Exclusive: UpStart Africa’s Story of Success, Failure & Hope

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The founder with friends during launch
The founder with friends during launch

In June 2013, TechMoran ran a story on UpStart Africa, then a new social enterprise incubator with plans to launch Kenya’s first

reality TV show.

The reality show founded by Sankei Ole Kenga aimed at helping young entrepreneurs develop their ideas into scalable businesses. The reality show was aimed at training teams on how to form ideas, develop prototypes, market them and eventually monetise. Kenga never told us how he would monetise and we never asked him because he was running a social enterprise.

Then in October, the reality TV series began conducting auditions in Kisumu, Mombasa and Nairobi inviting creatives, developers and marketers before a team of judges. The very first episodes of this show was supposed to go live on NTV mid November.

With partners National Bank of Kenya, Tecno, venture capital investors among others Upstart Africa’s vision was to use the weekly episodes to inspire thousands of young people across the country then launch out to nurture the continents up and coming entrepreneurs.


The young talented individuals participating on the show were to make teams of three, with different skill sets that complement each other and then  work on ideas that use tech to solve real world problems. Mentors were to guide the teams along each step and a panel of VCs were to act as the elimination panel so that at the end of the day, the winning team takes home investment for their business.

This did happen Kenga tells TechMoran. The Kisumu and Mombasa auditions did happen. The Nairobi auditions took place at the Kenya National Theater. It was noble, it was brilliant and we loved it. The 25 successful youth to join the show were transported to Nairobi, housed, fed and offered mentorship. They were trained on product development, sales and marketing and on building companies. Upstart Africa also had mentors in and the camera crew shooting.

Earlier Kenga had told TechMoran, “We want to the youth to take up opportunities that abound around them instead of waiting for jobs  or the government to help them. Upstart Africa is an opportunity for the youths to get mentorship from professions in business development, marketing and product design.  It aims at supporting youth to start companies and become competitive across the continent.”

dancers at launch
dancers at launch

But months down the line, things weren’t easy.

“It immediately occurs to you that the magnanimity of the task at hand requires the fortitude of a soldier and perseverance of desert camel. Being a startup ourselves carrying out a complex project with multilevel engagements became a strenuous and extremely taxing exercise. What really compounded the pressure is the fact that everything concerning the project was time bound with a lot of expectations from various stakeholders.

Kenga  admits to the fact that the pressure to deliver the complex project on time caused a lot of strained relationships.

“Our partners especially our sponsors had a lot of expectations in regards to timelines set out in the project. We felt that we had not lived upto our partners expectations in respect to timelines. Our commitment however to deliver the show despite the challenges was unwavering,” he says.

Some of Upstart Africa employees and producers claimed they had not been paid and some claimed they had no contracts at all and everything was done informally.  Kenga in response to the allegations expressed his commitment to parties involved.

” We are very committed to our obligations and even though times have been hard everyone with a valid claim will be compensated in due course, ” Kenga asserts.

Our sources say some partners pulled out of the project, forcing the founder to look for other means of sponsorship including personal sources. According to details we managed to obtain, the founder was firm on carrying out the project despite the limitations.

1234515_622807034437640_74378802_nAccording to Kenga, issues began when his earlier producers began overcharging and not delivering. “As a start-up some contractors took advantage of our constrains. One equipment supplier  had charged upto Kshs 6,000,000 for their equipment and despite there being no filming for a substantial period of time the equipment was left to accrue charges at the  location.
Another production firm also had similar problems.  The firm asked for a 10% deposit to be paid as usually before the project begins. In two receipts, Kenga shows he paid the firm over Ksh 500,000, probably a 10% to 25% deposit required. But after that the firm was not meeting deadlines and was warned twice about the implications of doing so.
One of the emails to the producers read, “At this particular moment key deadlines have been missed that are a critical lifeline to this project. The broadcasting deadlines for flighting the show on the 10th of December has not created any sense of urgency on yyyy‘s part meaning Upstart is shouldering both the weight of asserting credibility on the competence of the production team as well as managing expectations of the internal stakeholders.
Its intrinsically clear that if drastic measures are not taken immediately, this project will run aground…..but if not am afraid we shall have no option but to discontinue this relationship.I hope i have given you a critical perspective and look forward to your response.
But being the second producer on the show, the firm had issues with footage it didn’t produce and Upstart Africa missed two critical deadlines scheduled for November. The firm found some critical issues with the footage handed over by the former producers.
In a document obtained by TechMoran, the new production firm says, “We were made to understand that the 35 hours of footage was digitized. It was not. Instead the tapes were delivers in raw format. Rather than HD footage (1080i digitally coded) it was shot on DV (on magnetic video tape) which is significantly lower in its visual and audio quality. So much so that it cannot be broadcast effectively. The Raw footage was not logged. There were no notes to explain what auditions were shot and where they were. This meant that essential footage could not be targeted without going through all 35 hours in real time! Furthermore the tapes were inadequately labeled.The sound and visual quality were poor by any standard e.g. hazy lighting, bad shadows, cluttered background and people walking across frames to say the least.To add to this, the sound files could not be matched to the video files because of the lack of professional file-naming conventions. We have unanimously agreed with camera, sound and editing departments that the above is true and verified. As a result we are unable to create a professional episode using the poor footage as per our mandate going forward. We cannot take any responsibility for the quality of footage that we have not created ourselves with our production crew.The above declaration has been copied to the production department as well as our legal department to ensure that the above is correct and verified in its entirety

