Matibabu, a Ugandan based hardware device company will be graduating from the Villgro Kenya incubation program. Matibabu partnered with Villgro Kenya in 2016 at a time when Villgro Kenya was looking to take a more structured and hands-on approach of engaging with startups in the health domain in East Africa.
With the objective to tap into Villgro Kenya’s global startup ecosystem, Matibabu was able to have direct access to high-potential partnerships that fit their key focus area: closing the gap between communities and access to basic healthcare.
Since the incubation started, Matibabu has received hands-on mentorship and access to large platform pitches, including the Gates Foundation and Grand Challenges. They also worked with Makerere University, under Villgro Kenya’s guidance, to conduct a pre-clinical study support and protocol design, and then to conduct the study itself. The pre-clinical trial was carried out at the molecular lab in Mulago on the selected sample size and compared with the existing malaria screening techniques such as PCR, Microscopy, and rapid diagnostic testing (RDT), resulting in conclusive results.
The partnership featured frequent capacity-building support, one-on-one sessions, monthly diagnostic panels, a scientific review committee, and educational degrees to enhance Matibabu’s business approach.
Additionally, Matibabu managed to collaborate with a list of foundations and organizations during Villgro Kenya’s incubation period. These include Lemelson Foundation, ASME’s iSHOW, Gates Foundation, mHealth Kenya, ResilientAfrica Network (RAN), and Makerere University. The collaboration also gave Matibabu the opportunity to leverage on several networks, both at the local and international levels.
Their next steps include getting through large-scale trials and scaling the malaria digital platform that is currently in 50 hospitals and reaching the next milestone of over 200 hospitals.
It has been a learning experience for the Matibabu team, which has had insights into innovation and collaboration with both the public and private sectors for early-stage medical device development.
Medixus, a knowledge-sharing app that enables health care workers to connect and collaborate in real-time, has made a number of strides since they joined the Villgro Kenya portfolio.
The company, which has been offering health care facilities with free subscriptions to improve patient care during the pandemic, has offered health workers a platform to consult with doctors outside their specialty and an opportunity to upscale their medical knowledge.
The COVID-19 response grant they received from Villgro Kenya has enabled them to allow other cadres of health providers to benefit from the resources and connections on the platform. They have also been able to add additional features to enhance their product.
“Besides the funding we received, Dr. Sylvia Shitsama, the mentor assigned to us by Villgro Kenya, has been very instrumental in contributing to content on the platform and opening up her network to us. The diagnostic panels have also helped us hear from a wider point of view of experts. So much has opened up and enabled us to progress a lot faster,” said Dr. Jean Kyula, Director of Business Development at Medixus.
The platform which currently serves over 900 health workers recently partnered with Gertrude’s Hospital, the most established pediatric hospital in Eastern and Central Africa, to improve pediatric care throughout the country.
The partnership with Gertrude’s Hospital will leverage their expertise in order to provide all 47 counties in Kenya with quality pediatric care. After an initial pilot, this will be done through consultations on the Medixus platform with facilities that have been selected in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. This will help reduce the amount of time and finances patients spend traveling to receive treatment in Nairobi and will lead to improved quality of services at the point of care.
“The essence of the app is that you are able to take a specialty and take it closer to areas where it is scarce. Their specialty will help better patient care to remote areas of the country by providing access to better care faster,” Jean mentioned during an interview.
Mr. Onesmus Kamau, Head of E-Health at the Ministry of Health, validated the need for a wider reach of the product saying, “This needs to be a day-to-day tool for hard-to-reach counties, but also those within cities. This is really great, they can use this to consult an expert who is within a county or outside a county – even within a clinical team, peer-to-peer consultations is also important … this is a game-changer.”
Wekebere Limited, a Ugandan based e-health startup developing a remote fetal monitor is among eleven startups that have been selected to join the first Artificial Intelligence Accelerator Program in Ghana.
The selected participants will receive business training and capacity development required towards building highly scalable AI businesses out of their innovative solutions. The AI focussed accelerator program is run by Ghana Tech Lab in partnership with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and IBM
Earlier this year Villgro Kenya awarded the team a $20, 000 grant with technical assistance for their hardware based innovation which incorporates data analytics to increase access to care, provide personalized feedback to mothers, and help doctors earlier predict and manage pregnancy complications in low resource settings.
