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The Making Of An African Tech Giant: Sitting Down With Nithen Naidoo And His Advice For African Entrepreneurs

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Startups

April 26, 2021, 10:33 a.m.

Nithen Naidoo is one of 1700+ African entrepreneurs who applied to pitch their tech startups for a chance to win $50,000. His pitch for Snode — a platform that uses a synergy of both human and artificial intelligence for cybersecurity — was one of the three winning business ideas for the 2019 MEST Africa Challenge.

As the MEST Africa Challenge launches its third call for applications, Naidoo shares his insights on what makes a winning pitch, and why the pitch competition is the best platform to test out business viability.

Founders like Naidoo are the tech visionaries developing solutions for continent-wide and international realities. He believes that with the right resources from ecosystem players, like MEST providing mentorship, investment, and support throughout the startup life cycle, Africa’s entrepreneurs have a better chance to grow and compete.

What prepared you for entrepreneurship, specifically developing technological solutions for Africa’s problems?

In my youth and earlier in my career, I got to travel around the world, providing technological solutions within the finance vertical, defense vertical, industrial vertical, across the board. I got to understand the problems affecting people in a global context and precisely issues affecting us in Africa.

I also got to see and meet innovative people who were solving problems both globally and in Africa. I got to learn a lot, not just about the things causing the problem but also about how you go about developing the solution.

Also, learning how to execute is paramount! The only truthful way that I learned execution was through hard work and trial and error. Before every small success, I’ve had, there were many mistakes.

How has the local tech landscape changed in South Africa and the rest of the continent over the past five years? What are some of the emerging trends?

There’s a lot of significant changes in data analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies like drones, but ultimately, I think there are two types of uses. Some people use technology for marketing to grab attention without having something tangible to offer upfront. That’s a negative. The positive thing I’m seeing is that a lot of newcomers and innovative players have emerged leveraging these types of technologies to do creative and cutting-edge work. And, I’m not just talking about South Africa; I’m talking about Africa in its entirety.

For those on the marketing bandwagon who over promise and under deliver, their projects end up turning into white elephant projects. That makes the road more difficult for newcomers who are building brands behind this technology. Ultimately, I think the opportunities in tech are greater than the threats. I see a lot of newcomers getting into the market and leveraging new technology not just to better themselves, but for Africa as a whole.

How important are players like MEST Africa, hubs, and accelerators to the success of tech startups on the continent?

They are vital. We don’t teach people enough about entrepreneurship. I think having an incubator like MEST where somebody keens on entrepreneurship can go and turn their dreams into reality with mentorship and guidance from the MEST team helps to take ideas into reality.

I think the MEST’s Africa Challenge award gives us both relevance and reference.

You know being able to stand up in front of a customer and say that you’ve achieved this at MEST, and MEST is the largest incubator in South Africa, helps that customer look at you differently. It makes the customers themselves take the paradigm shift because you have this reference which although you may not have the client base of a large global firm. Like in my competitive landscape, I mean, there are global players. You know we are talking about big names like IBM. And for me having references, helps me not just appeal to early adopters of tech but helps me cross the chasm to more mass appeal.

In terms of relevance, I think it’s an affirmation to the people that work within the organization that they are on the right track, and they’ve got the right brand.

It’s tough to attract talent because you are a startup, and job security is a big thing to talented people, and you are not even giving them the big salary that they would get if they went to a large corporation. Such awards like the MEST Africa Challenge provide them with some form of reassurance that the startup they are joining is going to be successful, and they are going to invest now, and the reward will be there later.

So in my case, winning helps with relevance. It helps attract talent, helps attract customers, helps attract investors. It also introduces you to a broader ecosystem of other entrepreneurs who share the same struggles. That in itself gives you community, which is essential because most times, you feel like you are on this journey all on your own. To meet people who are on a similar path with shared experiences and advice, that’s invaluable.

What was it specifically about the MEST Africa Challenge or MEST in general that made you want to join the community by participating in the challenge?

I genuinely felt that the MEST Africa Challenge was an opportunity to pitch your life’s work (your baby, your passion, your everything) against some of the best in Africa. I mean we believe in what we do and competition is a good thing. Win or lose, that’s not important. I would have been happy to lose to somebody who needed the investment a lot more even if my idea was stronger because I just don’t think the important thing was whether I won or lost. I think the important thing was how I measured up against some of the best in Africa. And, what could I learn from it? There were things I learned from everybody. It is a life-changing experience, and I think that’s what attracted me to the competition. It was a fair opportunity to pitch your work against some of the continent’s best players.

We are not a company that would buy awards, and MEST didn’t ask us for a cent. I think they paid for all our travel. I believe that integrity and transparency in the process and how it was done made me want to be a part of it. It was an opportunity like ‘second to none’ to see how you fare against quite a formidable bunch of people.

Were there any insights that you gained about yourself as an entrepreneur or your startup as a result of participating in the MEST Africa Challenge?

