What Parallel Kampala Innovation Week Events Should Tell Us About the Ugandan Startup Ecosystem

In the first week of October, we published this article about Kampala Innovation Week by The Innovation Village. After a few days, another person approached us about their event - also called Kampala Innovation week, to take place at Design Hub Kampala. They wanted us to write about it too.

Amidst the confusion, we asked them if they were affiliated with the one we had recently written about. They said no. At what point we took it upon ourselves to inform both parties about the confusion they were causing in the Ugandan startup ecosystem.

Fast forward, the two parties were able to reach an agreement yesterday [Monday] and agreed to have Kampala Innovation Week as a joint effort - something I think is good.

[caption id="attachment_2827" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Graphic Impression for the Kampala Innovation Week by Education Reach Uganda[/caption]

I'm not interested in who was right and who was wrong. This writing is not intended to blame one party or applaud the other, no! The purpose is to highlight the fact that it was wrong to have two events, that are the same, happening in the same month and city.

I have always stated and continue to maintain that dwarfs don't and shouldn't compete. Instead, each dwarf should stand on the shoulder of another so that the world can see them. There's no use of having factions in a young and extremely small startup ecosystem like the Kampala one.

In this VentureBeat article,  advises how smaller cities can build a robust startup ecosystem if they work together. Although not exhaustive and Africa focused, the key thing that it emphasizes is the power of synergy. Where each city - or in our case individual and stakeholder - focus on their strength.

First of all, we have very few notable innovations in the country to even showcase for a whole week at one event. Now two events?

There's nothing wrong with pursuing individual or organizational goals. But, where certain activities of your vision intersect with another party, why not merge and face the challenges on a united front? My guess is that whoever is involved in the Ugandan Startup Ecosystem would eventually want to see Ugandan startups scale beyond borders.

But, one of the things that will guarantee us this as an ecosystem is a complementarity approach, not competition. We need to focus on how, in our small capacities, we can each contribute as individuals and organizations to the bigger cause instead of copy and paste.

Of what importance is competing to attract 100 startups to your hub or space that'll die the next year rather than coming together and agree to work in a way that ensures we have 10 startups that'll not only survive next year but go ahead to scale regionally and continentally afterward.

One question we have all failed to answer, that was paused by an investor to one of the founders of a hub in Uganda, is - "what startup in Uganda must an investor really know about?"

[caption id="attachment_2828" align="aligncenter" width="960"]Kampala Innovation Week Graphic Impression of Kampala Innovation Week by Innovation Village[/caption]

This habit of each person wanting to have something attributed to their name no matter how deterrent it is to the ecosystem must be tackled. It has led to people writing proposals to secure grants to solve problems that others are already solving.

As an ecosystem, we are still so young and small to attract anyone's attention. Yet if we can come together, organize ourselves on the inside, we can easily use that as a leverage for networks with other mature ecosystems.

As it is right now, the Ugandan startup ecosystem can only sustain startups to a certain level - beyond which, they have to struggle on their own to secure meaningful mentorship and funding. What if our joint focus is on supporting startups to that stage, perfectly, after which we can secure a partnership with another ecosystem where we can export them for further development?

But, instead, we are busy copying each other's event. It doesn't make sense to copy an event where even the innovations you're going to parade aren't sure if they'll survive next year. On the other hand, just imagine you had such an event parading innovations to be exported say to Shenzen, Berlin, London, Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley or other mature ecosystems for further development?

I also think that as an ecosystem, this needs to serve as a notice of how late we are when it comes to forming an association that brings us together - especially the hubs and incubators, who I think are the most critical players. Every stakeholder is scattered and trying to do what they feel is best for them. We do not have a defined and unified mission.

Take an example of finances. As an ecosystem, we have a lot of startups in dire need of risk capital in the range of $10,000 - $100,000 to start and operate for some few months as they prove their model. However, this is impossible for a typical Ugandan startup founder to raise. (See this: KENNETH LEGESI Looks at the Alternative Sources of Funding for Ugandan Startups)

Yet, if we can come together and decide that every year, as an ecosystem, we shall jointly support 50 - 100 startups financially - then figure out what it takes, I am convinced that the government and other players can be on-boarded.

If we can draft the kind of direction we want everything to go, then other players who pour directionless money in the ecosystem can easily be swayed to the predetermined direction. As it is, we are all running around like headless chicken doing what is just making us busy but not productive. We are just running in circles.

By merely continuing to organize events, pitch competitions and applying for grants, we're just scratching the bark of the tree, not digging up the roots. Until we focus on digging the roots, we shall continue competing on small things like organizing events with better decoration and sound systems.

We shall continue bumping into each other from event to event and continue lamenting of the existing problems, picking up from where we stopped the last time. And, of course, we shall continue to churn out half-baked products and entrepreneurs that the brutal machine of real life will continue to choke before they even turn a year.

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