Passion and purpose: a snapshot of the startup ecosystem of Accra

The book ‘Startup Guide Accra’ covers emerging startups, accelerators, investors, and support institutes in Ghana. Here are some founder and enabler insights.
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Launched in 2012, YourStory's Book Review section features over 310 titles on creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and digital transformation. See also our related columns The Turning Point, Techie Tuesdays, and Storybites.

The Startup Guide series of books, launched in 2014 by Copenhagen-based publisher Sissel Hansen, covers over 40 cities around the world. See our reviews of the guidebooks for New York, Berlin, Zurich, Paris, Barcelona, Stockholm, Johannesburg, Cairo, Nairobi, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Singapore.

Startup Guide Accra is spread across 170 pages and makes for an informative and inspiring read, with profiles of founders, co-working spaces, incubators, and other ecosystem players. The whole book series is insightful, superbly illustrated, and well-designed.

“Accra has been a busy international trading point for centuries, and, more recently, it has evolved into a West African hub for startups,” Sissel Hansen begins. Growth industries include education, health and agriculture, and there is a diverse cultural scene with energetic nightlife as well.

“Accra has always been a city of positive change. Its history includes nonviolent revolution and a peaceful shift from dictatorship to multiparty democracy,” explains Richard Yeboah, Project Director, Ghana Innovation Hub (GIH), the community partner for the book. GIH runs the #innov8GH Incubation Programme.

Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country in colonial Africa to gain independence from colonial rule. Around 57 percent of the population is under the age of 25.

Notable startups include Farmerline (agritech), Asoriba (management software for churches), and SnooCode (using GPS to formalise the address system).

Overview

Accra has a population of 2.5 million, with a relatively well-developed infrastructure. It is a diverse startup hub with a mix of local creative professionals, diaspora returnees, and international entrepreneurs.

One section of the book provides an overview of the city’s overall business environment, such as official language (English), local languages (80, eg. Twi, Ga, Hausa), business culture (relaxed, sometimes running late), people (friendly, respectful of elders, religious), groceries (cheaper in local open-air markets), internet service (data can be expensive), and transportation (bus, shared tro-tro minivans, taxi apps).

I. Startup profiles

One section of the book profiles nine startups based in Accra, with inspiring origin stories and business descriptions. They include Solar Taxi, which provides a range of locally assembled solar-powered electric vehicles, along with solar-powered charging stations.

Redbird Health Tech leverages a network of pharmacies to offer diagnostic testing for hypertension and diabetes. Health Direct Global was launched in 2018 as a subscription service for patients and healthcare providers. There are also options for financing healthcare.

Chalkboard Education is a platform for tertiary-level educational content, with some SMS features as well. eCampus offers learning materials up to tertiary education levels, as well as tools for students to test their own exam preparedness.

Eazz Foods sources eggs from female smallholder poultry farmers, and processes them into high-protein products like powders. West African Feeds converts organic waste into bio-products like vermicompost and feed for chicken, by using tropical insects.

Eazywaste Ghana educates households on how to manage their waste and recycling. It also runs community recycling centres, and sorted plastic is sold to manufacturing plants.

Kawa Moka is a women-owned coffee startup that empowers women and also nurtures a coffee culture.

Many of the founders benefited from competitions, awards and support organisations like Mastercard Foundation, UNICEF Startup Lab, Tony Elumelu Foundation, and Skoll Venture Awards.

II. Startup ecosystem

One section of the book profiles seven entrepreneurship support organisations, ranging from incubators to accelerators.

For example, #Innov8GH is a three-month incubation initiative of the Ghana Innovation Hub. Innohub is a business accelerator and impact investment platform supported by the British Council and GIZ.

Founded in 2016, the Ghana Climate Innovation Centre (GCIC) supports SMEs offering climate-smart products, processes and services. Incubator and accelerator support span energy, climate-smart agriculture, waste management, and water management.

Supported startups include BioGreen Energy (ethanol fuel) and Black Star Energy (solar-powered minigrids). GCIC offers the Women Entrepreneurs’ Transformation Project as well.

