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PART II The Solution 101 SEVEN It Takes an Ecosystem LIBERATION ROAD AND ALUGUNTUGUI Street don’t intersect with U.S. Route 101 or Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley. But if you find yourself in Accra, Ghana, take Liberation from the center of town and make your way to Aluguntugui. There, in the ’burbs of one of West Africa’s important coastal cities, you will find the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), nurturer of some of Africa’s most promising tech startups. In just a few years of operation, MEST and the entrepreneurs working behind its blue compound walls have launched a bevy of software startups that are attracting attention and markets beyond Ghana and beyond Africa. They include: Dropifi, a customer engagement platform that became the first African company to join angel investor Dave McClure’s 500 Startups accelerator program; ClaimSync, an electronic health records service that was acquired by a Dutch biometrics firm in 2013; Saya, an instant messaging and Internet service for dumb phones that was the first African company to pitch at TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield and was acquired by American mobile app company Kirusa in 2014; RetailTower, a preferred solutions provider for Amazon product ads; several other ventures that have won competitions and accolades from big entrepreneurship names like Google, Startup Weekend, and DEMO Africa. Media outlets like CNN, The Guardian, and Forbes have written about MEST, and—in that most ultimate of honors—the campus has hosted none other than Bono (and on 102 PEACE THROUGH ENTREPRENEURSHIP a separate, less glamorous occasion, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker).1 Before MEST’s founding in 2008, Ghanaian tech entrepreneurs were not pitching in Brazil, making splashes in Silicon Valley, getting acquired by European and American companies, or garnering global headlines. Accra would never be considered a place to look for promising tech companies . Yes, Ghana as a whole is known as a standout in Africa on some measures: free-and-fair elections, a fast-growing economy, a strong soccer team known for eliminating the U.S. team from the World Cup in 2006 and 2010. But none of this added up to a reputation as the “Silicon Valley of Africa.” Ghana is a poor country. Its university graduates have a terrible time finding work and are often resigned to the informal sector. By some estimates, only 2 percent of the quarter million young people entering Ghana’s labor market each year find a job.2 Electricity can be unreliable and bandwidth not always wide; these are nonstarters for the information and communications technology (ICT) crowd. Angel investors are practically nonexistent. Even if a bank gave you a loan for a startup, which they likely would not, that money would come with a 20 percent interest rate.3 Launching a startup is never easy. In Ghana the odds against success are stacked even higher. Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, products of ideal ecosystems, would have had a hard time launching Apple or Facebook in Accra. So what is it with these MEST entrepreneurs? How do they do it? Accra may not be a destination for techies, and it may not have Stanford or U.C.-Berkeley, venture capital (VC) firms, world-class national laboratories , or cool shared workspaces with blazing Wi-Fi. But MEST can replicate that environment on a small scale. MEST is a training ground, an incubator, a seed fund, and a “center of gravity” for entrepreneurship wrapped into one. It is the brainchild of Jorn Lyseggen, born in Korea and adopted by a Norwegian family as an infant. Lyseggen grew up on a farm, became a successful repeat entrepreneur, and decided a way to give back—as well as find the next great thing—would be to search the developing world on a one-man mission to build a selfcontained entrepreneurship ecosystem. Ghana, politically stable, Englishspeaking , and conveniently located in the GMT time zone, caught his eye and he founded MEST in 2008. Each year MEST scours Ghana for twenty-five university graduates/ aspiring entrepreneurs willing to devote two years to intensive software and business courses. At the end of that two-year training program, effectively IT TAKES AN ECOSYSTEM 103 a specialized MBA, these entrepreneurs-in-training (EITs) form startups and pitch the MEST brass for selection into the in-house incubator. In its first five years MEST invested over $1.5 million in sixteen companies founded by its students. During training and after graduating to the incubator, MEST’s...


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