This is Money’s start-up spotlight column has looked at proptech and fintech firms seeking to make customers’ lives easier – this time, we look at a firm trying to help businesses.
The Baobab Network partners socially-conscious corporate brands in the UK with innovative Sub-Saharan start-up businesses.
Why? Because according to university friends Tom Fairburn, 25, and Toby Hanington, 26, both have a lot to learn from one another.
In March 2016, the pair launched the Baobab Network with the aim of giving African entrepreneurs the tools they need to scale their businesses, while at the same time giving UK companies access to innovation completely outside the typical Tech City echo chamber.
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University friends Toby Hanington, 26, and Tom Fairburn, 25, want to support start-ups in Africa and bring their innovations to the UK to help British businesses at the same time
Since launching the programme they have closed a £150,000 crowdfunding round and have run programmes in Nairobi with consultants from big companies such as Credit Suisse, UBS, Dell, Barclays and PWC.
Co-founder Tom, who grew up in Kenya, says: ‘I’ve always been passionate about the power that the private sector in Africa can have and have long felt that the African start-up sector has been overlooked.
‘Entrepreneurs that start businesses in countries like Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda do so in incredibly challenging conditions, and we believe that a huge amount can be learnt by spending time with these founders.
‘We aren’t working with micro entrepreneurs or NGOs, instead we are focused on for-profit businesses that could one day be global leaders in their sectors.
‘Our aim is to unlock this learning potential and at the same time provide brands with a way they can have a real impact on millions of people’s lives.’
The network’s founders know they face some big challenges.
It is this very otherness from the typical tech hubs that the pair believe makes African innovation so valuable to businesses in developed economies
The political and social instability suffered by many countries in the African continent has meant there hasn’t been huge confidence in African innovation and, in 2015, only 125 start-ups received seed investment across the whole continent.
But it is this very otherness from the typical tech hubs that the pair believe makes African innovation so valuable to businesses in developed economies.
Co-founder Toby says: ‘We believe African innovation has even more to offer than in traditional innovation hubs like London, Berlin or San Francisco.
‘Across the continent, entrepreneurs are working hard to solve fundamental problems in the health, education and agriculture sectors that could impact the lives of millions.
‘Our aim is to help them succeed by partnering them with world class consultants, whose skills match closely to the needs of the companies we are supporting.’
We caught up with Tom Fairburn, co-founder of The Baobab Network, to find out what motivated them to start the venture and how British businesses could benefit.
Fairburn: Millennials are drawn more and more to jobs where they are provided opportunities to make a positive impact on social issues and we help UK businesses do this
What’s the connection to Africa for you both?
Toby and I met at university, having studied business at the University of Bath, and then entrepreneurship in Vancouver together. We both left university and went straight into the corporate world – Toby went into investment banking and I worked as a buyer for a large supermarket chain in the UK.
However, after two years, we both decided it was time for a change. I grew up in Kenya, my family moved there when I was two years old, and I always wanted Africa to play a big part in my career.
Toby’s passion for Africa was slightly more abstract – having travelled around numerous countries in sub-Saharan Africa including a stint as national team coach of the Swaziland rugby team.
Empowering women farmers
Nawiri Agribusiness sought help from Baobab to present a business plan that would help them secure funding to grow their Macadamia nut export business
Nawiri Agribusiness buys high quality Macadamia nuts from small farmers across Kenya and exports them to buyers in Europe and the USA. The company is still very new, but is run by three women who are passionate about growing a business with social impact at its core.
The team is focused on exporting high quality Macadamia nuts to international markets, and use technology to optimise logistics and make payments to farmers and agents.
The Baobab Network worked with the Nawiri founders in March 2017, with a team from Bank of America Merrill Lynch and HSBC.
Jane Maigua: ‘The team helped us to think through our business model.’
The core focus of the project was to build the company a robust financial model that would allow them to better understand their business, and to put together a proposal that the founders could use when pitching for finance.