The makers of the affordable fetal monitor aim to reduce fetal and maternal mortality in Uganda and Sub- Saharan Africa. According to data from UNICEF, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest maternal mortality ratio with over two thirds of all maternal deaths yearly worldwide. The device currently monitors fetal heart rate, fetal movement and contractions.
Villgro Kenya’s open call for COVID-19 response solutions presented an opportunity for Lishe Living, a digital wellness and nutrition platform to reach more people living with non-communicable diseases. Lishe Living offers them a nutrition solution to manage their conditions during the pandemic.
Sharon Olago, the founder of Lishe Living, applied for the grant after learning that persons living with non-communicable diseases were distressed and particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
“At the onset of the pandemic, I received a call from the Kenya Defeat Diabetes Association’s Reuben Mogaka to come up with a solution for their members who were at high risk of dying from COVID-19. We decided to run an online clinic on Whatsapp with two trained medical microbiologists and two nutritionists to offer individualized nutrition programmes to 400 members,” said Sharon.
Following a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy body weight are key to the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. For many patients living with diabetes, the cost of insulin continues to be a challenge. Through the Lishe Living group, a member mentioned that she was able to save Ksh 4,000 per month on money she would have used to buy insulin.
“My insulin has reduced by 5 units that’s saving 2 pallets per month roughly Ksh 4,000. Lishe Living is a great group, it encourages us to eat healthy and right portions to help me get good sugar control and do exercise according to fitness levels… those tests have helped me learn about my health and diabetes,” the member posted on a survey done by Lishe Living.
Speaking of the support she has received from Villgro Kenya, Sharon mentions that the diagnostic panels and the mentorship program have helped move the company forward towards their goal of profitability and sustainability.
“The grant has helped us sustain our nutritionists’ contribution as we test this model, and the diagnostic panels help us think through how to make the model profitable in the long run. Through Villgro Kenya, we are not only getting the finance but also the technical support which is more beneficial for us. Our mentor Ankit Jhanwar has also been very helpful in our operations through our weekly check-ins”.
Unlike HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, access to care for most non-communicable diseases such as diabetes is a major problem especially among the poor, a situation which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. With interventions like Lishe Living, more patients can get access to personalized information from professionals on how to manage their conditions.
One month after Villgro Kenya awarded Simbona Africa $15,000 for their locally assembled UVC Room Sterilizer, the company has made significant progress in delivering the automated room sterilizers to hospitals in Ethiopia.
The device, which is fitted with UVC lamps (8 watts) that emit high intensity ultraviolet light, is able to kill microorganisms and pathogens found on surfaces in a room, including COVID-19.
Simbona Africa has delivered four machines to Jimma Medical Centre which is an isolation centre for COVID-19 patients. The machines are used to disinfect their wards, kitchen and ambulances which they use to transfer patients.
Simbona Africa has also received over 30 orders from individuals, hospitals and governmental offices, including Hosanna Hospital, which purchased a machine for their wards and departments..
The automated UV room sterilizer was shortlisted among ten COVID-19 interventions for the Ethiopian Ministry of Innovation and Technology Call for COVID-19 Innovations.
Following a successful call for applications, Villgro Kenya is excited to announce its new pool of mentors, drawn from across the world. The mentors come from a range of sectors, each with strong expertise in their various fields. Villgro Kenya will work closely with them to ensure they are well equipped to leverage their knowledge, expertise and networks to guide the companies in our portfolio.
The selected mentors include:
- Philippa Ngaju Makobore, head of the instrumentation division at the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI)
- Shivachi Muleji who has been a manager at Uber, Bolt and Swvl
- Dr. June Madete, the coordinator of the African Biomedical Engineering Consortium
- Dr. Sylvia Shitsama, a consulting neurosurgeon and coordinator of the mentorship program at JKUAT
- Dr. Kenneth Chelule, Senior Research Officer at the Kenya Industrial Research & Development Institute
- Ankit Jhanwar VP, Strategy Pluss Advanced Technologies Ltd.
- Belinda Shitsama, MSME & Startup Guru
- George Kaburu, Operations Director at Ipsos
At Villgro Kenya, we are aware of the difference a mentor can make in a startup’s journey to scale. They are instrumental in helping new ventures make fewer mistakes and overcome the common obstacles faced by companies in the early stages.
The CEO of MamaOpe, Olivia Koburongo, testifies to this fact. Arun Venaketsan, the CEO and co-founder of Villgro USA, has been their mentor for the past 4 months. With his guidance, as well as the connections he has made on their behalf, they have been able to move faster in their product development of a pneumonia screening device for neonates.
