Earlier today, my day off from lecturing – and my one month anniversary in Somaliland – I took the bus to the other side of town (from Cabaaye to Jigjigayar for those familiar with Hargeisa) to my favorite weekend spot – Safari Hotel – for coffee and laxox – a word which doesn’t look like it sounds, and doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard if you’re from the US. The Somalis know how to work with what they’ve got, and that includes redefining the letters x, c, and the kh-combo to represent the sounds “ح” and “ع” and “خ” from Arabic. But you do know what laxox is – pancakes. And they’re delicious. But there’s no Aunt Jemima in Somaliland. Instead, they use tea – but with a lot – really, a LOT – of sugar. Another Somali innovation; add enough sugar to tea, and it becomes pancake syrup.
While at the restaurant, I called my friend Saed, who teaches at a nearby university (Golis) to invite him to join me. He said, “I’m at the Mansoor Hotel, there’s a competition, come and join us.” So, I jumped on the bus, jumped off the bus, and entered the Mansoor. Saed was waiting for me at the entrance checkpoint (probably no need for a checkpoint, but this is a hotel catering to westerners, and they like that sort of thing), and he introduced me to his business partner Mohamed; the event was a startup pitch competition, and Saed and Mohamed were there to present their business plan.
Innovate Ventures and the Treps of Hargeisa
We walked over to the hotel conference hall and entered a few minutes before the program began. There were around 150 people – lots of them under 30, and very few over 40 – and you could feel the energy in the hall. The competing startups were manning tables on either side of the room, and Mohamed took me around and introduced me to the participants. This event – Innovate Accelerator Demo Day – was the culmination of a ten-week business accelerator program organized by Innovate Ventures, a group of locally and internationally based Somali business professionals and PhDs working in support of entrepreneurship in Somaliland. Innovate Ventures provides training and seed capital to startups with scalable business models, high growth potential, and a focus on technology. The project began in 2012, and the group has obtained sponsorship from VC4A (Venture Capital for Africa), Oxfam, and Telesom (the leading telecommunications company in Somaliland). At the end of the ten-week accelerator program, eight startups were selected to compete in Demo Day with a 15 minute pitch-plus-Q&A to a panel of advisors and judges.
In case you’re asking yourself, “What kinds of startups are coming out of Somaliland?” let me introduce you:
SomSite: SomSite Designs a leading web hosting, domain registration, web designing, SEO and branding agency.
iTech Solutions: iTech Solutions is a B2B startup offering IT solutions to businesses to enable them to grow faster.
Hargeisa Daily Media Group: Hargeisa Daily Media Group provides media management software to target Somali consumers to engage and reach them.
Guri Yagleel: Guri Yagleel is an online rental and property management startup which aims to make it easier for people to access rental and owned properties in Somaliland.
SOMRAS: The first Raspberry Pi hardware company in Somaliland offering Raspberry PI powered services to consumers.
ePocket: ePocket is an electronic payment services provider that connects mobile wallets to international online banks, to enable people to shop online, buy books, and pay their online tuition fees.
MURAADso: Muraadso is an online e-commerce and retail company making it easier for people to buy online.
Xasuus Reeb: Xasuus Reeb is an online wedding and event planning startup company that provides wedding, holy union, and anniversary consulting services to brides, grooms, and family members.
These Somali entrepreneurs – or Treps – want to leverage their ideas and energy to create jobs and economic growth in East Africa. Youth unemployment in Somaliland is 67%, and traditional economic sectors aren’t growing at a pace to match the growth of the youth population. The structure of higher education in Somaliland doesn’t always prepare graduates to meaningfully contribute to the local or international economy; I witness this issue firsthand as a university professor here in Hargeisa. Experiencing frustration and lacking a sense of purpose, many of Somaliland’s youth undertake “tahriib”, the attempt to emigrate from Somaliland to Europe through East and North Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea. Refusing to accept the situation as it is, these Treps are looking outward, not to answer the question “How can I get out?” but rather “How can I make a difference?”
Lessons and Insights
I learned a lot listening to the pitches and networking with the Somali Treps.
I learned that the “O to O model” (online-to-offline) has a world class example when Saed Mohamed, the founder of MURAADso, projected a photo of a brick-and-mortar Amazon store during his presentation – wait, Amazon now has a real bookstore? And I’m learning this in Hargeisa? Where have I been? (Answer: Khartoum, since mid-2014; not surprisingly, Khartoum isn’t host to an Amazon store.)
I learned that I can use a Raspberry Pi for “offline internet” by networking the device with my students’ smartphones to download my files from my personal academic website – including my flipped classroom videos – so that the students don’t need a computer or internet access to take advantage of my digital content. (Disclaimer: I have no idea what I’m talking about, but my new friend Subeer Muse, the founder of SOMRAS, knows what he’s talking about, and agreed to visit my classes to help me out.)
And I learned that the Somali Treps can think on their feet. When one of the judges asked Mohamed Anwar, Managing Director of Hargeisa Daily Media Group, why he had chosen a name limiting his company geographically, he smiled and replied, “Hargeisa doesn’t limit us; Hargeisa is where we are from and what we are about. I don’t think anybody would say that the New York Times is limited in reach based on its name, would you?” All I can say is… I love it!
And the Winners Are…
After a 90-minute breakout session (bringing the event to a two-hour overrun; it’s okay – we’re in Africa), the judges announced the winners and their funding grants:
Guri Yagleel: $5,000
Hargeisa Daily Media Group: $2,000