As a member of the Diaspora and someone who has been in the startup space in Accra, Ghana for the last 4 years, I know that access to capital and funding is one of the most challenging aspects of building a business in Accra, if not Africa at large. Yet, having had exposure to institutions and businesses in the U.S., I know capital is more easily accessible there. And as I continue to stress with this blog and all other engagements, the whole world is now looking to the continent, including the U.S. So there are existing and growing opportunities to access much needed capital from external markets to bring to Ghana/Africa at large.
In this post, I will share a bit of why pitch competitions are worthwhile, which ones to apply for, and how to win when you get into one. My goal is to expose more Ghanaian/African startups in my network to these opportunities and to have them capitalize on it.
Why external pitch competitions?
Pitch competitions anywhere are a wonderful opportunity to get capital, especially when it is not tied to equity and is not conditional. Pitch competitions at Africa Business Conferences outside of the continent are even better because they provide you with an opportunity to get money, AND feedback from business professionals, visibility for your business/product, gain customers/users and press/features.
More importantly, you connect with Afro-enthusiasts/ Afro-optimists.
Having lived in Accra for the last four years, I can definitively say that access to Afro-enthusiasts/ Afro-optimists is not promised on the continent (can discuss this later if people are interested).
Unlike competitions in the country ( I have pitched for a British Council Social Enterprise competition in Accra, Ghana), external competitions are perhaps less competitive in selling your vision because you are not vying with your peers who are probably tackling similar/adjacent problems and face similar challenges and constraints.
Moreover, external audiences/judges are more compelled or ‘wowed’ by your story/business than internal ones because of the lens and perspective from which they stand. Your business story seems more dire, more challenging, more courageous to people who care about Africa but have not lived there; they are intimately sensitive to issues we who live there become desensitized to and take as normal.
You can and should use this sensitivity to sell your heartache, passion, business, and dreams for a better continent.
So which competitions should I apply for?
I am compiling a list of pitch competitions for African startups and hope to get a comprehensive list of 100 competitions to share sometime soon. But until then, here are five yearly Africa business conferences in the U.S. that have pitch competitions for African startups that are worth considering.
Harvard Africa Business Conference, February
Georgetown African Business Conference, February
Columbia Africa Conference, April
MIT Africa Innovate Conference, April
UPENN Africa Conference, November
How can I win?
So for full disclosure, I came in second place at Georgetown and received an honorary invitation to the Harambe Alliance at Harvard. This means that I did not win first place at Georgetown or Harvard, but there is no better position to infuriate and motivate you to worry about not winning than coming close to winning. So I have taken a lot of time to dissect what I missed and here it is below.
First, you have to tell a compelling story on paper to make it to the pitch competition. A lot of people I know in the Accra/Diaspora ecosystem have good ideas and good businesses but do not know how to contextualize the work that they do so that they are favored in a batch. The most important question I ask myself when I submit applications to pitch competitions is this: What is the larger story behind what I am doing and why is it important? Taking about the massive scale and scope you hope to reach is not bragging. If you struggle with this, please reach out. I would love to help.
Now, when you get to the pitch stage, you also have to tell a compelling story. This is not the time to shy away from storytelling to focus on the numbers. No one remembers your numbers; people recall the emotional intent behind your business story. In fact, I almost fell into the number trap as my team and I were preparing our slides in Accra. Fortunately, one of our external advisors caught that there was no story in our pitch and asked/insisted that we add one. The story I added took one minute out of an allotted 5 minute pitch time but it was probably the most important part.
Both teams who won the competition at Harvard and Georgetown this year used storytelling impeccably. At Harvard, the founders that took 1st and 2nd place had touching personal stories (one about losing a parent, the other about losing a patient) about why they started their businesses. My story was good but not personal.
You can’t beat a founder who started a business out of an encounter with the most painful, universal experience: the death of a loved one.
As for technology, having a business that is globally competitive on the technology front whether or not your African market is ready for it is key in external competitions. Judges/audiences/investors want to know that you are future ready/future proof even though our continent may not be (internet penetration in Africa is currently at 33%, and much lower in Sub-Saharan Africa). So for example, at Talents, an important mission and value for us is the integration of AI technology into our software. We know its application is perhaps a decade in the making but its relevancy is not. We make AI a part of our pitch because it influences our technology infrastructure and costs now. That said, the judges at Harvard always asked why a business said AI or Machine Learning in an attempt to ascertain whether we were throwing around a buzz word or it was actually relevant for our business. So make sure you know the technology’s relevancy to the issue you seek to address.
Finally, of the 3 ways to win that I have discussed, CONFIDENCE, takes the cake, and not because it matters more than a compelling story or future-ready product. Rather, confidence makes those two other elements “sing”, or in layman terms, stand out.
The winner at the Georgetown business conference, Dr. Adewale Oparinde of EZ Farming, said something to me right before I went up on stage to pitch. He said, “No one knows how much you have worked on your business but you. No matter what happens, only you know what you have sacrificed and worked for”. That put me at ease.
Pitching is a great opportunity to showcase your product and vision but it is in no way a validation of your idea or inherent worthiness as a founder.
Once you remove the heavy burden that comes with seeking validation, you will find that you are more at ease and can pitch well, where pitching well simply means communicating your ideas clearly, passionately, confidently.
What if you don’t win?
Now, there is a possibility that you do your best and don’t win. If you are a founder, you should know this feeling well as our work inherently means taking a risk that may very well not accrue any gain. In fact, you have to pay for flight and conference ticket to attend some of these conferences and not winning any cash is painful. Still, I advise: bring your best to the conference as a whole and not the competition alone. NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK. Go deep, not wide. A good number of people in your industry will come up to you if you tried your best on stage, whether or not you win. Use this opportunity to get to know them and their needs. See whether your business solves their problem or you can connect them to someone who can. This pays. Whether immediately or not, dividends will accrue.
Again, please get in touch if I can help your startup access these opportunities or connect you to a startup. Alongside working on my own startup, I advise and work with a number of startups in the Ghanaian/Nigerian ecosystem.