“Our mentor, Arun, has helped with streamlining our scope, he has connected us to a design consultancy firm in India and continues to guide us on what to look out for in a vendor. This has helped our progress to scale tremendously,” Ms. Koburongo shared with Villgro.
A mentor-based approach ensures that ventures are able to scale their innovations fast, creating impact in their communities through an active network of experts who can ultimately become investors. The current group of mentors will help advance Villgro Kenya’s goal of creating a vibrant startup ecosystem with the aim of supporting early stage entrepreneurs.
It is with great honor that I accept this appointment as the CEO of Villgro Kenya. This comes at an exciting time as we prepare to scale the Villgro brand throughout Africa but also at an unprecedented time as the world continues to grapple with the novel Corona virus.
My heart goes out to all those who have lost their loved ones and those whose livelihoods have been affected in a way that we never imagined. The only encouragement is that when you hit the rock bottom you can only go up from there. I am optimistic that humanity will ultimately overcome this pandemic. I believe in the ingenuity and resilience of the human race that has kept us going in the face of our adversaries, be it in the form of disease, war, famine and other calamities. With the power of entrepreneurship, technological advancement, and innovation we even have a much bigger toolkit to rise from any pandemic than our ancestors had. There is no reason why we should not be able to build back better and restore sanctity of life.
Last weekend, in a low-key event in the serene Karura forest surrounded by a few colleagues and family, my predecessor “handed me the baton”. We enacted a relay sprint for a role that both of us know very well that is going to be a marathon. The eagerness to sprint as opposed to jogging is representative of the times we are in when the world is eager to open up the economies and sprint in order to redeem, or rather salvage, the time and economic loss we have suffered since the onset of COVID-19. As we walked briskly in the woods with our masks on, it was a stark reminder of the things we had grown accustomed to and taken for granted, like basic clean breathing air.
While most of the world wore a mask for the first time of their lives in 2020, the mask has been a living reality for decades in most cities due to unchecked pollution. This is just one among many other issues that we need to address if we are genuine about “building back better” post-COVID.
There are other myriad issues that require our attention. Cutting across multiple sectors from biotechnology, green-tech, public health, agric-tech to edu-tech, social innovators have a huge responsibility to help address issues ranging from pollution to access to healthcare and water & sanitation. The list is endless. As we all try to figure out how to get out of this menace and how to avoid future pandemics, Villgro Kenya has its role cut out in the advancement of entrepreneurship & innovation. As we do so, we will continue seeking partnerships with other like-minded folks to mobilize and deploy capital where it matters most to ensure protection of livelihoods, access to quality healthcare and other basic needs. The pandemic has managed to expose glaring social issues whose cure can be found in social entrepreneurship. This is a clarion call for social innovators to come up with scalable, sustainable & market-based interventions to social economic problems that continue to imperil the future of humanity.
Last week while attending a UNICEF PSUP online workshop, I was shocked to learn that we lose 1.6 million lives every year to waterborne diseases, most of them children under 5. Just think about that for a moment. That’s over 3 times more deaths than what COVID-19 has claimed globally since the onset of the pandemic. This is a prediction that (Peter H. Gleick, 2002) had foretold in his research paper in 2002 that if no action was taken, we would end up losing up to 135 million lives in the last 2 decades (2002-2020) due to water borne diseases. Sadly, that prediction has come to pass. Those numbers are just mind-boggling. There is no justification as to why in this day and age, 3 billion people lack access to proper waste management and handwashing.
I welcome you to pick any other SDG and with a little bit of desktop research run the numbers. You realize how much more we need to work in attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals notwithstanding the fact that COVID has caused us to regress even further back. This effort cannot be left to Villgro alone or to governments alone or to NGO’s alone. We need more and more incubators, social entrepreneurs, social activists, philanthropists, and venture capitalists to start putting resources where it matters most. COVID was just a wakeup call. Therefore, I would like to dedicate the next few years in furtherance of this mission – a more equitable society. This will take a Village mentality. In the coming months Villgro Africa will embark on building a Pan-Africa network of Social Enterprise incubators to create, guide and foster innovative market-driven enterprises that create significant impact to the base-of-pyramid population. We want to be one of those organizations at the forefront in driving Africa’s SDGs.
