5 December 2017

Namibia's Emerging Start-Ups

OVER the past few years since the establishment of Namibia's first FABlab, we have seen growth in youth driving their own ideas and following the entrepreneurship path.

Multi-helix stakeholders are joining hands to promote entrepreneurship and innovation, which is fostering a culture of change in the country.

Over the past year alone, we co-hosted the first Namibian start-up festival, with over 250 young innovators and stakeholders attending the event.

We also hosted an ADDventure pitching den event, where five local start-ups pitched their ideas to hard-hitting business experts. The winner was awarded N$75 000.

The first #pitchnightnam initiative was then launched, where the top ten SDG-aligned businesses pitched to a panel of experts. The two winners were awarded the opportunity to attend the top European start-up event, funded by Finland's ministry of foreign affairs.

These motions are leaps and bounds from what we had seen in the past during the research and development phase and launch of FABlab during 2011-2015.

In 2016, we launched an initiative to promote local innovative start-ups, in collaboration with Team Namibia.

We held three pitching events, where over 27 start-ups pitched to a panel of 10 supporting private and public sector entities. A total capital investment of over N$25 million was recorded here.

FABlab itself invested over N$150 000 in this initiative, and believe that this promotion was definitely a contributing factor to growing the culture of innovative young businesses.

The collaborative effort among public, private and international stakeholders is powering a drive towards diversification, where micro, small and medium-sized enterprises are emerging and encouraging entrepreneurial aspirations among our communities.

A start-up is usually defined as a business younger than five years old, with a prototype which is ready to scale. Of course, this definition has wide interpretations, depending on location and rationale.

In Namibia, we are yet to solidify our own definition and this, together with formalising investor networks, is something we are working on.

There are a host of exciting fresh, local start-up products and their creators who are making waves this year.

MOME Housing won the ADDventure pitching den with a low-cost housing solution. N.E.S.T was the overall winner at the #pitchnightnam event with their locally-designed and prototyped waterless composting toilet that will provide a sanitation solution for Africa as a whole.

The runners-up at #pitchingnam presented PEBL, a low-cost basic computer for under N$4 000 that can also be attached to any TV or monitor to provide internet access. They will build a manufacturing base in Namibia, surely to provide new job opportunities.

It is interesting to note that all of these innovations are solving African problems, and are being recognised internationally. It is portentous to be part of this era in Namibia.

The ideas pitched by other entrepreneurs ranged from locally manufactured quality toilet paper to digital health platforms, education technologies, insurance solutions, taxi safety and tracking applications and even machines.

Comparing these ideas to those of the previous years shows that there is definitely a shift to more sustainable and circular economy inventions, as well as a visible improvement in the calibre of entrepreneurs and their market-readiness levels.

There are still areas for improvement that FABlab is tackling as part of its development and growth challenges. I believe that creating a conducive and cooperative environment in Namibia is the best way for our ecosystem to flourish and grow.

Local enthusiasts abound and are engaging these enterprises, supporting their improvement, and mentoring and coaching the founders, which is great to witness.

Competing against one another rather than harnessing each other's strength and building a stronger community is where we should not be; we must synergise to grow and prosper, allowing for positive exponential growth to take place.

One of my favourite start-ups that emerged during the past few pitching sessions is Auguste Lisias. What I find phenomenal about her start-up story is that she is a female 'struggle child' who was granted the opportunity to pursue her studies in baking.

Lisias did not give up or sit back, waiting for hand-outs. She built a shack bakery, and walked for miles every day before dawn to collect firewood, baked muffins and sold them to her local community. She pushed for her dream, and committed herself.

After meeting with the City of Windhoek and FABlab, we collaborated to make sure she could get her business off the ground and soar. Two years later, we managed to secure N$100 000 from the Environmental Investment Fund for Lisias to establish a bakery.

She is currently incubated at the City of Windhoek Bokamoso Centre, where she has already broken even, and is growing from strength to strength.

Her muffin business is called Mother Nature, and she incorporates natural resources - local flavours, nuts and berries - into her freshly-baked goods, and is supplying coffee shops and corporate clients across the city.

This is the true story of a local start-up innovator and a testament to the fact that commitment and hard work pays off.

Another new ecosystem player that is emerging is the co-working space. In the past year, more than three co-working spaces have opened in Windhoek alone.

These enablers are supporting the growth of innovation by providing affordable desk and meeting spaces as well as shared administration. In building flourishing start-up ecosystems, the cornerstones are investors and funding support, low-risk sandboxes and entrepreneur hubs, industry and academia partnerships and incubators as well as mentors and enthusiasts.

NUST has long been an initiator and supporter of innovation, growing this culture internally and externally. Academia is where we will provide the right kind of skills and critical thinking that the youth need in order to be competitive innovators.

We are slowly putting all the pieces into place, and 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating'. We are seeing daily proof that the investments made in creating this ecosystem are reaping due rewards, namely fostering the innovation culture which will drive the economy forward into a new era where new business will arise and fusionists, who carry hybrid skill sets and entrepreneurial passion, will thrive.

Not-for-profit investment into research, development, prototyping and innovative activities is, unfortunately, a hard sell in the current economic climate. However, on the positive side, I can confidently say that our local communities are taking it upon themselves to create opportunities, and are building the ecosystem themselves.

Start-ups are benefiting monetarily from the co-working hubs that they are running, and in turn the entrepreneurs are benefiting as they have low overhead costs and flexibility.

This is a new start-up scene on the rise, and the innovations being born are changing the way that Namibia is perceived in the greater start-up communities worldwide.

This year for the first time, two local Namibian start-ups represented the country at the 9th African Union private sector forum and NEPAD African Leaders in Dialogue dinner, and they represented the country at the internationally-acclaimed SLUSH event in December.

Acceleration can only come from investment, be it tangible or intangible. Local innovation needs champions, and the NUST FABlab team will continue to support creative thinking, multi-disciplinary ideation, providing a cooperative platform to promote local innovators, risk-takers and a space to prototype and turn ideas into reality.


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