mtn Innovation awards expo at Shoprite Lugogo
People Visitng the Booths for the MTN Innovation Awards Nominated Startups

Last Saturday, MTN held an expo for the nominees of its 2017 MTN Innovation Awards at the parking for Shoprite Lugogo. This allowed the public and judges an interaction with the nominees  – which was wonderful.

We made stops at a couple of booths, some of which whose products we felt very proud of while the rest left us wondering how they made it to the nominees list.

Several reports have ranked us the most innovative country in the world, something that’s heavily contested internally. Those who go along with it make the justification that we are, just that most businesses are still informal.

They also argue that most start businesses out of necessity not with a goal to go global or continental. Which actually makes sense given the number of rolex stands, chewing gum buskets, boda-bodas and mobile money stalls that litter the streets of Kampala.

The quality of some of the MTN Innovation awards nominees signals either the huge presence of necessity-driven entreprenuers and innovations or lack of note-worthy innovations in the country all-together. Another explanation could be that those with to-be-spoken about innovations never expressed interest.

Read: Does MTN Organize Innovation Awards and Competitions to Steal Ideas?

That aside, there’s something worrying, even those that we felt deserved to be on the list shared in common with those we never expected. Something many have said is one of the key ingredients Ugandan innovators and entrepreneurs need to cultivate in order to be able to compete both regionally and continentally.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking to a friend who owns a fintech startup in Uganda. He told me of a story that revealed his lack of the ingredient that since then led me to keep searching for how true that is.

During his early days of starting up, he applied to an acceleration program and was among those selected. The program had entrepreneurs from across the continent with countries like Kenya and Nigeria on the list.

It ran for several weeks characterized by occasional demo pitches to investors in closing days.

But, he later realized that while as he focused on how wonderful his product functioned, counterparts from Nigeria and Kenya focused on how they were expanding to new markets, the userbase growth for their products, revenue growth et al.

The funny bit was that the Nigerian pitched an algorithm he hadn’t even integrated in his product. Yet, after the investors falling in love with the aggressivness of his expansion, he later visited the room of the Ugandan to contract him for the development of the algorithm.

Despite the fact that the Ugandan had a superior product, he failed to make it through. Why? Because he couldn’t tell his story perfectly.

This is a similar pattern i noticed at the expo. People have very good products but haven’t harnessed the power of storytelling.

It’s only after listening to them for several minutes that you are able to figure out the exact problem they’re trying to solve and how. But, who – amongst investors or even the awards judges – has that much time to listen to you?

You could hardly find someone with a product they can introduce in less than 20 words. For example, M-Pesa – according to Investopedia – is a mobile banking service that allows users to store and transfer money through their mobile phones.

Nigeria’s Paystack describes itself as a “payments platform that makes the online payments process seamless for both the consumers and the businesses they are trying to pay”. Similarly, Uganda’s SafeBoda says that it “offers a safer and trustworthy motorcycle-taxi experience in Africa”.

All the above companies describe themselves or can be described, in less than 20 words. And, one of them has gone on to be a success continentally, the second one is a Y-Combinator alumni and the last one has been able to raise at least $500,000 since 2014.

Yet, what you could find at the MTN Innovation Awards expo were people trying to tell you stories of where they started from and what they want to do. It is necessary that you tell your story in very few words – what they call an elevator pitch – depending on who is listening to you. Whoever is listening to you should be able to understand what you do in those few words.

Although there were some that could tell their story in less than a few words, most would give a generalized statement which indicates they do not yet understand the problem and for whom they’re solving it.

For example, one particular startup described themselves as “a company that solves tech problems”. Yet, on a closer listening, they own a website where they post guides to help people fix simple tech problems on their own. How about they call themselves a “Do it Yourself Website for Simple tech problems”?

Another similar case was that of a startup that called itself “an app that helps farmers find their animals, veterinary doctors, and other services.” While as this is a quick and short description, it can be made better by specifying which category of farmers.

Because, I doubt a subsistence farmer – who by the way is the one who may not know where these services are – can use a smartphone, let alone afford it.

To compliment storytelling, one should be enthused about their own product or skill. No one is going to think you’re arrogant just because you proudly talk about your innovation.

Just a few weeks ago, I witnessed a developer being recommended as good at Android apps development. Something he replied to with “I try”. What if, he had replied with talking about some of the best products he had worked on?

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