Nerding in Nairobi

A few months travelling, living and hacking in Kenya

Johnni - GrowthAfrica

I had coffee yesterday morning with Johnni Kjelsgaard, ex-dotcom’er, 15 year veteran of the Nairobi tech scene and founder of GrowthAfrica. Soko was a leading member of his first incubation cohort and Gwen introduced us back in January.

GrowthAfrica runs incubation programs (GrowthHub), co-working space and a consulting group all focused on helping African entrepreneurs. Johnni mentioned that social impact is a major criteria for their upcoming incubator class but the organization as a whole definitely wants to grow capital in Kenya.

He feels that basic business skills are the most important thing GrowthAfrica offers (e.g. recruiting, customer development, sales, financial modeling). He talked about using quantitative models to give entrepreneurs new understanding of their own businesses. At one point they tasked their companies with getting front of 40 potential customers over a couple weeks — despite initial grumbling the exercise proved (unsurprisingly) insightful.

Johnni is currently recruiting early stage entrepreneurs for their second incubator cohort. Over the 20 weeks, GrowthHub will guide them through defining, building and market testing a pilot. There’s more competition from other incubators now and they are working much harder to track down great candidates. He is already excited about a few ideas including helping farmers grow and sell more efficiently, and developing animated educational materials for East Africa.

Johnni is bullish about Kenya’s entrepreneurial future but feels that there are a few barriers that need to be overcome:

  • Entrepreneurs focus too much on products and not enough on customers. They need to get comfortable talking to prospects early and, later, pitching them hard.
  • Startups are not really part of the culture — there is no pride in living off ramen and working weekends to pursue your vision. It’s pretty hard to forgo a salary for months without forgiving significant others, financial support from family and friends or any public safety net.
  • Failure is also not part of the culture. People hold on to floundering ideas too long and pivot towards short-term revenue too soon.

He thinks foreigners could help overcome some of these barriers and would like to see the Kenyan government emulate Chile in their support for outside entrepreneurs. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the government but I’m excited to see what cool companies he adds to the GrowthHub roster next month!

Johnni at GrowthAfrica