As I take on this task, I reckon that I will be stepping into the very big shoes of my predecessor, Dr. Robert Karanja. What Villgro Kenya has accomplished in the last 5 years is not a small fete. Thanks to Roberts leadership, Villgro Kenya has gone on to invest over 800K USD in SEED capital to over 24 social enterprises. These enterprises have gone on to unlock over 8.1 million dollars in follow on funding and touched over a million lives. It’s taken years of sweat and burning “mid night oil” with a lot of passion. I am lucky to still have Robert as a co-founder & director. That means I can continue benefiting from his wise counsel and mentorship as he transitions to the Chief Innovation Officer role. I couldn’t have asked for a better co-founding team. Rob Beyer’s decades of hands-on experience in building and managing teams combined with Robert’s experience in research and academia makes us a formidable co-founding team. Over the last 5 years, we have grown to an 8-member multidisciplinary team with combined 80 years of experience & expertise in biomed, entrepreneurship, finance, ICT & engineering and transaction advice. This team gives me a lot of confidence as I take office.
What should the world expect from Villgro Kenya in the next 3 to 5 years?
I would like to summarize my action plan into 5 priority agenda items
Collaboration – Over the last half a decade, we have built partnerships with key funders who have invested significant financial resources and believed in our mission. These partnerships, and many others, have allowed us to demonstrate the impact of social entrepreneurship on lives, the sustainability of our incubation model and many other nuanced lessons for a Pan-African uptake. We have also signed MoU’s with academia and research organizations as well as impact investment funds. Thanks to these partnerships, we have leveraged over 8.1 million dollars in follow on funding in just 5 years. Moving forward we are reaching out to other donors, actors, incubators, and investors across Africa to increase our reach to 100 million lives by 2025. This brings me to the second point.
Capital Efficiency and maximum social returns – In the last 3 years, it has cost us just 1.2 USD to change one life. This was possible due to capital leverage from downstream investors and also due to the dedication of the team, often sacrificing hefty salaries and perks that are seen in the traditional NGO sector. Our leadership has been taking a 30% pay cut for the last 3 years in order to maximize on social returns. When the pandemic broke, they went a step further to commit 5% of their salaries towards funding Covid response innovations.
We have continued to put our money where our hearts are. As we move forward, using a robust incubation management software built by Villgro Innovation Foundation (India), we aim to streamline our operations and increase efficiency to further bring down the cost of impacting one life. That’s the beauty of market-based approach as opposed to pure aid. You can achieve much more with so little and because the enterprise model is inherently sustainable.
As we gear towards opening shop in multiple countries in Africa, we welcome in-country foundations, corporate CSR and local philanthropists who are willing to experiment with sustainable models in areas where aid has failed to bring long lasting change. A combination of both international and local funders is going to be game changing in the way we perceive social enterprise. What Covid has taught us is that home grown solutions and local ownership is the way to solve Africa’s problems. We risk missing out on the demographic dividends if impact investment continues to be a preserve of foreign actors. The international donor community is awakening to this fact. Villgro Kenya’s current funders are always keen to see how we unlock local funding. We are willing to join hands with partners like Africa Venture Philanthropy Association and other like minded organizations to see how we take this agenda forward.
Expansion/Rebranding/Reposition – As my predecessor alluded to in his previous blog post, time is ripe for Pan-Africanism in social enterprise. We have already experimented this on a small scale in Uganda and Ethiopia where we have been active for the past 5 years. 8 enterprises in our current portfolio are located outside Kenya. We have seen collaboration with local incubators and universities yield tremendous results. The local context will always be a key ingredient for any international incubation or acceleration program. In 2018, Villgro Kenya was part of a consortium led by Duke University that offered a 2 year business acceleration support (Technical Assistance, Mentorship, Networks, Market Discovery, Navigating Regulatory Landscape & Go-to-Market Strategies) to Maternal and Child Health Innovators spread across the world in a program funded by USAID, Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, NORAD & KOICA. This program drew participants from over 20 countries. This was only possible through local partnerships. Rebranding to Villgro Africa essentially means that we are open to sharing our playbook with in-country partners, incubators & universities across Africa. If this sounds like something that your organization is interested in we welcome you to join hands with us.