Launched by oil and gas company Kosmos Energy, the Kosmos Innovation Center (KIC) is a social investment programme running the annual AgriTech Challenge competition, business bootcamp, and incubator. Supported startups include TroTro Tractor (on-demand equipment), Kwidex (crowdfunding for farmers), and TechShelta (greenhouse automation).

Founded in 2008, MEST is an entrepreneurial training school with four hubs in Africa. It was established by Jørn Lyseggen, a Norwegian social entrepreneur and founder of the online media monitoring company Meltwater. Supported startups include MeQasa (real estate portal), Kudobuzz (advertising and marketing), Amplify (fintech), and Jumeni (field management).

Orange Corners, managed by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, runs a six-month accelerator programme and the Orange Corners Innovation Fund. Stanbic Business Incubator is an initiative of Stanbic Bank Ghana; it also runs the Twitter chat #SBChat on Fridays.

Managers of these institutes offer several tips for founders, ranging from mindset to market share. Aspiring founders need to be committed to their idea, and solve a necessary problem by showing tangible results.

They should demonstrate leadership, ethics, and resilience. Founders should be good communicators, and have an appetite for growth.

III. Co-working spaces

Accra has a number of co-working spaces, six of which are profiled in the book – such as Impact Hub Accra, iSpace Foundation, and Kukun.

Ghana Innovation Hub (GIH) was set up by a group of partners under the eTransform programme of the Ministry of Communications. Ghana Tech Lab offers a ‘makerspace’ for hardware prototyping.

This section also profiles the “Face of the Space” in these organisations. For example, Sunita Kragbe has a background in advertising and design, and combined her love of spaces and the creative arts to found BaseCamp Initiative in 2018.

Jorge Appiah, Co-founder of Ghana Tech Lab, is also the co-founder of a transportation startup. Josiah Kwesi Eyison, Co-founder and CEO of the iSpace Foundation, was earlier Business Development Director at Learning Without Frontiers.

IV. Expert insights

One section of the book provides tips from two experts, covering tech strategy and hiring approaches.

“Talent is everywhere, but opportunity isn’t,” explains Ashwin Ravichandran, Managing Director, MEST. He advises founders to pay special attention to their first hires. “Understand what motivates them. They’ll be spending time, sweat and money on your business,” he advises.

Founders should also understand the RoI needs of their investors, and educate them about the market.

“Tactics such as discounts and promotions may boost numbers in the short-term, but they aren’t sustainable long-term strategies,” cautions Titilayo Adewumi, Regional Sales Director, West Africa, SAP.

Founders should clearly map out their customer journeys and brand interactions, and learn more through active listening and empathy. “Personalising the customer experience improves retention and loyalty, and more importantly, builds trust with your customers,” she adds.

Care should be taken to nurture a good company culture. Happy and satisfied employees are good marketers for the company as well.

V. Founder advice

The book features interviews with founders of five startups. The profiled founders trace their entrepreneurial journeys, lessons learnt, and tips for the next wave of aspiring entrepreneurs.

Alexander Quaisie founded Verifie Health to provide education and stigma-free sexual health testing. Its network of health-service providers aims to change the narrative around sexual health. It runs in-person testing and educational events, as well as an app.

“Addressing the problem gives you a sense of fulfilment that pushes you on to do more, and in the end, it’ll provide that financial gain you were looking for,” Alexander advises.

Along the way, there are lessons on the importance of letting employees go who are not aligned with the culture. Founders should reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to learn via signing up with an incubator.

Farida Bedwei co-founded Logiciel, a software company that promotes financial inclusion via IT services for microfinance institutions. She also partnered with the Ghana Association of Microfinance Companies and Micro-Credit Association Ghana.

There were also lessons on how not to take contracts just for the sake of the money, if they are not aligned with the business model. Regulatory shifts and moves can also alter the industry overnight.

“The frustrations and disappointments that come with entrepreneurship can break you,” she cautions. But the desire to make an impact spurs founders.

Josiah Kwesi Eyison launched iSpace Foundation to train aspiring entrepreneurs, including the underprivileged. It charges space utilisation fees only after they start generating revenue.

The lessons learnt were the importance of creating a whole support ecosystem, when conditions like mentorship and even connectivity and electricity were not as stable as in other African hubs.

