Why East Africa, what’s exciting, what next

Once we had decided as an organisation to become more global, our next question was “where to start”?  Now, we’re set up operational in Rwanda with a growing team in Kenya… so, how did we get here? This blog will lift the lid on the rationale behind East Africa, and what’s next.

Deciding on East Africa

We didn’t want to dive into the exercise of going global. Instead, our process was to make an internal investment case, indicating what we should invest in, how we should invest and where. This exercise helped us become much clearer on what “being Global” meant to us.

To get there, we spoke to 10  friends and partners who we trusted to give us candid advice on the question. with significant experience. We combined this with desk research into different countries and regions within sub-Saharan Africa.

Our research, and decision making, was framed by two key questions.

First question: What is the trajectory?

We were global before the pandemic. By 2020, we were working in 24 countries, supporting innovators, governments and organisations to test and scale innovations. So, we asked ourselves, where are we seeing the most momentum around innovation, and what places in the world would make a good long term bet?

We knew we wanted to start our global journey in sub-Saharan Africa, as the continent constituted 70% of the innovators we supported, and made sense. However, we wanted to keep our options open initially, and avoid defaulting on the usual suspects: the economic powerhouses of Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt and South Africa.

From the Partech Africa Report

Why? For Brink, we believed that our contribution to a place would probably come from adding something new and different to the innovation ecosystem. Our conversations showed us that the bigger markets may also prove to be crowded with similar organisations, and we would be less likely to provide a unique and valuable contribution to innovators, governments and communities in that country.

Instead, we looked for growth indicators. Was the economy consistently growing? Was the innovation ecosystem maturing at pace? Did we see policy environments that were “ahead of the curve?” Is the innovation ecosystem “easy to enter”, making it easier to find opportunities with a small footprint?

When asking these questions, Rwanda scored highly, as did Kenya due to our familiarity with the ecosystem, and the talent we had identified there from our work. From this point we were confident we would want to start in East Africa.

Next question: can we start small?

We knew our first steps into being more global weren’t going to result in a 50 person satellite office. The pandemic shifted our perspectives on the need for an office, and the burden it could add. We knew we wanted to start small, grow slow, and grow with the work and opportunities we identified.  

We also wanted permission to experiment, and to see our first year as a way of learning fast about not just where to work, but what Brink would need to succeed when becoming global. From operations, to talent, to partnerships, we expected most of this insight to come from testing ideas out on the ground.

Finally, as we were in the middle of a pandemic at the time of launching, we wanted to make decisions as reversible as possible, noting that the environment was hard to predict, and we might want to press pause at short notice.

So, where to start?

We wrangled with the decision of where to “start”, with Rwanda and Kenya proving to be our frontrunners.

Rwanda gave us the confidence to invest, due to its famous ease of setting up, and its strong covid policies. It gave us the simple, lean launchpad we wanted as an organisation, but also offered the excitement of where we could be in 5-10 years time. It also helped us get closer to other countries in the region where we are active (TZ, UG, KE). All of this combined made for a compelling case.

We had existing and strong networks in Kenya, with a number of programmes operating there, and we knew it was a bigger market. We had already managed to identify a lot of potential talent there, and we felt confident that we could hire more quickly and add value to our existing work.

So, sticking to our principle of being Bayesian, we went to both. We decided to make  a “spread bet” on East Africa:, to try out Rwanda as our first location, and to make our first hire in Kenya. This led us to finding the wonderful Ciku Mbugua.

Our next blog will talk about our findings from our first 18 months operating in East Africa, and what comes next.

Thanks to: Temitope Isedowo, MariLise du Preez, Ravi Chhatpar, Sheena Raikundalia, Mafer Batencourt, Matthew Kentridge, Sean Khan, Gary Page , Christin Marona & Cal Burns, and Tamara Giltsoff for all of the guidance and insight you provided at the start of this process.