Nerding in Nairobi

A few months travelling, living and hacking in Kenya

Lino, i4a and homegrown talent

On Tuesday, I met Lino Carcoforo of Innovation 4 Africa for lunch at 88mph. Lino and his partner Nancy came to Kenya in 2010 and founded i4a to invest in mobile tech startups. They believe in an extremely hands on approach to investing and work daily with their companies on marketing, sales, recruiting, and more. It looks like their model is working – of their three portfolio companies mKazi just secured significant follow-on funding and mChanga is only weeks behind.

Lino and I talked a good bit about the role of local and expats in founding Kenyan companies. He clearly felt some contempt for investors that don’t recognize the value of local knowledge in a founding team but he sees why expats play a big role. Local entrepreneurs tend not to have the financial ability and motivation to forgo a salary and pursue a long term vision. Few Kenyans have had to opportunity to develop the skills required to run a startup business and the ecosystem isn’t mature enough to teach them. He’s bringing in an expat CEO at one of his companies but doesn’t think they could survive without a major Kenyan presence on the management team.

Later in ther afternoon, we did a team building exercise at Soko that highlighted the significance of cultural context. The game was essentially a competitive, team version of 20 questions with only yes/no answers. Even simple questions were interpreted very differently and the game was generally much more natural for the Mzungu’s on the team. Is chapati a snack? Depends on where you grew up! Liz and I immediately understood the dedutive process of narrowing down the solution space. Are we better trained in analytical thinking? Maybe, but more importantly, every Mzungu had played 20 questions as a kid and not a single Kenyan had played something comparable. We practiced!

It’s really easy to miss these subtle differences in what our cultures teach us. Even the games we play as kids say something about the skills we promote and how we relate to each other. Large scale entrepreneurship is on a tear in Kenya but making it integral to the culture will take time. For now, expats will lead many of the successful teams but won’t be successful without partners who understand Kenya on a much deeper level.