to supporting startups and SMEs from other hubs looking to become investor-ready. We are introducing investor matchmaking services for startups with proven market traction with tested business models.
We will continue to work with traditional SMEs through our Investor Readiness Program. This program will continue throughout the year for individual SMEs and specific partner programs. We want to create as many investor-ready SMEs as possible. We are currently designing specific packages for SMEs.
Other Accelerator Programs
We will continue to work with corporate partners in our corporate-sponsored acceleration program, working with Universities in our spin-offs accelerator program and on-campus programs. Silicon Dar Startup School will continue to be a linkage between us and on-campus innovators and entrepreneurs creating a pipeline for new founders.
Funding and Mentor Networks
We are still working with our partners to address the funding and mentors gap in our ecosystem. We are glad we are moving in the right direction. Our mission is still the same to build the innovation ecosystem in Africa. We are glad to be part of Sahara Ventures.
60 percent of the startups we have seed-funded mostly impact-centered are still operational struggling to raise follow on financing due to lack of impact investors. 100 percent of SMEs we have supported are still operational 25 percent raising significant follow-on financing from commercial investors. We have run 6 accelerator circles, 5 innovation challenges, and 2 investor readiness programs.
Thanks to all those who have been working with us. It has been a challenging year but we will come out stronger. All the best to all the amazing entrepreneurs out there.