Talent, Infrastructure and Capital in Startupland

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

by Silumesii Maboshe


Welcome to part three of my five-part series of articles looking at the big ideas I got after watching the pilot episode of Startupland. The stage is set, the actors have been introduced and now we can go in to some of the important issues that come up in their conversations. In some areas Zambia is making fast progress. In others we are not. Let’s boldly go and look at …

The Building Blocks of Startupland

Talent

Entrepreneurship is about teachers, doctors, politicians, artists, musicians, accountants, programmers, maids, pilots, lawyers, farmers, miners, architects, engineers, … all doing their part and purposefully finding a way to do it better. It is about people. I do not know where talent comes from. I do know that it is a prime responsibility of a nation and its citizens to find their own talents and exploit them to the full.

The education system is the most conventional way to explore talent. Unfortunately, our education system tends to push people towards “respectable” careers rather than towards those in which an individual is gifted. As a side-effect, our education prepares us to be employees and not entrepreneurs. I am convinced that if one is allowed to work within their talent or gifting, they will be more likely to be entrepreneurial. Connecting with talent naturally allows one to choose to do better at it. That continuous desire for improvement is the signature of entrepreneurship. World change starts with self-change. One who simply follows is less likely to desire change. One who leads, even if it’s just themselves, is a world-changer at the core.

At the apex of the education system is the University. In our case, UNZA, the University of Zambia. In many respects, UNZA is doing a commendable job of preparing and inspiring new talent. However, the University was never designed for the numbers of students who currently attend it. New universities and colleges are sprouting around the country but there are still too many students for the number of places available. Sadly, the breadth of what a student can study is limited as well.

For those that choose to study a tech-related field, they graduate with knowledge that is lacking or no longer industry relevant. These are huge problems but also tremendous opportunities.

In Zambia, Lusaka is unique in that you have every kind of educational institution in the city. This lends itself to potentially becoming a rich pool for the nation’s talent. On the flip-side of that, we run the risk of all of our talent coming from the same source. Diversity is necessary too.

If our country is to be a contender in the startup landscape, we will quickly need to address the challenges to finding and attracting talent. A critical focus being fixing our education system.

Kevin Hartz of EventBrite and Xoom. Image © Startupland 2014.

You need all these different, critical features … strong Universities and so on to get all these ingredients of success together.

Kevin Hartz, EventBrite / Xoom

Infrastructure

Talent follows infrastructure. I don’t know why it happens. It just does. I think infrastructure is one of those things that is either there or it isn’t. The quality and stability of the nation’s infrastructure will determine the growth and effectiveness of its startups.

Infrastructure can take many forms. We think of it as roads, electricity supply and buildings. It has effects in politics, law and the economy. We can think of a country as being stable when we can predictably expect a desired outcome given an input. Infrastructure has broad implications that can be experienced in day-to-day life.

As illustrations; If I deposit a cheque in a bank one day, I should expect to be able to withdraw from that deposit two business days later. If I buy units for electricity tonight for the month, I expect to have uninterrupted supply for the whole month. If I board a bus whose conductor says is going to Kulima Tower, I expect to get to that destination. If I participate in a constitution creation process, I can expect to have a constitution.

Zambians are well aware of the challenges in our infrastructure. We don’t always get what is communicated or expected. This makes it unpredictable to do business here. It can be frustrating, to put it mildly.

A key reason why stability and predictability matter is because this allows us to measure things. This is the information that allows a business to determine, without bias, if things are going well or poorly. This is a fundamental idea. It is also one of the reasons why money is so useful. Money allows us to normalise the playing field when talking about things. However, money is not always the most useful way to talk about things for example; How are we doing on quality of service or satisfaction? What is the user experience of our product? What is our average turnaround from identifying to fixing a problem? What is the effect of adding this feature to our product?

Built on the right infrastructure, technology can start to iron out challenges of unpredictability and do so very efficiently. However, technology is not a band aid for poor fundamentals.

Amy Millman of Springboard Enterprises. Image © Startupland 2014.

It doesn’t matter what the product or service is, that it’s … based on a technology … enables it to scale or to do it better, faster, cheaper.

Amy Millman, Springboard Enterprises

Capital

Every entrepreneur I know would simply like more money. I often think the same but remember the words of my Pastor, “The fool says, ‘All I need is more money’ while the wise person says, ‘All I need is more wisdom’”. Easier said than done! The machine that Silicon Valley has built that allows startups to access capital is unparalleled. Conversely, access to capital is the biggest hurdle to a vital Zambian startup ecosystem. Thankfully, this is starting to be addressed.

During the conversations after the screening of Startupland at BongoHive, the question of how a startup can access capital was the most commonly discussed. To paraphrase Simunza Muyangana, “Zambians will traditionally use the 3Fs for capital; Friends, Family and Fools”. There simply isn’t any realistic alternative for a small business to access capital. Banks consider the sector as too high-risk.

We are, finally, starting to see some innovation in the space. Only two years ago, there were no real players in Zambia. Today, we have:

Kukula Capital

Kukula Capital

Meanwood Venture Capital

Meanwood Venture Capital

The Awesome Foundation Chapter in Lusaka

The Awesome Foundation Chapter in Lusaka

Chris Heivly of MapQuest / The Startup Factory. Image © Startupland 2014.

The phrase we’ve used is, “the democratisation of capital” and though the Valley certainly has an unbelievable network and it’s very connected and very well oiled, there’s just no reason why things can’t happen in … tier-two communities …

Chris Heivly, MapQuest / The Startup Factory

A repetition is necessary here. It’s possible that you don’t simply need more money right now. Having more money does not mean you’ll do better business. In fact, we’ve all seen Zambian companies that collapsed because of too much money. What we need more than more capital is more wisdom to plan for and use that capital well.


When Our Powers Combine

There are so many challenges on the road ahead to creating Startupland here in Zambia. I choose to see how these can be turned in to opportunities. We are at an exciting and important point in history. I hope we find the wisdom to make decisions that will have long-term benefit. Our forefathers did their part. Now it’s our turn.