The Ground is Barely Scratched: Pivot East 2012


(Thanks to @zulusafari for the images today)

“The ground is barely scratched”, quipped Rebecca Wanjiku, a local tech infrastructure entrepreneur and iHub advisory board member, on stage today at Pivot East. And she’s right, there are a wealth of opportunities in the region. When asked “Why are there so many apps being built in Kenya?”, Kenya’s Permanent Secretary for Info and Comms Bitange Ndemo said, “Because we have so many problems to solve.”

While the iHub might be about innovation, Pivot East is about finding the tech startups with high-growth potential in the region and putting them on stage in front of investors, media and businesses. It’s about finding “what’s next” in East Africa’s vibrant mobile tech scene. Chances are, the best of these startups are providing highly innovative and disruptive solutions.

The startup scene in East Africa has moved wildly beyond where it was even two years ago when the iHub started. Those trying to raise funds for a new company have all of the resources they need at their disposal, including spaces to work with fast bandwidth, mentors and investors that cover the funding spectrum. If the last couple years was about building the ecosystem, this year is about the startups proving themselves and building products.

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Day one of Pivot East is over, and we’ve had a lot more fun than we should be allowed to have. How to find out more and follow for day two tomorrow:

Overall Thoughts

It’s interesting to see how this Pivot East is different than last year’s Pivot 25 (by the way, we changed it to Pivot East so that our friends in South and West Africa could use the brand to do their own events). It seems like the bar has risen, that the pitches are better delivered, that the ideas are a little more sound and business plans are more thought through.

This makes sense, as there has been an influx in pitching and hacking competitions over the last year and people have seen the bar from last year and want to do better themselves. On top of that, the startups in East Africa have had a lot more face-time with investors, who provide pressure to think more deeply about the important questions related to running a business, not just building a cool product.

My friend Michael Duarte, of Duarte Design – the team behind some of the most impressive presentation designs in the world, spent 3 days with the Pivot East finalists last week helping them to hone their decks and tell a story that would resonate with the audience. It’s worked wonders in the way the decks look, as well as the confidence that the startups have when they pitch.

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This year we’ve put the investors into the same area as the judges, allowing both to ask questions and grill the startups. This has turned out surprisingly well, allowing the people with the most interest to ask pointed and meaningful questions.

We’ve had some fantastic pitches thus far, but it’s only day one, so we’ll have 10 more hit the big stage tomorrow. Exciting times!

Fireside Chats

Intermixed between the pitches are “fireside chats”, our fancy term for panels of real movers in different parts of the industry. We try to keep them lively by bringing a good moderator in, and this year TV personality Eric Latiff from KTN has proved to be an outstanding one, making sure we’ve got some lively commentary and tough questions being asked.

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One of my favorite panels was when we had Bob Collymore, CEO of Kenya’s Safaricom on the same stage with Hakim Moi, the CEO of Zain South Sudan. It was a real treat to hear the difference in the way an incumbent mobile operator speaks about their market versus a new one in Africa’s newest country. There’s a lot of opportunity in both countries, but they come from completely different edges of the spectrum.

A particularly interesting challenge was voiced by Bob Collymore on the difficulties of large mobile operator’s on the innovation front. He’s interested in having a “Director of Innovation” in the organization, someone that comes from the outside and on the edge, who can work directly with him to ensure that not only Safaricom, but the rest of the people and organizations within their sphere are thinking broadly about disruption and creating ways for new, small and innovative companies to better interact with each other.

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