Led by serial entrepreneur Jorn Lyseggen, Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), is a Pan-African entrepreneurial training program, seed fund, and incubator that was created for the purpose of realizing talent and merging it with opportunity. MEST has been the backbone of a number of world-class African tech and software companies – Kudobuzz, meQasa and Tress. Also leading the pack with inspiring examples of African startup exits such as medical claim handling company ClaimSync (acquired by Netherlands-based GenKey) and mobile chat app Saya Mobile (acquired by US-based multinational Kirusa).
Headquartered in Accra, Ghana, MEST has so far invested $20 million since opening its doors in 2008 to aspiring African entrepreneurs and has gone on to recruit talent from not only Ghana, but Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Cote D’ivoire. MEST currently has a footprint in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, and is in the process of opening physical incubator spaces in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.
I spoke to former Managing Partner of NEST.vc, Aaron Fu who has recently been appointed as the New Managing Director of MEST on the firm’s plans for expansion and the effect this will have on the tech startup landscape in Africa.
MEST has been working with and investing in entrepreneurs in Ghana for a number of years, tell us a little more about what the program does.
Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) is a Pan-African technology and entrepreneurial training program, seed fund and incubator, building world-class, globally successful tech companies. We’re headquartered in Accra, Ghana and have what we refer to as ‘Entrepreneurs in Training’ (EITs) from Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire and Zimbabwe. We receive thousands of applications a year, and the most promising candidates are hand-selected to form a 60-person cohort and brought to Accra for an intensive one-year training program. Over the course of the twelve months, EITs form teams, come up with ideas, validate them in the market and pitch them to our board. The final examination is an investment pitch for funding. The most promising teams receive seed funding to help launch their businesses, and enter the MEST incubator where they continue to receive mentorship and support. We are thrilled that MEST is truly developing into a Pan-African (and global) program. We’re extremely proud of our cohorts and their successes. Some of our companies that have made significant strides include Asoriba, MeQasa, Tress and Kudobuzz.
You’ve worked in the VC and entrepreneurial space in Africa for some time – give us a little more background about your time working on the continent and also, how the market has changed.
I’ve had extensive experience working in the African technology, investment and startup landscapes as well as with investment firms and startups in traditional corporate roles. I’ve worked with organisations including Standard Chartered Bank and Societe Generale, throughout Asia, Europe, Australia and Africa. In terms of my experiences specific to Africa, I’ve spent a lot of time in East Africa and South Africa leading the African arm of VC Nest, and built platforms with the support of innovative companies like Visa, MTN, World Bank and Barclays.
It’s been exciting to be a part of the evolution of the tech startup ecosystem in Africa, and over the most recent 2 years I’ve been particularly glad to see the rise of 2 key trends. First, hubs and accelerators in Africa have been actively reevaluating their business models and relaunching much more focused and targeted programs, Kenya’s iHub relaunch earlier this year and Nigerian CcHub’s recent PitchDrive in Europe are examples of this. Second, there has been an increasing focus on providing support to later stage startups (some refer to them as scale-ups) like the World Bank’s XL Africa Accelerator to ensure momentum from seed to series A and B continues.
Having had a successful career at Nest VC, why have you chosen to join MEST at this time?
I’m thrilled to join an organisation like MEST with a team that’s making such incredible strides on the continent. Following MEST’s journey, it has been amazing to witness how truly Pan-African in nature they have become, as evidenced by the diverse community they’ve built in Accra. There has been a concerted and steady shift in focus from a purely Ghana-based program to a more inclusive Pan-African one. I’m excited to think about how we can continue this journey and push out this expansion to the rest of the continent. Having been both an entrepreneur and investor, I believe in taking a founder-first approach to scaling startups. I look forward to leading MEST and taking its already substantial impact to the next level as we continue to forge strong roots and establish incubators in major cities across the continent. Apart from Ghana, we currently have a footprint in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. This year the program also welcomed its first Francophone entrepreneurs from Côte d’Ivoire.
