BICU should transform Up Accelerate into the standard accelerator to build sustainable startups in Uganda

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Business Innovation Consortium Uganda (BICU)
A team at the Up Accelerate demo day last year in October
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Yesterday, I paid a visit to Richard Zulu, head of Business Innovation Consortium Uganda (BICU) at Outbox on Lumumba Avenue. It was abrupt and actually didn’t expect it to last more than 15 minutes. I was surprised to see us still talking one and a half hours later. What kept us going, for this long? You may be wondering.

I have respect for all the people that came into this ecosystem early (before me). Though, Richard and a few others like TMS Ruge are in a different category. While as others fell off the wagon, they are still soldiering on.

Last year (around March), before starting SDA, i approached Richard looking for a story about the Up Accelerate. At that time, he was confident that PC Tech Magazine, Disrupt Africa plus a couple of others were doing a sufficient job to tell our startup story. I disagreed and thought otherwise.

Slightly over 10 months later (call it yesterday), we met and he asked me what we have been able to do differently to achieve this traction in the market. I told him two things; focus and making an effort to create the content from scratch as opposed to sitting back and waiting for press releases. Talking about FOCUS, I informed him that I had to quit my job last year in July to gamble on Startup Digest Africa full time – a startup 5 months old at that time.

Still, about focus, he decried the divided attention amongst Ugandan startup founders. At any one point, he said, people are working on more than one thing. Which spreads them thin and their little or no available resources.

And, talking about creating content from scratch; the reason I had visited Richard was to conduct an interview about BICU.  Because we value raw content more.

In case you don’t know what BICU is, it is Business Innovation Consortium Uganda, in full. An “organization of startup hubs, incubators and accelerators that are focused on supporting and enabling entrepreneurship in Uganda”.

This is one organization I feel many should know about – especially those looking to startup or support startups.  Yet, very few know it exists. Even among those that do, few know it was started 5 years ago and Richard is currently heading it.

Initially, BICU was comprised of Outbox, Hive Colab, Mobile Monday Kampala, FinAfrica, Grameen Foundation Lab, Makerere University Innovation Lab, Mara Launchpad and The Hub Kampala (Now Design Hub Kampala). Many of the hubs there fell off, a few persevered.

According to Richard, one of the reasons BICU exists is to enforce certain standards in the ecosystem. Something I completely understand and fully support. Without a standard, we shall fall for anything.

But, when he spoke about enforcing standards as one of their mandates as well as lack of focus among startup founders as one of the challenges they are facing, I felt compelled to suggest that the association adopts a system that new startup founders (have to) go through.

Currently, we have a lot of startup founders focused on coding (or doing other activities that are urgent but not important) while ignoring getting their hands dirty by going out to the field and talk to the customers. They are applying that old adage of “if you build it, they’ll come.” Which is entirely wrong (at least in my point of view).

Things in the startup world change so fast that what you thought was the truth yesterday becomes wrong in split seconds. Similarly, you could be building a product today that you think customers wanted yesterday. Only to find out later that, actually, it’s obsolete. The customer moved on. Yet, if you keep close to that customer and interact constantly, you’re likely to minimize the time lapse between realizing that and doing the pivot or tweak.

However, this is something whose significance many of the startup founders may not understand or appreciate simply because there’s no standard way of “ushering” them into the Ugandan startup space. We need to treat startup founders differently from entrepreneurs. Though, currently, we mistake the two.

Quoting Paul Graham (PG), a co-founder of startup accelerator and seed capital firm Y Combinator, “a startup is a company designed to grow fast”. He also continues to argue that “being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup.” Many people mistake starting up with a startup.

“The only essential thing [about a startup] is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.” – PG.

But, people building these startups lack majority (if not all) of the skills they are required to build a startup if you’re to go by PG’s definition. So, what are we going to do?

One element necessary in building a thriving startup ecosystem that we need to start appreciating, yet missing in the Ugandan one, is the significance of an accelerator program. It helps bring up to speed the newly enthusiastic and passionate startup founders by allowing them to tap into the experience and expertize of those that have come before them.

Notably, it also helps avoid frauds from the start. Because, being an accelerator – something designed to take you at a ridiculously high speed – it can help us easily identify people who have the traits of becoming startup founders and those who don’t.

My simple logic is that those who don’t will sink and those who do will swim. Then, we just pick up those swimming and train/teach them how to now swim faster and longer. Won’t it help both parties save time? Those who won’t make it will be able to realize that this isn’t their calling, too.

As it is currently, one has to go to Nairobi, Cape Town, Lagos, Europe or the U.S. in order to have access to an accelerator program. Which is not bad. But, how many people can be able to gain access to those? Not forgetting that people that are giving startups a shot here are so poor at almost everything – including the basics like taking personal initiative, research (reading) or communication.

Actually, it is not that they are poor because of their fault – it is the education system they were indoctrinated in. Which means that we lose many good people that perhaps would have become great startup founders. Just because the system didn’t give them the basics and traits necessary to survive as a startup founder.

But, if we are to run our own accelerator, then our curriculum can be developed to include some of these elements that our education system isn’t.

In other words, the accelerator would be an extension of the education system but designed to bring (future) startup founders up to speed with the startup world.

I don’t think someone in Berlin or Silicon Valley whose education system teaches them to do thorough research would come up with a curriculum to cater for a Ugandan whose education system didn’t teach them to do research.

Plus, applying for an accelerator outside Uganda exposes one to a lot of competition. Which is a good and bad thing. Good thing because it implies that one has to up their standards. But, bad because many good people (that can ultimately become great with a little guidance and push) miss out.

Lastly, an accelerator would give us uniformity and identity. This, in the end, will ease engagement with investors and other stakeholders. An investor will know that “a startup from Uganda is likely to be at this stage”.

Take an example of Y Combinator. Any investor going to the Y Combinator Demo day knows the bare minimum to expect from them. One being that, I again quote PG, a startup with a good growth rate during YC is at 5-7% a week.

So, after all this running in my head during our conversation – actually, in a split second – I turned to Richard and asked him whether Up Accelerate will be coming back this year. In case you don’t know what it is, Up Accelerate is – in simple terms – an accelerator program for (sexual reproductive) health startups.

He said, “yes”.

My proposal to him was that this – given it’s already taking place – should be scaled beyond health. To accommodate startups in Fintech, AgTech, MediaTech, InsurTech and other areas. They would remain different programs with different sponsors (and perhaps implementors in form of hubs) but the same goal – to accelerate Ugandan startups.

I believe BICU should be the body to take this up (and not a single hub or incubator) because then we are able to enforce an industry standard. Which is one of the mandates of the body, not so?

Malinz (Peter Kisadha) is the founder and CEO of Startup Digest Africa. Let me know what you think about this suggestion. Send to malinz@digestafrica.com.

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