Startup Weekend Dakar connects Francophone Africa to international startup scene

By Yann LE BEUX on April 10, 2012

This is a guest post written by Yann Le Beux, @CTICDakar – Incubator and Accelerator

In recent years, Africa as a whole has experienced an incredible boom in tech startups. While a lot has already been written on English-speaking countries like Kenya and Ghana, we should not forget the potential and the impact of IT entrepreneurs in Francophone Africa. The first Startup Weekend in the region, held from March 30th to April 1st in Senegal, is a concrete example of this booming and connected ecosystem.

A Startup Weekend is an intense 54-hour event that brings together people from various backgrounds – engineers, software developers, graphics designers and business people – to build web and mobile applications which could form the basis of a credible business over the course of a weekend. The teams are mentored by local experts and seasoned entrepreneurs. The event comes to a climax with a pitch in front of a jury on Sunday night.

With more than 150 active participants, and many officials and corporate partners, the first  Startup Weekend Dakar was a real success. For 54-hours we called Accelerator CTIC Dakar our home. Interestingly enough, the organizers decided to focus the event on IT innovations dedicated to agriculture and the arts, two of the most important sectors of Senegal’s economy.

The Challenge

At the opening in Friday evening, more than 54 people presented their idea in one minute. The community then chose their favorite and 11 teams where formed. During the entire weekend, they were advised and challenged by local entrepreneurs and experts like Abdoulaye Mbaye, founder and CEO of the successful startup Neurotech, Chams Diagne, CEO of Viadeo Africa and Omar Cissé, Director of CTIC Dakar. Karim Sy of Jokkolabs and Joeri Poesen of Bantalabs, two of the most active co-working spaces  in West Africa, were also present to support the teams.

Most of the participants worked late and some of the more addicted did not sleep for the two nights. You can imagine their eyes on Sunday night when they had to pitch in front of a crowd of 200+ people and an impressive jury: Cheikh Tidiane Mbaye, CEO of Orange Sonatel, Tidjane Deme, Lead for Google Francophone Africa and Antoine Ngom founder and CEO of GSIE, one of the most successful IT companies in the region. All were impressed by the applications and websites that were created in such a short time, a proof that IT entrepreneurs do not need much more than being together, good mentors and a challenging context to produce a first proof of concept.

The Winners

The winner of this first edition of the StartupWeekend Dakar is the project My African Touch (photo on the right), a virtual art village and e-commerce platform that enables foreign African art lovers to purchase rare and unique pieces like statues, clothes, painting, etc. The second team Innov’Atif, developed a mobile app that helps farmers manage their production and increase their yield. The third team, Smart Pagel, created a mobile market place where land buyers and owners can interact and share reliable information.

Outside of the tablets and smartphones offered by Orange-Sonatel, the three winners will receive a 3 months acceleration program within the incubator CTIC Dakar and management training from Microsoft along with the access to their platform Bizpark Plus. These three organizations are the major sponsors of the event along with the SME Support Program of the German Development Organization GIZ.

Impact of IT entrepreneurs in the region

While this experience was a clear success and a reflection of the booming Senegalese startup scene there is still a lot to do to maximize the impact of IT entrepreneurs in the region. Further investment is necessary. Unfortunately, banking institutions don’t appreciate IT business models and there is a need for experienced and visionary equity investors, particularly at the seed stage. Francophone Africa and the large UEMOA market represent a tremendous opportunity for startups and for angel investors. The cultural aspect is sometimes mentioned as a barrier, saying that the French-inherited mentality goes against entrepreneurship and capitalism, but you only need to spend one afternoon with entrepreneurs in Dakar or Abidjan to see that the stereotype is somehow obsolete.

This exciting and “buzzing” Startup Weekend is only the tip of the iceberg. Many promising startups are coming online across Francophone Africa. The promising projects that emerged out of this event give investors a few more reasons to consider the space. We continue to gather mentors and public stakeholders around talented young entrepreneurs and look for ways to better support their growth. Let them grow and you will see how fast an economy can develop.

Find all the photos and films of the 1st StartupWeekend Dakar on www.facebook.com/swdakar

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