My experience with investing and running corporate accelerators in Africa has also led me to want to have an impact further upstream in the startup cycle, working with founders before they form ideas and teams, working with startups before they join accelerators. Towards this I will continue to work very closely with the investor and accelerator communities to collaborate in supporting the next generation of African startups at all stages of their journey, as they start, find product market fit, and scale.
It is well documented that MEST Founder and CEO Jorn Lyseggen is passionate about providing opportunity to untapped tech talent on the continent. How do you see yourself contributing to Jorn’s vision and MEST’s onward journey?
Jorn is a visionary and founded MEST on the notion that there is a great pool of talent on the continent, but unfortunately opportunity and access to funding and mentorship is lacking. I share his enthusiasm, drive and belief that with the correct support and guidance it is 100% possible for the next Facebook or Google to come from anywhere in the world – and why not Africa? I look forward to playing a part in deepening and broadening MEST’s presence across key regions of the continent, while expanding our network in Africa and across the globe. The idea is to make it easy for our entrepreneurs to launch their businesses in their home countries or seamlessly expand into new markets as they begin to grow.
Talk me through how MEST operates. When seeking out partnerships and investors, what type of companies do you attract?
As stated, we go through thousands of applications each year to pick out what we feel will be most promising EITs with potential to create successful and sustainable companies. Teams complete an intensive year-long program, learning business, technology and communications, while forming teams, validating ideas and building companies. They pitch ideas 3-4 times throughout the year, and the final exam is to deliver an investment pitch. Successful teams receive capital to launch their businesses and enter the MEST incubator, where they will receive continued support and mentorship.
MEST is unique in that we not only provide training in software development (core programming languages, internet and mobile applications etc.), we also provide training on business and entrepreneurship (strategy and marketing, business plan development, finance and accounting, lean startup methodology etc.) and offer entrepreneurs access to funding. Additionally, our entrepreneurs don’t enter the program with an idea or team already formed – they have the space to test out 3-4 different teams and ideas throughout the year so they can find what works best for them.
In terms of our investors and corporate partnerships, we take pride in carefully selecting strategic partners who will help us better support our entrepreneurs in reaching their full potential. The companies we chose to partner with have a shared interest in boosting the African tech ecosystem as a means of fostering economic growth in individual countries and on the continent. To date, we’ve been fortunate to work with the likes of Vodafone, Samsung Business, Kosmos Energy, Interswitch, Internet.org, SAP, Stripe and Amazon Web Services. We are currently pursuing further corporate and brand partnerships that will provide additional resources and support for our entrepreneurs as they grow and scale.
What are your hopes for the tech entrepreneurial landscape in Africa over the next few years?
My wishlist for the tech startup landscape in Africa in the next few years has to start with some significant exits. The good news is we’re well on our way this year, already seeing both Kenya’s Twiga (a B2B commerce and logistics platform) and Nigeria’s Flutterwave (a Pan-African payments platform) raise more than $10m in a single round. Substantial exits will first create rockstar role models, figures of success the next generation can be inspired by, and second, it will unlock capital both locally and globally as the pathway to returns for tech investors becomes proven and clear.
My second wish is for more founders in Africa to continue to keep a razor sharp focus on building businesses, not apps. Like the entrepreneurs I have the privilege of working with, I share fascination and enthusiasm at the tremendous and exciting new technologies they have at their disposal, the desire to just explore, test and experiment with the possibilities of the technology is tough to resist for sure. But a tech startup I believe needs to be about business first and technology second. For us as an ecosystem, to achieve the exits we want, we need to channel and focus these energies of experimentation to key customer problems and build robust, localized business models around technology.
My last wish, if you’ll indulge me, is really that the landscape becomes a much more collaborative and interconnected one. By collaboration I mean local startups sharing knowledge around customer acquisition and ESOP structuring, with hubs and ecosystems across Africa regularly collaborating to share opportunities. By interconnectivity I mean where more entrepreneurs in South Africa actively look at Ghana as an expansion opportunity ahead of Europe, and more entrepreneurs in Ghana look at South Africa as a base for their engineering team ahead of India. Obviously we are proud of the global reach many MEST startups have already achieved, but there’s so much opportunity for markets and resources right here in Africa which have often been overlooked.