Magic happens when AIESEC friends come together to build on what they learned and the values that brought them together in our powerful global network for change. Our story is one of three alumni who, since 2002, have been on a mission to accelerate startups and businesses in Africa. My accelerating business partners are Patricia Jumi (AIESEC Uganda, 1997-2000) and Johnni Kjelsgaard (AIESEC Denmark and AI, 1994-1999), and I am Ian Lorenzen, a Danish alumnus with five amazing years of AIESEC learning.
1999: Selling the Internet in Uganda
Our story started with Johnni, who, following his AIESEC International days, co-founded an Internet startup in Uganda in 1999, when a 256 KB connection cost 2,000 USD a month. The company had grown to 15 employees when a dot-com venture capitalist invested heavily in the business to expand its first mover concept across Africa and South East Asia. The plan was to open an office in a new territory every 3rd month. Patricia and I joined in 2000 and were recruited to the Frontiers Team shortly after, spearheaded by Johnni and tasked with driving the company’s geographical expansion. Seven new offices later, in 2002, the VC collapsed in the dot-com bubble, and the company was symbolically sold for one dollar.
Establishing GrowthAfrica: Entrepreneurial Pivots
Africa, with its business and entrepreneurial opportunities, has rooted itself deeply in all three of us. Following the sale of the Internet company, Johnni went on to form GrowthAfrica in 2002 in Kenya, with Patricia joining soon after; I followed a few years later. The activities have organically developed and pivoted over the years. The mission to create growth in Africa through business and commercial partnerships is as strong as it was in 2002—but the means have changed.
When it was established, GrowthAfrica delivered African market entry consulting services. In 2006, a feasibility study concluded that it was not financially viable to establish what would have become Sub-Saharan Africa’s (outside South Africa) first start-up incubator. It has always been stated that access to finance is African entrepreneurs’ greatest challenge, so when we were given the opportunity to start up the peer2peer microfinance platform MyC4 in Kenya in 2007, we took it. We grew the business to a portfolio of 4 million USD.
In 2011, we conducted a surveyed among our 1,500 lending clients. The vast majority of them was not looking at scaling their business and had little to no ambition to grow further. We did not see the business having the impact that we wanted. It was time to go back to the drawing board and think about how we could work with committed, ambitious African entrepreneurs wanting to build Africa’s next generation of big businesses whether in ICT, agribusinesses, energy, or other industries. The microfinance business was sold off in 2011 and our accelerator activities set up in early 2012.
We are now in a drive to develop a scalable and long-term, financially sustainable model that, from an African context, delivers the learning and resources required for African entrepreneurs to succeed. We are still running a small East African market and business consulting arm that, through the years, has served about 120 local and international clients resulting in more than 40 B2B partnerships between local and international companies. We are leveraging the insights and network and learning from the consulting firm for our startups. For us, it is all about business acceleration, and we are the right partner whether you are a startup ready to take off or an international business seeking an experienced and knowledgeable landing spot.
We grew up in AIESEC, which had five global focus areas and an exchange programme. Perhaps it is a coincidence, though I doubt it, that GrowthAfrica today operates within four of the same focus areas we worked with in AIESEC – entrepreneurship, learning, ICT, and cultural understanding and the exchange of ideas – and it makes ideas into businesses that make a difference. We are a hybrid organisation, combining a startup accelerator and an East Africa business & market advisory consultancy. The accelerator has the ambition to become Eastern Africa’s premier impact accelerator. One of our core strengths is our programming and methodology designed for African start-ups and their business reality. I believe our experience with AIESEC’s late 90s Learning Tool (a collection of methodologies, case studies and exercises), along with facilitation at the national and international levels, contributes greatly to where we are today in our conceptual framework.
Today: Full speed on accelerating Africa’s growth
At the core of what we do is a business mindset. It has always been our fundamental belief that long-term sustainable development has to come from the establishment and growth of profitable businesses, which will provide formalised employment and much-needed services.
We are growth leaders on a mission to grow businesses and opportunities in Africa through the acceleration of African start-ups and ventures. Africa holds vast and exciting opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to make a difference – whether local or international.
Since it was founded in 2012, GrowthAfrica has run seven acceleration programmes and graduated 91 startups and 223 entrepreneurs from our programmes. Investments and grants of over 7 million USD have been facilitated in support of the ventures. Our ambition is to scale our activities across and beyond the region, leveraging our acceleration concept and programmes.
Reconnecting invitation: How can we work together?
A partnership with AIESEC Alumni is a great opportunity to (re) connect with the network globally and, in particular, East Africa. More than ever, we need a network of like-minded and like-hearted people interested in contributing, involving, and investing in what we work with.
We are on a journey to develop Africa’s premier impact and financially sustainable start-up accelerator. It is not an easy task, and we need all the help we can get. We need your help, and we know it may come in many shapes and types.
We seek fellow alumni with a passion for assisting entrepreneurs and for developing business in Africa. We are looking for individuals who are:
- Running incubators/accelerators/entrepreneurship and startup growth facilitators
- Working with or running philanthropic foundations and agencies/programmes supporting or funding entrepreneurship (in Africa)
- Investing in – or interested in exploring this – seed and later stage African impact enterprises
- Starting or are currently managing their own entrepreneurial ventures
- Working with companies with solutions or services relevant to start-ups and their growth
- Experienced business people interested in coaching or mentoring African start-ups
- Doing research and academic work focused on start-ups and entrepreneurs
Last but not least, we are keen to connect with East African alumni interested in contributing as mentors, experts, trainers, or angel investors.
Reach out and connect with us if you are interested in exploring how we can work together. We look forward to hearing from you, and we would love for you to join us on the next part of our journey.
Patricia, Johnni and Ian
The GrowthAfrica partner team