Sponsors take duirng launch
Sponsors take duirng launch

After back and forth with the second producers, Kenga managed to have something tangible out and invited all key stakeholders for a screening of the 1st episode on Tuesday evening. He had worked very hard to restore faith and confidence with partners involved on the viability of the project and then things fell apart in December.

He had run critically low on funds. Some of his staff hadn’t been paid, some of his producers wanted their money cleared too. And some partners became anxious.
When TechMoran contacted some of this employees and producers. None wanted to make any comments. Some of them had moved on into other projects and just wanted to heal. Our reporters became like a nuisance, so we walked away. But we could still feel the tension in all of them, one by one, as if they had been threatened to keep quiet on the matter.
Kenga however denies any wrongdoing.
1185768_605817299469947_722220628_nSpeaking exclusively to TechMoran, he said, ” I believe in this project and it is ongoing.  This project was not for making money, it’s a social impact project to help build a different future for young people across the country.  and if I wanted to squander anyone’s money, I should not have gone ahead to have any filming or mentorship done after Decemeber. We spent all our financial resources including our own on the project.  We have been hosting the contestants at Hill View Park Hotel and the show will soon be out. Like other startups we experienced challenges, we had issues but we didn’t bow out of the journey, all we wanted was support, some partners  seemed to have developed cold feet when we asked to re-engage. We wonder who began this mudslinging campaign.”
To confirm he had been trying to re-engage his earlier backers for support early this year, Kenga forwarded us an email pasted below.
Happy new year to you.
We are in the process of realigning the production strategy for the Upstart Africa TV show and we wish to engage with your team at this planning stage.
Kindly let me know if its possible to have a meeting on Thursday 9/1/13 to discuss the aforementioned with aim of receiving input on the mechanics and branding on the show.

According to the communication, his fears about the project were not unfounded, time was not on their side.

He writes, “The imminent risk we face is that if filming does not start as soon as possible the contestants will begin to leave the house after a few days and bringing them back to Nairobi for a shoot will not be possible. The accommodation sponsorship for the contestant is time bound and it will therefore not be possible to extend the same past the agreed period which will be in the next 14 days. The filming crew must also start work otherwise they will take up other jobs. The investment and input by various stakeholders(Sponsors, mentors, Investors and contestant) will not bear the fruits intended.

The opportunity cost, of not completing this process will have unintended consequences and we wish to avert this scenario by all means possible.”

some of the contestants
some of the contestants

The concerns from some of this parties Kenga says he believes are valid but the culture of mudslinging, dream killing and character assassination is backward and completely unnecessary.” We are discouraging young entrepreneurs from venturing out to do risky ventures for fear of failing and being stigmatized for the remainder of the lives. The word perfect only exists in the oxford english dictionary. Everything and everybody else must only try”

At the moment he has got some sponsors, has hired a new crew and though TechMoran didn’t manage to get hold of any contestants, he says the first episode should be out soon, but he still needs support.

“We are a startup building other startups, and it’s challenging because we are doing it for the first time this side of Africa. The road has been tough and the climb has been steep but we did not stop the project even once, we went on got new sponsorships and we are soon to launch the first episode,” he concludes.

You can watch raw footage here but not for distribution.

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