Jane Maigua, founder and chief executive of Nawiri, said: ‘The team helped us to think critically through our business model, building a very detailed business plan and financial model that will in no doubt be invaluable to us as we seek to grow and expand.’
Peony Li, from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, added: ‘It’s not just about building a financial model like I do for the bank, but you actually get to understand the business and the people – that was something I was wowed by when I was in Nairobi.’
How and why did you come with the idea of The Baobab Network?
The concept of The Baobab Network was devised over a beer, reminiscing over the time we spent together at university. The corporate world was not what we had expected, and like many of our peers we had become disillusioned at the lack of social impact we were having through our work.
Having had a very diverse and dynamic learning experience at university, we were also shocked at the approach our employers took to talent development.
Monotonous, classroom-based learning sessions were adding little to our professional learning, which was very frustrating.
Aligned with this, and a boom in disruptive technology start-ups in sub-Saharan Africa, we spent some time investigating the start-up ecosystem across the continent.
We consistently saw the same problems being faced; notably across fundraising, talent and missing skill sets.
Knowing that the majority of people could not or would not give up their well-paid city jobs to help such start-ups, we designed a two week programme on the ground in Kenya, matching the skill sets of consultants with the problems being faced by the start-ups.
All of the start-ups we work with are focused on sectors which won’t only help on a micro scale, but could potentially scale continent or even worldwide – education, healthcare, clean energy, agribusiness and fintech.
The Baobab Network now partners with global organisations who see the two-week programme as not only a talent development initiative, but also an opportunity for social impact, diversity and millennial engagement agendas.
What sort of things do you help people do?
The Baobab Network was founded with two core missions. First, to change the way that big corporates around the world think about talent development, and second, to drive growth, innovation and investment across Africa.
This two-sided model means we get to create value in a number of different ways, to a number of different stakeholders, which is one of the things we enjoy most about our work.
The programmes that we organise are bespoke in nature, as each start-up will have a unique set of problems that we look to try and help solve.
We bring out experts from our network that have skill sets relevant to these problems, and this allows us to maximise the impact we have as it means that the project work we deliver is of a very high standard.
The Baobab Network believes British businesses have a lot to learn from Africa
We have helped start-ups with fundraising rounds, sales and marketing strategies as well as business plans and financial models. It is these aspects of the business that sometimes get overlooked by early stage tech companies, and these skill sets match well with the sort of businesses looking to get involved in the UK.
From a corporate perspective, we help our partners design innovative, engaging and impactful talent development programmes, that challenge their young leaders to think differently about the world of work.
The opportunity to work with inspiring tech entrepreneurs in Africa, combined with our programme of workshops, creates fantastic learning opportunities that allows participants to grow and develop personally, as well as professionally.
Using technology in farming
UjuziKilimo provides instant soil testing for smallholder farmers as well as a data platform which has the potential to help input providers, insurance firms, and banks
Having launched in 2015, UjuziKilimo has refined a product that provides instant soil testing for smallholder farmers as well as a data platform which will not only help these farmers, but also has the potential to help input providers, insurance firms, and banks.
The concept of soil testing is new for the majority of farmers, with less than 5 per cent of small farmers regularly carrying out a soil test, and the UjuziKilimo team also spends time educating and empowering them to increase productivity and yields. However, it has proven very popular. The team aims to reach 5,000 farmers this year.
Baobab worked with UjuziKilimo in August 2016 and June 2017, most recently with a team from Barclays, Goldman Sachs and a US-based investment firm. The project was to deliver an investment pack that the founders could use as they look to raise finance in the next 12 months, and also work on the company’s user acquisition plan, data strategy and financial model.
Brian Bosire, founder and chief executive of Ujuzi Kilimo, said: ‘It was good to get new perspectives and even a new strategy on the next steps. We learnt a lot from the two weeks and cheers to The Baobab network team!’
Andrew Hoyle, from Barclays UK, added: ‘The two weeks allowed me to experience the huge opportunities, but also challenges, that early stage tech businesses in East Africa face day to day.
