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It still takes a village

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Lagos

My friend Ope Adeoye had a sum money that he set aside to invest, and he asked his followers on Twitter to help him choose between the startups “PiggyBank” and Cowrie Wise. Some people responded with their preferences in the comment section and gave reasons for their choice. Mark Essien (founder of Hotels.ng) also responded, and he came up with the most pragmatic and practical solution to address Ope’s dilemma – He told him to split the money between both startups to support them.
It takes a community.

There is a widely repeated African proverb which says “It takes a village to raise a child.” The popularity grew globally when Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former First Lady of the USA wrote a book with the title “It Takes a Village.” Both the title of the book and the original proverb refers to the collective efforts of communities in the upbringing and welfare of children. It also takes a village to build a great business. Most successful enterprises build communities around their products because they cannot always generate possible future product iterations internally. All the major technology companies take their developer and user communities seriously.

The foundation of successful ecosystems are communities, and great companies are a product of communities. The American technology pioneer and publisher – Tim O’Reilly, in his latest book titled “What’s The Future” shows the open-source foundations of ALL the most successful Billion dollar companies we have today. Open-source products are community driven and without the efforts of those communities, most of the great software we use today including Google’s Android phone operating system would not have existed.

Beyond building products, companies also depend on other companies and communities to succeed. At the basic operational level, they need input from investors, creditors and suppliers and in some cases the distribution of output through third parties to customers. The strength of a business is directly related to the strength of the relationships it builds with all of those parties and the cohesion of internal stakeholders.

Perhaps the most excellent example of the role of communities in helping to start and build up a business is the Igbo Apprenticeship and business incubation model called “Imu Ahia.”
Communities and the African future.

Riby Finance is yet another interesting Nigerian startup trying to harness the power of local communities existing as cooperatives. Riby is not only formalizing and optimizing the processes within existing cooperatives which it has aggregated, but it is also making it easier for similar cooperatives to be formed by those who see the unique benefits of these clusters.

The sheer number of cooperative units Riby has aggregated shows that communities are still the basic foundations of informal business in Nigeria. A lot of these cooperatives clusters were borne out of necessity. The realization that you cannot survive alone in harsh business conditions makes resilient clusters more attractive. The question remains “Why are technology startups not learning from these successful local models?”

The most underrated truth about local communities is that they succeed mostly by supporting themselves. They are self-funding and self-supporting communities. Local startups cannot succeed if they don’t start by helping themselves and growing based on similar arrangements. External parties like foreign investors ultimately extract value they take out through outcomes, but “value” remains within a community when shared inside it.

Sim Shagaya (the founder of Konga) famously said that the best investor a startup can have is their customer. The Silicon Valley ecosystem also believes strongly in this also, and they show it in their actions. It is why the biggest customers of most startups are other startups. The Silicon Valley Ecosystem is “The Stack.” They build on each other to multiply value and learning within the ecosystem. People moving from one company to another are not a net loss to the companies, but a net gain to the ecosystem as cross-pollination occurs.

The Nigerian startup community is beginning to realize that community support is not just from “shout outs” and small Angel Investments in other startups but also from patronage. Celestine Ezeokoye the founder of the Nigerian startup “WeMove” recently wrote a great article about how Jason Njoku got them to provide logistics services to IrokoTV.

The second Accelerator class of Google Launchpad Africa graduated recently and in three months, startups within a cohort started discussions between themselves on how to work together to strengthen themselves. Launchpad’s greatest strength is the community. Increased collaboration is a desired outcome, and the selection process has that possibility embedded.

Maybe the best model for African accelerators in future will be the one where the entire community nominates who should attend based on how helpful they are to other startups. Village Capital and Alta Ventures currently use similar methodologies that allow entrepreneurs within a cohort to choose the best and most collaborative from amongst themselves.

A startup venture is like a prized child, and it still takes the entire community acting as one village to build it successfully.


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