26 Mar A Big Choice For A Brave People
Big Hearts In West Africa
[Part 2 in a series of 6. Read Part 1 here.]
The people. They are the heart and soul that drives a nation to accomplish great things. We witnessed this drive in February when the people of West Africa chose to come out in droves with a fiery passion to turn our Africa hackathon into the largest ever held on the continent. We had expected a successful event, but what we witnessed was unprecedented in scale for the region. We were deeply humbled by the drive, energy, and focus of those who made the commitment to attend.
This historic event wasn’t just about the thriving entrepreneurial community in Ghana, but was a call to action to all West Africans for them to unleash their talents and potential. Over 400 general participants, including 215 hackers, made long journeys from all over the West African region to attend this opportunity: Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Gambia, Cameroon, Congo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ivory Coast, and Mali. There were also international attendees from the United States, Norway, Canada, India, and Italy. The backgrounds of participants were varied: students, consultants, web developers, software developers, material scientists, clergymen, economists, entrepreneurs, anthropologists, even fashion designers. Even though there were more men at the event, the ratio of men to women participants was still an encouraging 3 to 1. Most hackathons held in the United States feature a ratio of 5 to 1.
It was a packed house and we got to know many wonderful people. All of their shared stories were special to us. However, one attendee’s story stood out: Bidemi Ojo. I could spend the next few paragraphs telling you about both his determination to reach the event and experience there, but I’ll let his own words speak.
An Interview With Bidemi Ojo
How did you get involved with the hackathon and what kind of hardships did you experience traveling to the event?
About 10 days earlier, I was in Ghana. We took a tour of the tech eco system in Ghana – Hub Accra, iSpace Ghana and MEST, as a participant from Nigeria during the TechCamp West Africa program, organized by the US Embassy Ghana and the Ghana Think Foundation. Prior to that day, I had not heard of what a hackathon is all about. However, after we were put through the entire essence of a hackathon, it was at that that moment that I made up my mind to attend. All I was interested in was brainstorming to solve societal problems I never envisaged business pitching or tech start-up creation. Despite my slim budget, I was determined to come and learn and to add value. I travelled all the way from Nigeria to Ghana by road because I couldn’t raise enough cash to cover flight tickets within the short period of preparation.
I faced a lot of hardships while traveling by road from Nigeria. Especially, at the borders of Nigeria to Benin (Cotonou) and Togo to Ghana (Aflao).
The immigration, police and customs took all my money with all sort of illegal charges; some deliberately asked for bribes with the claims that they are suffering and they need more money to augment their wages.
Benin to Togo Border was better organized. I would have boarded a bus from an organized transport company but I was eager to arrive on the first day; all of them had no traveling plans until the next day.
After surmounting the troubles associated with road traveling across West Africa, I eventually arrived at midnight on the first day of the event completely without funds. My expectation was to meet with like minded people for brain-storming, innovative problem solving, collaboration and learning. I never anticipated to see a high population of college students. I expected mostly emerging tech entrepreneurs. However, they impressed me with their passion to solve problems and their extremely good tech skills.
What was the experience of the hackathon like for you?
Even though the first session had already started when I arrived, I was immediately put into a team of 3 first year students from the University of Ghana and we formed a team called Technovate, on the second day another person (a fellow TechCamper from Ghana) joined to make 5 (3 males and 2 females). Our pitch was initially on a game software that simulates driving scerios in various cities in Africa but we couldn’t see the commercial viability of it within a short period. So, we eventually settled for Customized Food Website and Mobile App under Food Safety (Design and Technology category). Thank God for good preparation, I had already developed a business plan for the customized food project which I called “Real Home Food”. I sold the idea to my team members and it was very easy for us to adopt it. We then swung into action immediately.
The short time to come up with an idea that solves a societal problem and develop into a viable technology start-up was a challenge for most teams. Also, I observed that most teams were more concerned about solving the problems than the business aspect of it. Although, the mentors went around trying to help out, it was inadequate. Most of the hackers didn’t have business experience, so they was more interested in wowing the audience with their tech innovations and inventions.
I come across young people on a daily basis who are mostly interested in entrepreneurship based on the circumstances of unemployment. Others lose focus easily; they hardly have the staying power required to stay in business. They think talent is everything thus, they barely focus on trying to solve a societal problem via technology and then create a viable business out of it. Some of them start well but they fizzle out after some time.
Do you have any future predictions for the start-up community in the West Africa region?
The future for the start-up community in West Africa is in technology. Many start-ups will have to adapt or be out of business. Beyond that, they will tackle pressing societal problems towards achieving the millenium development goals. I also forsee them getting more focused on achieving their business goals; measuring their achievements at various significant points. More collaboration across the sub-region will surface and more investors will support start-ups. I forsee more young people including teenagers taking to tech entrepreneurship despite their age and task of facing school alone. Finally, more Incubators/ Accelerators will be established to cater for tech start-ups.Bidemi’s, along with the other attendees’, determination, fortitude, and thoughtful, positive outlook on entrepreneurial growth in the West Africa region serves as deep motivation for us to continue our mission of empowering emerging entrepreneurs to dictate the course of their own lives. We will continue to build a better experience so that those we have the privilege of serving can have better opportunities to showcase their talents and build a better future for themselves. We owe it to the Bidemi’s of the world who hold deep aspirations to become change agents and a positive force in the world.
[Next up. We explore the importance of mentors]
– Ehb Teng