Gender Lense Investing – The recently released Global Acceleration Learning Initiative (GALI) report on acceleration of women led startups exposed how accelerators and incubators have had an adverse effect of widening the gap between female led startups and male led startups. According to the report Women-led ventures are under-represented in acceleration. Within the GALI dataset, 52% of founding teams are made up entirely of men, followed by 35% with both men and women, and only 13% comprised entirely of women entrepreneurs. As President Barack Obama once said, excluding women in the economic contribution is like being in a match where you don’t let half the team play. Having been raised by a single mum, I have experienced firsthand the power of gender inclusivity. If my dad had not let my mum pursue her career, we would have been left as beggars on the streets after the demise of my dad. We need to encourage more women led enterprises. Research has shown again and again that women led enterprises are likely to create more impact. Women are wired to be more nurturing and caring than men, a recipe that is required in social entrepreneurship. Another research showed that less than half of women entrepreneurs are likely to participate in a pitch competition than men. We have experienced this at Villgro Kenya.When we host a pitch challenge or a hackathon women who show up are less than 15%. We commend initiatives like Women-in-Tech by Standard Chartered bank that are trying to change this narrative. To encourage women participation, we need to change how we have organized pitch festivals and business plan competitions. A simple tweak like ensuring a fair gender representation in the investment committees that pass these investment decisions could have a huge effect. I welcome ideas and suggestions on how Villgro Kenya can improve this.
To close my remarks, I would like to reemphasize that we are at a much more advantageous position than those who came before us to build a truly equitable society and protect fundamental human rights like shelter, food and clothing. With technological advancement in the area of predictive modelling, data science, AI, CRISPR, Biotech we shouldn’t wait for the next pandemic, we should get ahead of it. We should hack it before it happens. As I wrap up, I would also like to thank an incredibly special person in my life – my mum. She made it possible for me to be the man I am today. Widowed at age 38 and with 6 children to fend for, I saw the huge sacrifices she made to put food on the table. This also goes to all the women out there many of whom risk losing their own lives at birth due to lack of access to maternal healthcare. No woman should have to lose her life while giving life to another human. Villgro Kenya will continue doing its best to restore the sanctity of life and empower women.
In an intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients where lives hang in the balance, doctors and nurses have to monitor patients’ vitals closely to ensure they are able to detect any form of distress. For countries like Uganda, where there is a strain in healthcare resources and a high patient-to-clinician ratio, doctors and nurses have to do more rounds and spend more time monitoring critically ill patients. This exposes them to a higher risk of infection.
As a solution, Villgro Kenya, an investor in health innovations, recently awarded $20,000 in grant funding to Neopenda, a medical device company focused on designing and implementing needs-base technologies for emerging markets. Their remote vital signs monitor is a device that will reduce the burden of clinicians and help them monitor more patients efficiently, while simultaneously reducing their risk of infection.
“At Villgro Kenya, we strongly feel that this innovation will change the way we administer care in the era of social distancing. Being able to remotely monitor disease progression in COVID patients could have a great outcome of reducing the risk exposure to healthcare workers who are at the frontline of this battle” – Wilfred – Co-Founder, Villgro Kenya.
The device, which started out as a neonatal vital sign monitor, was developed after founders Sona Shah and Teresa Cauvel, biomedical engineers from Columbia University, visited a hospital in Uganda and saw how nurses had a hard time monitoring admitted neonates.
“We wanted to understand the issue where clinicians and nurses are not able to know when a patient is in distress. This is because there are too many critically ill patients and not so many clinicians. So whenever there was distress, nobody knew and the newborns would end up dying from medical causes. So that led to the creation of the neo-natal device monitor called the Neo-guard,” said Sona.
Nurses and clinicians in remote areas of Uganda have used the device to monitor up to 20 patients at one time. Once all the patients are fitted with a wearable watch, their individual temperature, respiratory rate, pulse rate and oxygen saturation are displayed at a central dashboard. The low-cost device works effectively without internet or continuous power, which makes it well suited for low-income areas.
The company, which started with neonates, has always had a vision for expanding to pediatric and adult wards as well, and saw COVID-19 as an opportunity for them to move their scaling-up strategy forward.
“With our team capacity, we wanted to maintain focus, but when COVID came, most of the patients were adults and thus we adjusted the size of the band attached to the patient, recalibrated the device for different algorithms, because the natural adult vital signs are different ranges from neonate’s vital signs. So we had to do a couple of tweaks to expedite our development cycle,” Sona explained.
With advancements in its technology, the device can support the COVID-19 response in four primary ways. It can help identify suspected cases, as the common symptoms seen in positive patients, like elevated temperatures and low oxygen saturation, can be measured using the vital signs monitor.
