Since 2016, Digital@DAI has kept its readers updated on the latest from the Kosmos Innovation Center (KIC) in Ghana, from young entrepreneurs’ agritech product concepts to international awards it has received. In the three years since the KIC’s launch, funders of all sorts—from bilateral donors to corporate social investors—have embraced the potential of Africa’s growing startup ecosystem to support socio-economic development and create new solutions to some of the continent’s most persistent challenges. In that time, KIC and DAI have learned a lot about what it means to support youth-led technology entrepreneurship.
We’ve compiled our findings in the latest CDA Insights paper titled, ‘Building the Future of Tech-Enabled Agriculture.’ In addition to providing lessons for both funders and implementers in this sector, we created profiles of select KIC entrepreneurs and captured their journeys.
Insights from Three Years of KIC
We divided our insights into two sections: insights for organizations that fund and design entrepreneurship-focused programs and insights for organizations that implement them.
Insights for Funders and Designers
1. Recruit people, not ideas.
Unlike most traditional incubators, KIC applicants are not expected to apply with pre-formed business ideas or partnerships. Rather, KIC prioritizes recruiting passionate individuals who have diverse skillsets, experience, and perspectives. This choice enables entrepreneurs with complementary strengths to join teams organically as the program unfolds.
2. Commit to a full cycle of support to entrepreneurs.
KIC’s approach sits in contrast to the growing number of one-off pitch competitions, weeklong bootcamps, and weekend hackathons hosted by donors and global venture capitalists around Africa. KIC goes deep and commits a relatively modest budget to a full lifecycle of support to its entrepreneurs, taking them from ideas through to seed funding and beyond.
3. Embrace—and mitigate—risk.
Working with youth-led technology startups, especially in a well-established industry like Ghana’s agriculture sector, is inherently risky. Eliminating this risk is not an option—rather, KIC embraces and mitigates this risk in pursuit of long-term goals.
4. Leverage funders’ brand power, credibility, and technical capabilities.
Funders have an opportunity to invest more than capital into technology entrepreneurship programs. As Kosmos Energy has demonstrated in KIC, a company can use its brand power to open doors for entrepreneurs, leverage employee time and skills, and shape programs to reflect its ethos. These mutually reinforcing dynamics can demonstrate value to both funders and the entrepreneurs they support.
Insights for Implementers
1. Invest time and resources to recruit a diverse, high-quality cohort.
KIC aims to create cohorts with a diverse mixture of skills, experience, and backgrounds, so that entrepreneurs with complementary strengths can form teams. KIC has successfully recruited attendees with varying skillsets and from all 10 regions of Ghana, but achieving diversity in other traits has been an ongoing challenge. For example, attracting women to a program focused on agriculture and technology has been difficult. Similarly, the vast majority of KIC participants are university graduates, so representation from Ghana’s low-income communities is low.
2. Maximize opportunities for entrepreneurs to interact directly with market actors.
Traditional capacity building—lectures, workshops, and mentorship—does not an entrepreneur make. KIC focuses attention and resources on giving its entrepreneurs hands-on experience in the field. These engagements with users, prospective clients, and agricultural industry experts shape their design and business concepts throughout the program and beyond.
3. Engage local and sector-specific technical expertise and networks.
KIC draws heavily on the insights of local experts in agriculture and technology, as well as the local entrepreneurship ecosystem. KIC gives its entrepreneurs the encouragement and the resources needed to tackle longstanding challenges in new ways. This locally driven approach also connects KIC entrepreneurs directly with prospective customers and partners, and opens doors at institutions such as ministries of agriculture, whose support can be critical in a sector in which the government is so deeply involved.
4. Emphasize soft skills as much as hard skills or sector knowledge.
KIC matches its technical assistance with training on soft skills such as leadership, team-building, discipline, and others. These skills are indispensable as entrepreneurs go through their journeys, helping them tackle The stresses and overcome the challenges inherent to the startup life.