April 2, 2021

How Afrika Startup Lab is Empowering African Entrepreneurs Through Mentorship

by:
Boum III Jr, co-founder of Afrika Startup Lab is giving free mentorship to African entrepreneurs with traditional and non-traditional businesses.
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When faced with uncertainty, successful entrepreneurs find ways to minimize their risk exposure. They don’t leave the future up to chance or luck.

A well-known statistic in business is that 50 percent of new businesses don’t survive five years. Not as popular, but a far more important one is that 70 percent of mentored businesses survive longer than five years.

Evident in the data, mentors increase an entrepreneur’s chances of success. More than a title, mentors can answer questions, provide industry-specific insight, act as a sounding board for business strategy, and offer valuable business connections. 

With difficult times upon us, mentors can also help their mentees navigate challenging times and carve out a pathway to success. Recognizing that an entrepreneur’s chances of success are amplified by having access to the right mentor and support system, Boum III Jr and Anthony Miclet co-founded Afrika Startup Lab to rise to the occasion and provide 100% free mentorship to traditional and non-traditional African entrepreneurs. 

A vision that goes beyond mentoring, Afrika Startup Lab’s mission is to empower entrepreneurs solving Africa’s biggest challenges by helping them bridge the information, resource, and financing gap. 

I spoke with Boum III Jr, co-founder of Afrika Startup Lab, about what led him to create the mentorship platform, how they are serving African entrepreneurs, and what Built In Africa means to him. 

Meet Boum

I’m from Cameroon, and I’m the co-founder of Afrika Startup Lab and currently a second-year MBA candidate at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

I lived in Germany growing up and moved back to Cameroon for a secondary school. After high school, I attended an American university in Cameroon, where I studied computer science. While in school, I did an exchange program that led me to complete my degree here in the US. 

After graduating, I worked for eVestment, a Nasdaq company, in the private markets department as a fintech software engineer. While at Nasdaq, I started a travel lodging platform that offered hotel-style stays in apartment communities and private homes for business travelers. 

I ran that business for three and a half years. During the first two years, I grew it to a million dollars in annual recurring revenue and hosted about 7,000 customers across a portfolio of 20 properties. Early 2020 we started raising our seed round, and then COVID hit.

How did your journey lead you to create Afrika Startup Lab?

I am an entrepreneur at heart, and I’ve always been passionate about Africa. Afrika Startup Lab began as a passion project born out of COVID. As I mentioned, I was building my travel lodging business, and during that time, I stopped being as involved in the African entrepreneurial community.

After being in crisis mode for a couple of months and stabilizing the business, by May 2020, I had a little bit of mental capacity, so I reached out to my network of entrepreneurs in Africa.

I said, “This pandemic has done one of two things. Either it has decimated your business, and you need to build resilience to weather the storm, or it has presented an opportunity for you, and you need to figure out how to take advantage of it. If you need to think it through or exchange ideas and want someone to be a sounding board, reach out.” 

I did so with quite a few teams and entrepreneurs for two to three months. Then in July, I reconnected with my now co-founder of Afrika Startup Lab, who was mentoring project managers in Nigeria, and we decided to bring our initiatives under one hat. 

We both had a network of friends who attend great business schools who, before b-school, worked at innovative companies in prominent positions. They all had sector-specific experience or domain expertise that entrepreneurs could use. 

We gathered ten people willing to give 30 minutes per week to hold a one-on-one mentor session and launched Afrika Startup Lab. Our goal was to help 300 entrepreneurs before the end of the year. With five months left, it seemed doable. We made a post about the platform on LinkedIn, and it went viral, and in that first month, over 300 entrepreneurs signed up.

What have you learned about African entrepreneurs?  

To date, about 500 entrepreneurs have signed up on our platform, and we’ve conducted about 120 introductory mentorship sessions. Ninety percent of the companies are early-stage, and one of our main observations is that a considerable number of them lack information and the requisite overall business understanding necessary to grow their ventures further and unlock capital.

They either have ideas they want to validate or business opportunities they’re struggling to figure out how to pursue. Many have intuition, zeal, and a grasp of their business problem; But often lack understanding of the business landscape, their competition, and the forces that govern the industry they’re trying to offer a solution in. 

Also, many say, “we need money.” But when we start asking certain questions, they realize they still need to do some homework and cover some bases before being investment-ready.

There were also some advanced entrepreneurs, who were trying to get over a hump, maybe get a pitch ready, land a strategic partnership, or think through how to reach a specific customer segment.

Success stories?

The founders of IT Drops came in for a few mentorship sessions, and we helped them build a solid pitch deck. They were building a hand sanitizer dispenser IoT device to put out in retail areas and grocery stores in Algeria. With our help, they won a pitch competition that awarded them as one of the most innovative products in the MENA region. 

We also have a lot of micro wins. During our mentorship sessions, we see entrepreneurs change their perspective of their business based on a comment or a question a mentor asked. These are the moments we want to spark, and for me, they are just as much a win as a specific product being recognized for an award.  

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Let’s Talk Startups in Africa 

The Let’s Talk Startups in Africa speaker series is a fireside chat with investors and entrepreneurs paving the way in Africa. These conversations are insightful for current and aspiring African entrepreneurs, people who want to invest in Africa, or people who want to go back to work in Africa. 

Our speakers share the challenges they faced getting their businesses off the ground, the lessons, fundraising, and what has worked for them. Also, investors share how they perform due diligence, what type of companies they look at, and what would make them say no. 

From the four conversations we’ve had so far, our community has received tremendous value. People have written to us expressing how much they’ve learned and how they’re applying it to their business.

How do you see ASL evolving over the next 3-5 years, and what impact do you hope to make? 

Our goal is to become a hub for entrepreneurial eclosion and venture enablement in Africa for all types of entrepreneurs, and that inclusivity we want to build into our organization is key. 

Over the next three to five years, our goal is to welcome even more entrepreneurs from traditional and non-traditional sectors into the Africa Startup Lab ecosystem, where they will find useful information, resources, and capital. 

We want entrepreneurs to come and extract value that moves them ahead in their entrepreneurial journey, benefiting them and the communities in which they do business. In the long haul, we believe our actions will strengthen the quality of Africa’s entrepreneurial tissue, hence lifting the different African economies. 

 

What tips do you have for others in the Diaspora tapping into Africa’s startup ecosystem?  

Sometimes people get discouraged because they scope out the landscape and see one or two industry players and think, why do I need to create another one, or I shouldn’t waste my time exploring this idea. Not realizing that sometimes there is still room for action and for the businesses and initiatives to coexist within these ecosystems.

So first, do not discount any idea that you have. Second, just do it. Get involved, be it by supporting entrepreneurs or businesses that you think have potential. Or finding something you care about and finding a way to make it happen because the opportunities are endless.

Built In Africa. What does that mean to you? 

Built In Africa means three things. 1) Built to last, as in robust solutions that are adequately responding to the needs of the African people. 2) Built with love, meaning built with the African customer at the heart of it all. 3) Built for long, solutions that withstand the test of time, evolve, and adapt as the world around us changes and morphs. That’s what Built In Africa means to me. 

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