Doctors and nurses can also triage an entire patient ward and be able to tell the severity of a single case, from which a clinician can determine an appropriate course of action. Once a patient is receiving treatment, the device can then inform the clinician on whether the patient is responding well to it or not. And, finally, data collected from the device will contribute to predictive analytics for population health, which will help inform trends within countries.
The team is currently looking to pilot their device in Uganda through their relationship with the Ministry of Health. Like many other medical devices, getting additional capital and the right investors has been a major challenge for Sona and her team. She welcomed the $20,000 COVID-19 Response Grant awarded to them by Villgro Kenya saying:
“I appreciate the efficiency of bringing the capital in. For a couple of other organizations it takes a couple of months of diligence for a small amount of the funding to come in, which would inhibit a lot of entrepreneurs. I appreciate the process Villgro Kenya took because that capital is very instrumental to small and large organizations alike.”
Medical devices require a multidisciplinary approach and partnerships across the sector are needed to ensure products like the Neopenda Vital Signs Monitor get to market.
Getting the right partnerships is a challenge for most medical device companies and, aside from funding, impact investors have a role to play in making the right connections.
Sona explained that, “One of the things we are doing with Villgro Kenya is developing a go-to-market strategy based on the COVID-19 response. So a better understanding of how we are responding and how to integrate within their national task force. Part of that is understanding the landscape, talking to other entrepreneurs that Villgro Kenya has connected us to that will enable us to work together to be part of the Ministry’s initiative.”
Speaking on how entrepreneurs can adapt to change brought about by the pandemic, Sona urged innovators and entrepreneurs to understand their role in the pandemic and leverage partnerships while engaging with users to ensure products released are relevant.
“With Neopenda, we accelerated our timelines and adapted our technology. For other companies, it may not be so straightforward to make the pivot to get into the fight but, for those who can adapt, relationships are crucial, especially in the markets venturing into partnerships.”
Frontline health workers continue to face the imminent risk of infection as they interact closely with patients. In Kenya alone, 84 healthcare staff were infected and this raises the concerns about their safety among key stakeholders. The vital signs monitor from Neopenda has the potential to save patient lives and reduce the chance of infections among frontline health workers long after this pandemic is over.
Building Villgro Kenya: From Academia To Business Incubator And Impact Investor In 5 Years (With Learnings To Dial Up For The Post Covid-19 World)
Over the last five years, it has been my great privilege to lead Villgro’s expansion effort in Kenya and East Africa. Villgro is one of the world’s leading business incubators, with 20 years of experience in supporting social entrepreneurs in India. Villgro’s definition of social entrepreneurship is a for-profit company that sustainably delivers value for the shareholders and social impact at the base of the economic pyramid through its products and/or value chain. A social enterprise should also be built for scaling up with venture capitalist (VC) backing. Prior to joining Villgro, I was a research scientist whose only claim to fame was a few initiatives that sought to commercialize research outputs. So, the terms “innovation, entrepreneurship, impact investment, VC” and other development-speak buzz words fueled my bold decision to go where no scientist had gone before (at least in my networks): to put these simple, common-sense concepts into practice in Kenya and East Africa.
Villgro Kenya opened its doors for business in April 2015. Armed with the Villgro incubation model (our “secret sauce”), a ready pipeline of Grand Challenges Canada-funded health innovations, key stakeholder partnerships, and backed by a young team that was full of energy and talent, we were ready to change the world!
The first lesson I learned working at Villgro was that “Plan A” never works. We set out as a business incubator to empower innovators through knowledge and business development services. We were met with veiled suspicion. We did not fit the “incubator” model. Villgro Kenya did not offer free space or wifi to innovators. Instead of “tech” or “youth”, the key buzz words that dominate Kenya’s innovation landscape, Villgro’s branding of “health”, “hardware” and “social entrepreneurship” seemed out-of-touch with the times and altogether not cool. Our target market, the entrepreneurs, did not mince words either. They wanted funding, not the rich menu of knowledge or incubation services that we offered.
