Building the next generation of Entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone

Building the next generation of  entrepreneurs – high growth (scalable) and value creating – in Sierra Leone is not a walk in the park; it is not just about incubating start-ups and or accelerating scale ups. It is about cultivating shared values; about connecting ecosystem actors, and about taking a long view.

The current cohort of 12 start-ups, have been with us from 6 months to 12 months. We have followed the Start-ups commons framework, and all but save 2 are well into the developing an MVP. We have created our own customised MVP development template that focuses on validation—validating the product/service, the target segment/customer. Building the framework for validation, our cohorts are developing User Personas and Empathy maps. These user personas are realistic as possible…with names such as Aminata and Sorie…or Mr. Davies. Our cohorts have developed group personas and single user personas so that the MVP captures the basic needs and goals of a single user or a defined group. Much of the “needs and goals” were already developed by our cohorts through their value proposition canvass (as part of defining the value proposition for the BMC). In the value proposition canvass they looked at the customer jobs, pain, gains etc…

Next stage is they take the user personas developed and test them with our ecosystem partners…these could be potential customers or a partner-for example- UNDP Accelerator Lab.

All of this we are doing in a nascent entrepreneurial ecosystem. Obviously, this  is challenging to say the least. For example, we developed an MVP for an innovation that will disrupt the low-cost housing market. We, however, cannot validate this because much of the ecosystem for this innovation is not in place. We have to halt iterating until we have created the ecosystem (at least the key components) that will support the growth of this new sector.

And this is pretty much the same with some of the other cohort members. While we are developing from concept to idea to MVP, we must also develop the ecosystem- not an easy task!

When one considers that some elements of the ecosystem are public good/ service, you begin to understand why taking a long view is important…the only way we can justify the time and investment in putting the ecosystem in place.

We do not have a formula or a model. We have frameworks, tools and templates. Recognising commonalities and accommodating for what is unique in our ecosystem, we contextualize our approach and customise our incubation and acceleration frameworks, tools and templates.

This is important; we are not training entrepreneurs! We are working with the entrepreneur to develop their idea. While going through the process from Ideation, Concepting, Committing, Validating, Growth, the entrepreneur will be learning essential entrepreneurial, technical and management skills…and this is key…they are learning…. we are not teaching them.

One of the primary motivations in establishing Innovation SL (Innosl) was to deviate from the standard approach to nurturing innovators in Sierra Leone. This has largely been based around the running of competitions, focusing on the top three out of 50 submissions, with these three frequently receiving monetary prizes, with little or no follow up or support.

This approach has not delivered systemic entrepreneurship and certainly not delivered entrepreneurial success compared to, for example, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Senegal.

Since Innosl’s establishment our focus has been on developing value-creating and high-growth (as opposed to rent-seeking) entrepreneurs. We believe that, for entrepreneurship and innovation to play their crucial role in creating jobs and diversifying and growing Sierra Leone’s economy, such entrepreneurs must be encouraged. For this to take effect, the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem must be in place and enabled.

Developing key components of the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem and enabling other parts suited to nurturing value-creating and high-growth potential start-ups and scale-ups, is central to our work.

Our cohorts are focused on solving a problem- a tier one problem; they see developmental challenges as processes, systemic failures rather than simply a lack of resources.

To all our cohorts… amazing members of our cohorts; the young women and men that visit us weekly to go through their BMC and LMC(Business Model Canvass and Lean Model Canvass respectively) . You are one bunch of amazing people. You have a shared value of having a mission of something bigger, much bigger than you! We are here to serve you.