By Eric Osiakwan
In 2002, I co-founded the Ghana New Ventures Competition (GNVC) with four Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students. Mawuli Tse introduced his fellow MIT colleagues Victor Mallet, Baafour Asiamah-Adjei, Kojo Hesse and William Tetteh, who were running the MIT $50K competition and wanted to bring it to Africa. In collaboration with this dynamic Group of Four, we launched GNVC, the first business plan competition in Ghana, inspired by the MIT $50K model. The GNVC deal comprised a three-month process of vetting competitive African startup candidates, with the winner taking home a $1,000 seed capital. In two years, we invested in three winners and contributed to the acceleration of thirty businesses that went through the program. G. Paschal Zachary characterized it as an “entrepreneurial movement” in Black Star: Ghana, information technology and development in Africa.
Alex Bram and Ernest Apenteng, founders of Hubtel, who were final year students at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) at the time, participated in the three-month GNVC acceleration program, instead of going to Europe in search of job opportunities, which was the in thing for many young Africans. After going through the program, Alex and Ernest, two of Africa’s most successful ecommerce entrepreneurs, asserted “we discovered we were entrepreneurs during the program”. The company they started during the competition did not work out but right after graduation, they set up SMSGH, an SMS messaging company in 2005. The firm became profitable in the third year, courtesy of “applying what we learnt at the GNVC program”. Alex and Ernest invited me to be an advisor because they knew me and my expertise in tech since the company specialized in SMS technology deployment. I helped them to scale the company into Nigeria, Kenya and Cameroon. I also brought Steve Case to see the company when he visited Ghana in 2015.
SMSGH changed their business model based on what the market was telling them and rebranded into Hubtel, an “Alibaba model for Africa,” an e-commerce and payment platform that enables micro, small and medium enterprises get online to trade. My relationship with and investment in these amazing founders who have built one of the most successful tech startups in Ghana evolved over more than 10 years. My unconventional path is not unfamiliar to the practice of backing early-stage tech ventures. Some investors make many mistakes, sometimes about ten investments before they get one right. On the contrary, my approach produced an outlier in the most unconventional way which suggests my approach may probably be one way to invest in potentially disruptive startups in Africa. And with practice, I may be able to evolve an African Angel investing model.
Esther Dyson supported the GNVC program and been a good friend dating back to 2002 when we met at BusyInternet, an incubator that provided co-working space, in Accra. Esther was leading the first ICANN meeting in Ghana; she also joined a break out session with a delegation from the Berkman Centre at Harvard Law School, whom we hosted at BusyInternet for over a week. She would later join the advisory board of Chanzo Capital, an investment firm I founded in 2014 for most of my investments. I have helped Esther assess angel investments in African tech ventures and she was the keynote at our annual Angel fair Africa in Abidjan, Cote d”Ivoire in 2017.
Angel Fair Africa (AfA) is the flagship angel investing event I co-founded in September 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa after Andile Ngcaba, myself and 26 entrepreneurs launched Angel Africa List (AAL) in East London, South Africa at the annual InfoDEV (World Bank) innovation summit, as the first angel investing network in Africa in May 2013. A few months later, on 26th September 2013, the Angel Africa List gave birth to Angel Fair Africa at the Sandton Convention Centre, where 25 entrepreneurs pitched to a room of 42 investors with three deals happening on the spot. Russell Southwood, a British telecoms, Internet and media analyst and the CEO of Balancing Act, characterized the event as “Angels over Johannesburg”.
AfA has since traveled the continent of Africa making stops at Nigeria in 2014, Ghana in 2015, Kenya in 2016, Cote d”IVOIRE in 2017, Tanzania in 2018, Mozambique in 2019 and due to COVID virtually in Senegal in 2020. The event is back in East London, South Africa from November 29th to December 1st, 2023 for its 10th anniversary, so I encourage you to mark your calendar for what would be the best in-class celebration of the “Triumph of Entrepreneurship in Africa”.