Team members are chosen based on passion and willingness to learn. “Now, with the COVID-19 lockdown, we have a ten-press-up challenge. Every morning, you have to post a video of you doing ten press-ups,” Tony explains. This helps improve physical and mental health, and tackle the challenges of being disconnected from one another.

“Look at your problem like a huge problem, then unpack it into pieces. You also have to learn from competitors and mentors,” Tony advises.

“If you operate in an environment where there are no competitors, you should be worried, because that means that your idea is too far ahead of its time,” he cautions. “Once you add value, people will pay for it,” he adds.

Lady-Omega Naa Adei Hammond founded the tech consultancy Ampersand Technologies to offer clients engaging mobile experiences. There were lessons on how to manage finances, grow skillsets for scale, and overcome the fear of experimentation.

Co-founders and teams need to develop effective communication. “You also want to look out for how potential team members learn and grow – that’s sometimes not so easy to tell from the beginning,” she cautions.

The company’s regular rituals include morning sharing of scriptures, and “stand-ups” where team members share progress and challenges of the previous day, and future goals.

“You are what you envision. You should continue to invest in yourself and your knowledge base,” Lady-Omega affirms.

Many of the founders appreciate Accra as a startup hub due to the growth of the ecosystem, the rise of incubators, and mechanisms to deal with infrastructure challenges and bureaucracy. The popularity of mobile money bodes well for fintechs as well, but more could be done to make support services like accounting and legal services more affordable.

The founders also share the most valuable piece of advice that they have been given: Mistakes are part of the process, but make sure you learn from them. Remove the words “I can’t” from your vocabulary. Be humble, but also know when to speak up.

VI. Schools

One section of the book profiles five entrepreneurship programmes of the city’s universities, as well as a growing crop of entrepreneurship support programmes. For example, Codetrain offers one-year courses in mobile-app and web development, and runs a mentoring programme called Magic.

University of Ghana Business School (UGBS) runs an incubation and innovation hub. Ashesi University launched the Ashesi Venture Incubator in 2019. Other programmers are offered by Ghana Technology University College (GTUC) and University of Professional Studies, Accra.

Advice for aspiring founders given by programme heads of these schools includes the importance of proficiency in academic and extra-curricular activities.

Aspiring founders should show passion for contributing to the development of society, and willingness to tackle big challenges. They should be committed to helping others, while also taking feedback on improving themselves.

They should be positive, disciplined, and growth-oriented, and dare to dream. They should be good at spotting opportunities, and have commitment and ethics in the journey.

VII. Investors

The last section of the book profiles four investing firms, along with sample portfolios and advice for founders. For example, Root Capital, founded by journalist-entrepreneur Willy Foote, supports rural and agricultural businesses.

Acumen West Africa covers Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. With a focus on agriculture and renewable energy, it has invested in Farmers Hope (organic fertiliser) and Easy Solar (off-grid energy).

Venture Capital Trust Fund (VCTF), is a government-backed fund of funds, and has invested in Activity Venture Finance Company, Ebankese Venture Fund, Oasis Africa Fund, Bedrock Venture Capital Finance Company, Gold Venture Capital, and Fidelity Equity Fund II. It also established the Ghana Angel Investors Network (GAIN) in 2011.

Wangara Green Ventures, an impact investment firm for green businesses, has supported companies like Cleanearth Scientific, a water-services business.

The investors offer a range of tips for founders. Differentiate from other players. Do your research. Demonstrate equitable practices.

Founders should know their limitations and build a team that fills these gaps. They should build ecosystem relationships, and aim for long-term growth. Traction should be demonstrated, along with the commitment to good corporate governance.

The book ends with a glossary of terms and a directory of useful resources for startups, such as investors, meetups groups and events. For example, forums and events include Accra Accueil, Accragio, Ahaspora, African Youth SDGs Summit, Ghana International Trade Fair, Ghana CEO Summit, and Ghana Tech Summit.

In sum, the book provides informative and actionable insights into Accra’s startup ecosystem, as well as a useful framework for other cities to reflect on and improve their own startup ecosystems.

YourStory has also published the pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups’ as a creative and motivational guide for innovators (downloadable as apps here: Apple, Android).

Edited by Kanishk Singh