One major shift post the competition is that I don’t see the financial metric in business in isolation anymore. I think having met people who were driven by different parameters and incentives which were more philanthropic inspired me to change the way I see Snode’s business. I’ve always seen Snode’s business as one of the organizations fighting social evils in Africa and globally. I mean, that’s why we designed the technology. That’s really where our hearts have always been. I didn’t believe you could do both or wave both flags.

To see so many people and companies which were commercially successful and at the same time managing to give back so much showed me that it’s possible to build something on a global scale and still make a difference to people at home in Africa. It gave me a bit of a road map. Hearing the stories, understanding how they made a difference, hearing what metrics ruled their business, hearing that there are people out there willing to invest in causes like the one we chose to fight, which is using data to solve everything from crime, viral outbreaks, disaster, national security, and trafficking and things like that. Understanding their journey allowed me to create a roadmap of my own and it also allowed me to create bonds with people. I met a lot of people at MEST who we’ve since done business with, but I also met a lot of people there who were just there to help and assist me.

For entrepreneurs thinking about participating in MEST, what two things do they need to know about pitching to investors?

The first thing is, make sure that you practice your pitch. Try and stay within the given time frame and try and answer some of the basic questions. MEST does give you an outline, and they do coach you. Listen to them. Make sure you articulate how your solution will address the problem you are solving. You know, now is not the time to be shy. You need to be confident. You need to sell yourself and you need to sell your brand, your business, and your idea. It’s not the time to be modest. Put your best foot forward.

In terms of the amount of money you are making, some people don’t want to expose it. They are so scared to be judged. You know, but put it out there. We were not making tons of cash. Don’t judge yourself too harshly because it’s not all about money.

Prepare yourself for the questions you are going to be asked. You have to plan all the typical questions you are going to be asked and have the answers ready.

All the pitches I heard from my peers were passionate, and if you’re not excited about your idea, you are not going to make it to the finals. Some of them were great storytellers. So telling your tale, getting your message across in the form of a story is fantastic. You know my solution was extremely technical, but simplifying things so that everybody understands it and making it accessible to even non-technical people is crucial because you can lose people otherwise. Also, understand your product. Be prepared! Know your financials, know your team, know the technical aspects of your product, because there are people on that board who have technical and business knowledge and they’ll ask you questions. Make sure that you understand your business in all aspects: The technical aspect of your solution, how your business is being run, the financial aspect, who is your target audience, who’s your target market, what are the problems you solve, how your solution addresses those problems, who you would partner with, what your costing is. I mean, these are all essential steps you have to have done. All my peers had it done, and I don’t think they would have made it to the finals if they didn’t.

You know I’m speaking like I’m an expert, but in some ways, I was one of the least prepared. Next time I do a pitch, these are some of the lessons I will be taking with me.

Why is this an opportunity that other entrepreneurs like yourself should seek?

I think there are three reasons why these kinds of opportunities are important. Number one is what you take in terms of learning, just by meeting the MEST team and other entrepreneurs and by networking with the people in the audience, etc. What you learn from the experience, that is the first prize. That’s bigger than any cash prize or like winning MEST in its entirety. Also, just the marketing benefits, what you learn as an entrepreneur, is the biggest gift you get from MEST.

The second thing is that if you look at MEST as a brand, it’s phenomenal! It’s the largest incubator in Africa, and it gives your business credibility. And as a startup, the most challenging part is how you get those first clients on board, how you get those early investors on board. And having a reference like performing well within the MEST framework, you know that speaks volumes.

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The third thing you take away from competing in MEST is some affirmation. You know, for some of my peers, they had a strong base, they had an MVP, and MEST gave them the confirmation that they were on the right track. And you know if you are at that phase, just between the seed phase and the MVP, I think it’s a way to test your hypothesis so why not put it out there at MEST and see how seasoned entrepreneurs react to your idea. That’s a great measuring stage to know that you are on the right path. Also, it’s a great feedback mechanism to give you ideas to let you know if you are not on the right track.

And, you know the MEST Africa Challenge was all those things.

Name two tech entrepreneurs that are from South Africa that you believe are the next startups to watch.

My friend Ashley from ISAZI. I think they are doing great things with AI. I think they are a startup to watch.

Also, I think Geekulcha is great. They work more around education.

There are a lot of people in the cybersecurity space that I also like. The list is endless.

There are those who still believe that Africa is still not ready to lead in tech because of our socio-political issues, what would you say to those naysayers about tech’s role in solving Africa’s development challenges? I’m not going to say anything, I’m going to show them.

The MEST Africa Challenge provides startups like Snode with the funding they need to scale along with on-the-ground business support, mentorship, and access to a global network across the entire startup lifecycle. Over the last 12 years, MEST has invested $22 million in over 60 companies across Africa. The MEST Africa Challenge pitch competition is now accepting applications from tech software entrepreneurs in nine countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sénégal, South Africa, and Tanzania. MEST is offering up to $50,000 in equity investment to the winning start-up. Apply here!

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