‘My experience in finance in London allowed me to bring new skills to the start-up that I worked with, as they prepared for an upcoming funding round.’
What sort of UK businesses should consider doing it and why?
We are looking to partner with UK businesses who want more than just a classic talent programme.
The programme offers a fantastic opportunity to work with some of Africa’s most exciting entrepreneurs, see how disruptive technologies are solving some of the continent’s biggest problems and put their high potential talent into a challenging environment to learn from.
Global organisations need to start taking social impact seriously – millennials are drawn more and more to jobs where they are provided opportunities to make a positive impact on social issues. Over the past 12 months, we’ve worked with top talent from the likes of Barclays, PwC, HSBC and IBM, and the impact the teams have had has been enormous and long lasting.
The Baobab Network provides a fantastic opportunity to work with and learn from entrepreneurs who want to change the world, and encourages such companies to become more entrepreneurial.
In November 2017, Baobab is running a two-week programme in Accra focused on helping women entrepreneurs grow their businesses and become more ready for investment
How can it help UK businesses develop and grow?
There is a huge amount global organisations can learn from start-ups in Africa. Firstly, when you are immersed in a start-up, teams are trained to be lean and agile.
These are not things that big corporates are famous for, and so such exposure can have a powerful effect on those involved. Partnerships provide corporate staff members with a working environment where every decision counts and risks need to be calculated quickly.
One conversation could lead to a fundamental pivot in strategy and can provide corporate staff with a unique platform to learn and develop new skills.
When people who work in clearly defined roles put themselves in an entrepreneurial mindset, it exposes people to completely different ways of thinking
Secondly, working with world class entrepreneurs teaches corporate talent how to innovate and build solutions to real market problems. Corporate innovation programmes are often slow moving, classroom based and don’t lead to tangible solutions being built.
When people who work in clearly defined roles put themselves in an entrepreneurial mindset, it exposes people to completely different ways of thinking. There is a cultural push now to make big organisations more ‘intrepreneurial’, and so opportunities to work alongside African start-ups can have a lasting impact on corporate teams, as they take skills back into their day jobs.
In March 2018, Baobab is running a two week programme in South Africa, focused on supporting early stage tech companies in the education sector
Finally, social impact can be directly linked to commercial growth.
Big corporates struggle to design programmes and business models where sustainability and social impact are integral to their success.
This contrasts sharply with the culture of many start-ups in sub-Saharan Africa, where solutions are being built for local market problems that the founders themselves have long experienced.
If products and services can be built that have a social impact with each consumer they take on, then commercial growth and sustainability are tied together and the world will begin to work in a better way.
What do you get out of it?
The Baobab Network has provided us with an amazing platform to work with some of the most talented professionals from around the world.
By running the programmes end-to-end, we are immersed in the projects, building relationships with start-ups and consultants that want to change the world. As a whole, sub-Saharan Africa is budding with opportunities and it is so exciting to be in the middle of it and really adding value.
In the long term, we hope to turn our profits into a fund that invests directly back into the start-ups we work with. We are also looking at how the start-ups may be able to globalise, and have an impact on a wider scale than just sub-Saharan Africa.
We are placed between some of the most powerful organisations in the world and some of the most inspiring entrepreneurs, who between them can solve some of the biggest issues being faced on the planet.
How do British businesses get involved?
This year we are running six programmes across Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and Rwanda.
The focus of each trip will be different – one focusing on women entrepreneurs in Accra, and another on start-ups helping insure the un-insured in Nairobi.
The bespoke programmes cost £6,000 per person for the nine day programme.
This covers accommodation, workspace, business visas, full board catering and travel in country.
We also run workshops and deep dive sessions before and after the projects, which are run remotely.
These ensure that our teams are as prepared as possible ahead of the engagements, and also maximise the impact of the programme when they return to their day to day role.
Financial start-up spotlight
At This is Money we hear from hundreds of new start-ups across property and financial services.
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