Senegal host to first Startup Weekend in Francophone Africa

During the presidential elections of last weekend the world was looking at Senegal and many observers were surprised when Wade handed over the power to opposition candidate Sall. Soon after the celebration of this ‘victory for democracy’ it will be time for the first Startup Weekend in Francophone Africa as Senegal’s capital city Dakar will host the worldwide event from 30 March to 1 April. VC4Africa spoke to Yann Le Beux, one of the organizers.

How will the outcome of Sunday’s election influence starting entrepreneurs?

“This peaceful and loyal second round of elections which saw the arrival of a new president is another proof of the historical political stability of Senegal. It is also great news for foreign investors and businesses here. The new president Makcy Sall announced an ambitious program for IT and entrepreneurship and we hope he will keep this position. Several actors like our incubator CTIC Dakar, the ICT Business Association (OPTIC) and the Senegalese Accelerated Growth Initiative (SCA) are constantly pushing the government for a stronger support to entrepreneurs. The presence of officials at the first Startup Weekend Dakar is for instance a good thing but it should only be a first stone.”

Why is there a need for a Startup weekend in Senegal?

“Firstly to put Dakar and its active tech scene into the international startup community. Secondly to create a highly engaging and business oriented event for developers and entrepreneurs. Thirdly to make people from different background and sectors work together on concrete business ideas and start long term collaborations. And last but not least to prove decision makers, corporations and investors that motivated people can develop prototypes of meaningful IT solutions in a short time and at no cost and thus, that well supported IT startups can have a tremendous impact on the country’s economy.”

Can you describe the startup scene in Senegal and Dakar in particular?

“The Senegalese startup scene has been really booming in the past year or two and Dakar is clearly becoming a leading tech hub for West Africa. The first reason for this recent activity is certainly the quality of the network and the mobile phones’ penetration, Senegal having one of the best telecom and internet infrastructures on the continent.

Another asset of the Senegalese ecosystem lies in the regionally recognized academic institutions like the Ecole Supérieure Polytechnique, UCAD, ESMT and many others institutions that attract the best talents from all francophone Africa. The highly connected and entrepreneurial Diaspora that has been through world-class universities and companies in Europe and the US also plays a crucial role in the environment. A lot of them actually came back to found their own venture. Dakar is the West-African base for most of the major IT corporations like Google, Microsoft, HP, IBM, Nokia and Samsung that are all actively involved in the ecosystem.

Lastly, the past two years have seen the emergence of dynamic initiatives driven by the private sector to boost entrepreneurship like the incubator and accelerator CTIC Dakar, the coworking space Jokkolabs, or the Mobile Senegal group. Dakar also has very active BarCamp, Android and Open-Source communities.

The startup scene is mostly concentrated in Dakar but we recently saw a dynamic ecosystem emerging also around Saint-Louis thanks to the University UGB and the coworking space Bantalabs. These are all great assets for an entrepreneurship ecosystem, but Senegal is still lacking of risk-investors at the seed stage even if some international VCs like Investisseurs et Partenaires, Aureos Capital or Cauris are around and made some later stages investments. We are still lobbying the government towards the creation of a national IT seed fund and for a law giving a fixed quota of the public markets to local SMEs.”

Why did you choose for the theme ‘Bridging the gap between IT, Agriculture and the Arts’?

“IT is often regarded as a sector on its own and due to a lack of cross-linkages, IT solutions struggle to impact sectors where they could have an enormous leverage for the Senegalese economy. We then decided to focus the event on this two sectors first but others events will target m-health, m-finance and other key areas. However, it’s important to point out that the event remains open to any great idea from any sector.”

What can visitors of the StartupWeekend Dakar expect?

“They can expect concrete networking opportunities with other talented developers and entrepreneurs. They will also have the chance to share with seasoned entrepreneurs part of our mentors and jury like Cheikh Tidiane Mbaye, CEO of Orange-Sonatel (1 billions € revenues in 2011), Tidjane Deme, Director of Google Francophone Africa, Chams Diagne, Director of Viadeo Africa and the founders of some of the most successful IT companies in the region: Antoine Ngom of GSIE, Abdoulaye Mbaye of Neurotech and Omar Cissé of 2SI and now director of CTIC Dakar.

The participants will also have the opportunity to boost their project and get a lot of media attention. The national TV channel RST1 will for instance follow and broadcast the entire weekend. Of course, winning teams will received some reward from our partners like a 3 months incubation program at CTIC Dakar, working spots at Jokkolabs, access to Bizpark and a SME manager training from Microsoft, and others…”

You work for CTIC Dakar, please describe the organization and your role?

“CTIC Dakar is the first incubator and accelerator of Senegal for high-potential IT and mobile entrepreneurs. We are a non-profit and our vision is to become one of the leading hubs in West Africa for the training, the growth and the funding of high-potential entrepreneurs. Originated by the private sector and the World Bank InfoDev program, CTIC is also supported by corporations like Orange-Sonatel and international donors. After less than one year of activity, we incubate nine companies of 5 to 20 employees each and we accelerated more than 15 startups projects through our different programs.

We organize events for the tech community, private business networking and seminars for IT entrepreneurs and we are now building strong links with universities. I joined the management team few months ago as a Catalyst. My role is to work with entrepreneurs on their strategy and business models, coordinate the team of consultants and mentors and to work on innovative funding scheme for tech startups. On the incubator side, I help building international partnerships, design new programs and develop our long term strategy along with our Director Omar Cissé.”

What are examples of recent successful startups in Senegal? And who should we watch in the coming year?

“We can mention ‘People Input‘, which recently received an award as the best West-African web and social media agency. Created 7 years ago, the network solution provider ‘Neurotech‘ also had an amazing growth and now boosts a nice +€3m revenue. There is then ‘GSIE‘, ‘2SI or Chaka‘ computers that all have more than 5 years of continual growth in the field.

On the newcomers’ side, I think of ‘Nelam Services‘, a great startup team which provides high-value African content on different platforms and notably creators of; ‘M-Loumas‘, a promising startup that provides a mobile app connecting producers and vendors in rural daily markets; ‘‘ that provides a platform to create personalized online video business cards and ‘SenMobile‘, which develops various mobile apps and recently won the Ericsson’s App for Africa challenge.

As far I am concerned, I think we should really watch and develop local content mobile apps, crowd sourcing and funding platforms, private social networks for businesses, group texting and gaming applications, notably via Facebook.”

How can people contact you?

“Via email Yann.lebeux [at], Phone +221 33 889 9360, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and via our website”