It’s been 10 years since the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (widely known as MEST), opened its doors in Accra, Ghana. Since then, the school has spawned entrepreneurs from across the continent who have made great strides in the Africa tech community; they’ve sold pioneering companies and gained international recognition for their work – a generation of educationists; social impact leaders, and innovative pioneers.
A Pan-African movement, MEST has so far invested up to $20 million through the Meltwater Foundation. Here, we catch up with the school’s Director of Investor Relations, Neku Atawodi-Edun about the Africa tech and investment landscape.
What would you advise a prospective VC fund looking to invest in Africa?
At MEST, we view investment in Africa’s entrepreneurs as a long game. Generally, investing is a long game but picking the right starting point can make all the difference. The ecosystem is still shaping up. We see investment in entrepreneurs now as more important, knowing that in the next few years the payoff will be substantial. Our aim is to build African entrepreneurs who are valuable and empowered members of the ecosystem.
What kind of technology do you think will shape Africa’s economy over the next five years?
I think access is still largely what is more important, it is still such a tiny minority of people that have access to the internet. In Nigeria, most people are not going home and spending the evening going on their computer to surf the internet. Most still do not even have electricity. So it is quite different for entrepreneurs in the UK or the US where even those who come from low income homes can still gain access to the internet. What we need to guarantee is access to the internet first. Only then can people be free to dream and create new things.
Let’s talk South Africa and Nigeria – two strong tech territories on the continent. Is there an imagined race here, or are they different in terms of strengths and opportunity?
South Africa and Nigeria are so different in terms of strengths and opportunity. All roads lead to Nigeria in terms of the numbers – over 200 million people. And yet not all those 200 million people, again, have access. South Africa is a lot more developed, while Nigeria is still very much early in its innovation game. It is unique in that you can take some technologies that might not succeed elsewhere but will succeed when replicated in the Nigerian market. It is more of a B2B market as well. Whilst South Africa is more of a B2C market because the customers are more sophisticated in their spending habits, so one can sell to them directly.
What set of circumstances would influence your decision when placing an investment in either market?
I would not invest in a new market unless the team has strong domain and market experience. The team always comes first. If the team is visionary that’s great as this helps to diversify my portfolio as an investor.
What do you think women in business need right now? Sponsorship, mentorship, training, investment… Is there room to do more in this area?
There is definitely room to do more, we haven’t scratched the surface yet. We are still educating society on what a woman can do. Women definitely need more access to finance and capacity building. Mentorship is also important; women need male and female mentors. There are a few things that you can only take to a female mentor as they have gone through similar chapters as you, and can advise you intimately. It is also important to find mentors who are at different levels; those who are early stage and a mentor who is much further – both can offer you insights at different stages. Women are naturally community driven, and more support in building up these communities needs to happen so that women can stay in entrepreneurship.
Lastly, there was a recent BBC Report which highlighted that the highest number of women-owned businesses are in Ghana. What are your general thoughts on women in tech in Africa, compared to the rest of the world?
There are challenges for women everywhere, as there are societies that are a bit more advanced than others. I have always known that women are the stronger workers so I am not surprised to hear that Ghana has the highest number of women-owned businesses. There are a lot of women who are entrepreneurs out of necessity; so that they feed their families. Women in business at all levels need to be empowered as through their experience they are learning grit, perseverance and bookkeeping. In tech in Africa, a lot of the internet currently being provided is being done so by a woman, Funke Opeke who has been the CEO of Main One, formed 10 years ago. Today, it is the leading provider of telecom services and network solutions for businesses in West Africa. We definitely need more women in tech, and most of the work needs to be done by society, being supportive of women engineers and creating these supportive communities.
Neku Atawodi Edun is the Director of Investor Relations at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology in Accra, Ghana. A successful hotel owner of the chic Bamboo Hotel and a celebrated Polo champion, Angel Investor, startup advisor and mentor to different companies across Africa. She is a partnerships maverick credited with bringing free fibre high speed internet to MEST Nigeria through their partner, Main One.