Techstars brings its accelerator program to Africa. -Quartz

In June, MFS Africa purchased Oklahoma-based Global Technology Partners in a cash and stock deal worth $34 million. It was, as the Financial Times described, a rare example of an African company buying an American fintech company, underscoring the global ambitions of the continent’s tech innovators.

African tech investors are optimistic that more of these companies will be created in the coming years, which is why many are keen to attract young startups in the pre-seed and seed stages. Acceleration programs, like US-based Techstars, are often among the first to bet on pre-seed startups. After years of hosting its programs from New York, Toronto and London, Techstars will launch its first African accelerator in Lagos, Nigeria this year.

Quartz spoke with Maëlle Gavet, CEO of Techstars, during her visit to Lagos in July to understand the company’s plans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: What are Techstars’ ambitions in Africa?

Maelle Gavet: We have been in Africa since 2011 and have made investments mainly in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and other places. African founders have participated in our acceleration programs in Toronto, New York and London. But we started thinking last year about the best place to open our accelerator programs in Africa, and chose four cities: Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Cairo. We will start with Lagos, and fortunately we have found a partner in ARM, a Nigerian investment management company. We are now in the process of starting the program in December. We’re going to run it for a few years with ARM and figure out how to expand to the rest of the continent.

Quartz: Have you decided on the structure of the program?

Fed up : If it were up to me, we would make a few hundred investments in Africa every year, but we don’t decide now; we are looking for partners. There are enough entrepreneurs and challenges that require the application of entrepreneurship. I don’t need to be sold on the African market. The stage we are at right now is how do we enter in the best possible way, and right now we believe in working with partners because they understand the local market at a granular level. So in Nigeria, ARM knows the financial infrastructure and the regulators very well, and they have a pan-African strategy.

Quartz: Let’s go back a bit. What does an accelerator offer startup founders, besides money?

Fed up : Most founders haven’t accumulated the knowledge and experience to succeed on their own, and no one succeeds alone. We provide three things. The first is capital, and that absolutely matters for paying bills and running a business. The second is what we call programs and services which include the three-month program itself but also events, trainings and other forms of strategy support that our startups can access for life. Think of the acceleration program as a mini-MBA for entrepreneurs, helping a founder build a business with best practices. Finally, it is our network; I consider it the best when it comes to entrepreneurs in the world.

Quartz: What type of entrepreneur are you trying to bring into Techstars?

Fed up : We’re looking for unstoppable founders, those who have identified a problem and are already doing so much to solve the problem that they’re willing to devote 10 years of their life to it. It’s a message we’re pushing hard because given what’s happened over the past decade, some founders think they can start a startup today, be a unicorn three years from now, and get out and be on the beach by fifth grade. It does not work.

We came to Africa because we are looking for African founders. We believe there is a very large pool of unstoppable founders out there. And we found that founders who struggled, who weren’t given everything from birth, tend to be more resilient, innovative, and able to think outside the box. We believe there are many of these types of founders in Africa, and we want to help them succeed. We want them to make a lot of money for themselves and their families because at the end of the day it’s about creating generational wealth.

Quartz: What sectors are you interested in?

Fed up : The ARM accelerator is focused on fintech and proptech [property technology], largely to leverage the company’s expertise and connections. That said, I think there is a huge opportunity to do more in health tech, edtech, agritech and foodtech. We want to expand our footprint to create other accelerators around these sectors.

Quartz: Will the Lagos Accelerator be modeled after any of the existing Techstars programs?

Fed up : We have a global standard that ensures some commonality between programs, and that’s important for founders because they’ll get the same level of quality in New York, Toronto, or Lagos. We also understand that there are regional specificities. I don’t know Lagos well enough, but something tells me you don’t run a business here the way you run it in Los Angeles. This is why we will have a local team with a general manager for the Lagos accelerator.

Quartz: what’s in it for Techstars?

Fed up : Silver! We are an investment firm that finds founders, nurtures them with capital, resources and networks to build great companies. We have invested in 20 Nigerian companies, and some of them are now worth well over $100 million. It’s money for the founders, for us and the sponsors of our fund. The VC world tends to fish in the same small pool, but we believe there is a huge blue ocean out there and our job is to find the founders who are building Africa’s next unicorns.

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