Why We’re Running an Incubator with Safaricom

Editor’s Note: This post is written by Sean Smith. Sean spearheaded and will continue to lead Invested Development’s efforts in supporting the Safaricom App Wiz Challenge.

In early 2012, Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore and other senior executives of Kenya’s largest telecom visited the iHub in Nairobi to answer questions from the innovation community. Most of the back and forth between iHub members and Safaricom executives went as expected (at least if you follow such things):

Q: “When will there be an M-PESA API?”
A: “Sometime in the near future, we’re working on it.”

Q: “Why does it take so long to sign an NDA with Safaricom?”
A: “We’re not even really sure, but we’re working on that too.”

Sean, seated at the end of the front row on the left, listening to Bob Collymore speak at iHub.

Although I was impressed that Bob had brought the whole team to iHub, I was somewhat disappointed about the lack of specifics on how Safaricom might better engage the community. Towards the end of the event, Bob mentioned that he had an “open door policy” for members of the innovation community, shared his email address, and promised to meet with anyone that reached out.

At first I simply took note of this as being quite brave – I’ve made the same promise to the iHub community in the past and was a little overwhelmed at the onslaught of meeting requests. Later, I was thinking more about why the whole Safaricom team would come to iHub only to field relatively standard questions, with no specifics offered on either side, and have the event wrap up with Bob promising to meet with anyone who wanted to talk. Suddenly, it was obvious. Neither side had any clue how to engage the other – Safaricom didn’t know how to help innovators, and innovators didn’t know what to ask for. It was like seeing two 14 year olds nervously making eyes at each other, but never getting close enough to dance until a mutual friend forces them together.

This felt like the perfect opportunity for early stage investors like us to help bridge the gap.

I emailed Bob asking to meet and true to his word he quickly slotted me into his calendar. Then I huddled up with the rest of the team at Invested Development and we worked out a quick pitch for how Safaricom and innovators or entrepreneurs could work together on a specific initiative. Our idea revolved around a three-month incubation process that would bring together innovators, investors, mentors, and Safaricom staff.

By working with Safaricom to run an incubator we felt we could accomplish three important goals:

  1. Help Safaricom staff get a deeper understanding of the challenges that innovators face. Ideally, this will enable Safaricom to develop better processes to work with innovators and mutually benefit.
  2. Mitigate issues of trust between Safaricom and innovators by acting as an independent party that works to ensure revenue share and IP agreements are fair and equitable.
  3. Help innovators leverage Safaricom’s dominant market presence and massive marketing and distribution potential.

Bob could not have been more supportive of our plan when we met at Safaricom House and ultimately decided to move forward with the project. Over the past year, we’ve worked closely with Safaricom to develop a first iteration of the incubator known as the Safaricom App Wiz Challenge.  We will be supporting 18 teams in 6 different categories with mentorship and a curriculum meant to teach Lean Startup principles that will guide business and product development. Teams will work in a brand new space at Strathmore University and Safaricom will be providing 3.7M KES worth of prize money to the top companies coming out of the program. We hope that this is the start of further collaboration and deeper engagement between the two parties.

This is the first iteration of the program and I’m sure the community will have feedback for us on how we can improve. It is an important step towards improving collaboration between Kenya’s numerous innovators and its most prominent company.

L-R: Sean Smith, Alex Bashian, Bob Collymore, Joseph Ogutu, and Miguel Granier at the launch of the Safaricom App Wizz Developer Challenge

To learn more about the program or to apply, please visit http://developer.safaricom.co.ke.  We are looking for talented teams that are developing mobile applications for Symbian, Android, Java, and Blackberry.

If you’re interested in mentoring and judging, please email Sean at ssmith@investeddevelopment.com.

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