I was seeking inspiration for today’s article when I stumbled upon an article about Start-up Chile, a program that the government of Chile conceived and implemented. Quoting from Start-up Chile’s website; “Start-up Chile is a program of the Chilean Government to attract world-class early stage entrepreneurs to start their businesses in Chile.” Here’s a 4 Minute Video that you can watch for a brief but entertaining synopsis of this initiative.
Again, quoting from Start-up Chile’s website:
Start-Up Chile is a program created by the Chilean Government, executed by Corfo via InnovaChile, that seeks to attract early stage, high-potential entrepreneurs to bootstrap their startups in Chile, using it as a platform to go global. The end goal of the accelerator program is to convert Chile into the definitive innovation and entrepreneurial hub of Latin America; this is a mission shared by the Government of Chile and is a primary focus of the Ministry of Economy.
In 2010, the program, at that point just a pilot, brought 22 startups from 14 countries to Chile, providing them with US$40,000 of equity-free seed capital, and a temporary 1-year visa to develop their projects for six months, along with access to the most potent social and capital networks in the country. These selected entrepreneurs were approved by an admission process conducted by Silicon Valley experts and a Chilean Innovation board that focuses ardently on global mindsets and worldwide potential. Of all required criteria, it is essential that the chosen entrepreneurs work in a global mindset, believing that the route to success is via expansion not isolation.
2010 acted as a pilot phase that lead into the 2011 application processes with the goal to bring 300 startups to Chile during the year, with the end hope of having 1,000 bootstrappers participate in the program by the culmination of 2014. The first application process of 2011 brought 87 startups to Chile from over 30 countries, after having received 330 applications– and, during the second process conducted in July of 2011, 650+ startups applied, vying for 100 slots.
All of the Start-Up Chile entrepreneurs are measured during their time in the program by various indicators including participation in local events, presenting workshops on their particular expertise, raising local or international capital, and contracting talent.
Start-Up Chile has gained impressive international recognition, having been published in Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, and TechCrunch (among many others) and has inspired spinoffs around the world such as Startup America, Britain, Greece, and Italy.
That got me thinking. What if a handful of African nations decide to do what Vivek Wadhwa suggests? What if we had Startup Ghana, Startup Nigeria, Startup Kenya, Startup Egypt, Startup Senegal, Startup Zambia, Startup South Africa, Startup Cameroun, Startup Botswana, Startup Ethiopia and Startup Rwanda? Is that too ambitious? Why? Assuming such an idea is indeed too ambitious in certain cases, what if we had Startup West Africa, Startup East Africa, Startup Central Africa, Startup North Africa and Startup Southern Africa? Surely that’s viable. Each region could have 2 or 3 regional hubs . . . Nairobi would be the leading candidate for one such hub for Startup East Africa. Accra could be one hub for Startup West Africa. Each startup would decide which hub it would select as its base for the duration of the program.
The country model seems much easier to execute, but there may be some merit to the regional model. Imagine the potential attractiveness of having all of West Africa as a potential market during a startup’s earliest days. However, the regional model raises questions that are not so easy to answer. What if a startup based in Accra wishes to hire a Nigerian? How quickly could that startup obtain the required documentation to enable this individual live and work in Accra? What if the opposite scenario is the case? What if a startup based in Nairobi wanted to establish operations in Addis Ababa? How would that work? Would it take days, or months . . . or years? How would corruption affect startups in this situation?
Just thinking about how the regional model might work is giving me a headache. However, I am not so convinced that the country model would be that much easier to execute. There are thorny issues about infrastructure to consider. I remember growing up as a boy in Kano during the 1980s. My family had to contend with frequent power outages, disruptions in water supply and innumerable petroleum shortages. I understand the situation has not improved very much. I could tell you an unending litany of nightmare stories about my trips from northern Ghana to northern Nigeria as a secondary school student in the 1980s and the 1990s. One such story involves me being confronted by allegations from a customs officer at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos that I might be a CIA operative smuggled into the country to subvert the regime of General Sani Abacha. Fortunately, some well placed conversation in Hausa and a small “gift” for his oga and a smaller “gift” for him made the allegations vanish as inexplicably as they had materialized.
I currently work as a volunteer advisor with a team of internet software entrepreneurs in the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology in Accra. I admire their technical smarts and ingenuity. Yet, I am reminded often about the challenges they have to contend with. We have not yet been able to hold a video-chat via Skype in 4 months of collaboration. We used to have group calls using Skype, but that would lead to several dropped connections and we’d lose precious time in the process. Why? Bandwidth and internet connectivity issues. So we’ve resorted to holding our weekly discussions about their startup strategy via text-chat on Skype. That obviously is a sub-optimal solution to the problem . . . and this is a group that has the backing of MEST and Meltwater Group. Imagine what challenges other startup entrepreneurs in Accra that don’t have the same luxury might face.
You get the picture. A decision by African policy makers to follow in Chile’s footsteps is merely a first-step, an important one, but a first-step all the same. There are many more challenges that would have to be overcome. Yet, I am reminded of a quotation that is on the first page of a calculus textbook I used to own in secondary school; “We do not refuse dinner for fear of choking.” In that spirit, challenges alone should not dictate if an idea such as Start-up Chile is pursued in Africa. Shrinking in the face of seemingly intractable challenges strikes me as patently un-innovative.
What do you think? Do I sound crazy? If you have the ear of a policymaker would you discuss this idea with that person? Why, or why not? Leave a comment, and share this with your friends. I’d like to know what others think of Start-up Chile applied in an African context.
Let’s talk again in two weeks. On deck? I’m thinking about it.
This discussion is based on and motivated by an article by Vivek Wadhwa. It was published on the Bloomberg Businessweek website. You can find it here: Want More Startups? Learn From Chile.