The second lesson I learnt was grit and patience. This will be familiar to most entrepreneurs. It takes grit, perseverance and (in lieu of capital) partnerships to press on until the breakthrough! Slowly, the entrepreneurs started trickling in. It was not our impressive CVs or Villgro India’s enviable track record in supporting over 100 innovators to raise USD $25 million and create over 4,000 jobs. Rather, it was the introductions from friends and partners who vouched for us. We rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Our backers and partners, Villgro India and the Lemelson Foundation, were patient and accommodating as we struggled to find our feet. When we were hard on ourselves, they celebrated our little successes. More importantly, they reminded us that Rome was not built in a day. Through our partners, we were introduced to USAID’s Partnership to Accelerate Entrepreneurship (PACE) initiative that provided capacity building and grant seed capital to fund startups. With a stronger value proposition to entrepreneurs in place, we were finally in business, increasing the flow of quality startups applying for incubation!
My third lesson was about the importance of understanding the market. As we worked with startups, we learnt more about the health system and the market that it serves. In the health sector, need does not equate to demand. This is because Africa’s population lacks the purchasing power to reward private sector’s R&D investments with premium profits that drive the global pharmaceutical and medical device industry. Africa’s market – though not willing to bear the costs of “premium offerings” – is discerning and demands quality but cost-effective solutions. Imported solutions that are designed for the more affluent European and North American markets often fail due to high price points and expensive operational infrastructure requirements that further increase the costs of healthcare delivery. How can innovators employ frugal innovation in the design and development of solutions to achieve problem-solution fit? How can they employ social entrepreneurship business models in the production and delivery of health innovations to achieve product-market fit? We learnt quickly that the market is unforgiving, consisting of a donor-driven public health sector that lacks incentive for adopting innovations, as well as a private health sector that presents a fragmented market requiring considerable time and capital to gain traction.
The fourth and final lesson is that if “cash is king” it means the VC is the hidden customer! Realizing how much time and capital it takes to demonstrate a commercial proof of concept was humbling. The only way to reduce the time is to increase the capital. Enter the Argidius Foundation. They challenged us not to provide our services for free, but we didn’t want to charge cash-strapped entrepreneurs. Could we find a middle ground to make this partnership work? The short answer is yes, but we had to change our mindset from thinking like an entrepreneur (market focused) to thinking like an investor (ROI and investment cycle). We continued providing grant seed capital but also introduced equity investments as we de-risked the companies. We strengthened our due diligence and investment committee and noticed that our conversations with follow-on investors were beginning to yield fruit. Our incubation support also reflected a stronger commercial and investment mindset as we began to recalibrate our incubation goals to better align with the investors’ proof points. Before long, we were making our targets as our portfolio companies started to receive term sheets and successfully raise the necessary capital to start making significant inroads in the market.
Today, we celebrate five years of Villgro’s ongoing expansion in Kenya and the region. We are proud of the partnerships that have yielded the progress made so far. Villgro Kenya has proved that homegrown solutions and social enterprises in the health sector can rival the success of Fin Tech startups, if given a chance. Our portfolio companies have succeeded in generating more than USD 1 million in revenues and created 188 jobs in the formal economy, even as they sustainably delivered a health impact for the marginalized communities.
However, it is not all rosy. Clear disparities in the progress of African-founded startups still exist compared to expat-founded startups. The same disparity can be seen with startups offering services versus startups producing hardware or products, and academia or science-based startups versus tech or commercial-based startups. Moreover, even the hard-won gains now risk being wiped away by the COVID-19 pandemic as it threatens lives and upends the economy.
There is, therefore, a lot more work to do and even more at stake than before, which brings us to the fifth lesson: you can’t do it alone – it takes a village! This means looking beyond our own needs to building the ecosystem we operate in so as to create a more enabling environment for more innovators to succeed. “It takes a village” also means scaling Villgro’s replication across the continent by partnering with like-minded incubators and accelerators and sharing our “secret sauce”, the Villgro model of supporting and investing in social entrepreneurs across Africa.
Leading us into this new phase of growth is one of my co-founders, Wilfred Njagi, who will be taking over the helm as CEO as we begin the expansion of Villgro across Africa. Wilfred has been instrumental in the setting up of Villgro from the very start and graciously invited me to steer the boat in the early formative stages of our journey. Wilfred is a naturally gifted entrepreneur and leader, whose contributions to Villgro’s transformative story over the last six years cannot be gainsaid. I cannot think of a better person to lead the organization during this critical time in history as we address the COVID-19 threat. I am very thankful for the amazing friendship, partnership, and support that we have developed along the way and I invite you to join me in welcoming and supporting Wilfred in his new role as CEO as he drives us to greater heights. Thank you!
Co-Founder & Director, Villgro Kenya