To continue our exploration of Kenya as an innovation ecosystem in fringe of Afrikoin, I’ve met with Samuel Gichuru from the Nailab incubator. A fast-paced and jittery conversation proved useful to pinpoint a key challenge of entrepreneurs: the management of cultural differences.
If Kenya is the kingdom of mobile money, through its MPesa system, it’s an isolated one. No other country happen to be using mobile money at this level, be it richer countries (South Africa), more populous ones (Nigeria) or even countries close to Kenya (Tanzania, Uganda). Each market is unique, and more, within each market, sub-segments make scaling for startups a true challenge.
Innovation ecosystems, Samuel says, are not driven by the same thing everywhere:
- In Kenya and developing countries, necessity and poverty are the mother of innovation
- In the US and the Silicon Valley, innovation is driven by aspiration, and it’s no coincidence Hollywood is very close, they “sexify everything”, including lately entrepreneurship (think of Justin Bieber or Ashton Kutcher to name a few)
If startups are to succeed, they must get to know the local contexts, which are multiple, obscure, intangible, and it takes time to get this understanding key to penetrate other markets. In Africa, for instance, Nigeria is both a highly religious country where status is mostly reached through the oil & gas business. In Kenya, the population is more diverse, but also has its “niche” population which won’t be adressed in the same way. Internet make everything smaller, but cultures keep strong, and they make different markets.
In the end of the day, we both wondered of what was a good “model” for startups to be both innovative and scalable, when so many cultural walls seem to be on the way to “be big”. Unilever, for instance, has a model where innovation is more in marketing perfectly a same product to different markets, with different brands, colors, marketing positioning and even pricing. We see today that even the world of social startups is fragmented and maybe reaching a post-Facebook era with messaging apps.
Startups need to learn and be exposed to intercultural awareness, but even more to go, try, fail, and try again, as it’s the only way to discover and possibly penetrate a new market. Until this point, they should rather focus on the local market and serve it well first, as it is the case for instance with MPesa.