Kai Nip, Staff Photographer

March 16 is set to see the release of the Yale Africa Startup Review’s first-ever #YASR30 list, which will feature 30 innovative startups from across the African continent.

Founded by a team of current and past Yale students, the Yale Africa Startup Review aims to create a new way of looking at African entrepreneurship and innovation. YASR relies on nominations from startup hubs, labs and venture capital firms across the continent as a way of finding companies to review. In this way, YASR is able to focus on grassroot businesses from a diverse set of locations, allowing the team to shed light on companies that may not receive as much attention as larger businesses. The group hopes that, by bringing attention to these startups, they will help African innovators attract interest from stakeholders and investors. 

“We ask ourselves a very simple question,” Samuel Kitara SOM ’20 explained. “Is a robotic startup in South Africa that’s using some very amazing machine learning algorithms intrinsically more innovative than another startup in, let’s say, Cameroon, that’s just trying to connect farmers’ produce to markets and solving very basic value chain problems? For us at YASR, while a robotic startup in South Africa always comes out to the press, we don’t think it’s fundamentally much more innovative.”

It was Kitara who was first inspired to create an organization that would support innovation in Africa. He was prompted by his experience at the Yale School of Management, where he said he rarely came across case studies focusing on African businesses. Finding that this was true for most other business schools, Kitara realized that there was a missing story of African business innovation, and he told the News that he wanted to help fill that gap. 

In February 2020, Kitara began reaching out to other students at SOM.

“I specifically have a text message from Kitara … trying to corral some other students … around this idea of starting something that is more actionable for supporting innovation in business in Africa,” said Sharon Mwale SPH ’16, a member of the YASR team. “Rather than just doing, you know, the typical circuit of … ‘Africa focused conferences’ where you kind of have a panel … you network a little bit, meet one or two people and then move on from there.”

Following its formation, the YASR gathered nominations, screened businesses and appointed investors, entrepreneurs and business faculty from different African countries as judges. They have since narrowed down what was originally more than 200 nominations to the final list of 30 startups that YASR will release online next week.

The process was not without its obstacles. The team had to meet across multiple time zones, while juggling school, job searches and moving — all in the middle of the pandemic.

“I think it has been really challenging,” said Caroline van der Merwe SOM ’20. “What’s kept it going is, of course, having an amazing group of people … I think we’ve all sort of shored each other up … when some of us had a more intense time.”

Kitara also highlighted the challenge inherent to their mission of finding startups from many different locations and industries, at many different stages of investment.

He commented that while a more traditional feature may have involved a simple Google search for African startups, the team’s desire to find “hidden gems” with less media coverage required much more effort.

“Trying to do the right thing, and trying to do the rigorous thing was, in some ways, the hard way,” Kitara said. 

The team described Africa as a market that comes with its own unique challenges for innovators, requiring different directions of problem solving than other continents. For one, Africa’s diversity of countries and cultures can create obstacles for entrepreneurs, from difficulties in transportation to barriers in language and communication. The average youth of the population similarly requires different strategies than would be used in countries with older populations. 

YASR team member Lina Kacyem SOM ’21 also highlighted the impact of colonialism on African markets.

“There is no structural system that was implemented by [Africans],” she said. “For the most part, systems were inherited from whoever was the colonizer, the men on the boat. So, in a lot of cases, things have to be created, or destroyed or modified. That makes [Africa] unique. There is a major need to create a new institution to actually destroy what’s in place because it’s not working for the people, the people on the continent.”

The YASR, however, sees these issues as more than just obstacles. Because entrepreneurship and innovation are about solving problems and filling in market gaps, the team suggests that the African continent also holds large opportunities for success.

Mwale noted that emerging markets also have another benefit.

“I think what you see on the continent is the ability for us to learn from industrialization, without having to go through the process of … industrialization,” she said. “You don’t have to be like, ‘Okay now let’s do paper, now let’s do email, now let’s create documents in the cloud.’ Automatically, we can learn from industrialized countries and leapfrog a lot of processes, tearing down and breaking things in order to make something more efficient.”

The organization has also launched the Yale Africa Startup Ecosystem Lab, which is run by the School of Management’s Africa Business and Society Group. It will appoint students from across the globe to help YASR-featured entrepreneurs solve major challenges in their startups.

For future steps, the team is already reflecting on ways to improve their process for next year’s publication. They also hope to reach out to more students and alumni of the Yale community.

“I think it’s taken a very long time to get off the ground,” van der Merwe said. “Now that we’re almost there, I think there’s quite a lot of interest from people who want to participate next year. And I think as a team we’ve been energized by … some of the mistakes we made and some of the ways that we can improve it, and some of the ways we can actually add rigor to our methodology.”

YASR first announced their organization on Twitter on Oct. 1, 2020.

Isabelle Qian | isabelle.qian@yale.edu

ISABELLE QIAN
Isabelle Qian covers graduate student affairs. She is a first year in Pierson College and comes from Seattle, WA.