Hyper Lean Startups- Entrepreneurship & Innovation in Tanzania

As a component of their government’s initiatives around STI (science, technology, and innovation), the Nelson Mandela Institute of Science and Technology is hosting a series of workshops on leadership & innovation. My bit is about entrepreneurial management and I’m planning to focus on rendering a relevant & actionable explanation lean principals.

By way of background, Tanzania is among the world’s poorest countries but ranks high on GDP growth (6%- see Wikipedia, World Bank, and World Factbook for figures). Relative to its peers, it’s a pretty good place to do business and improving. Agriculture is a big part of GDP and provides something like 80% of the country’s employment. In general, startups in Tanzania aren’t delivering a killer new iPhone app. They’re often looking at agriculture and the related topic of core infrastructure (power, roads, water, etc.). Retail and distribution are also popular. Example startup’s I’ve read about or talked about with my sponsors at the Global Knowledge Initiative are in areas like processing seed oil, producing cut flowers (for export), and providing innovative takes on low cost infrastructure (ex: solar-powered refrigeration and lighting). This report by UNIDO describes their work with female entrepreneurs in food processing, as does this profile on Kiva. I created my own micro portfolio of Tanzanian loans on Kiva to seek out more local texture (and because I’ve been meaning to for years, but, I’m sorry to say, had never gotten around to it).

You’re unlikely to read about any of these startup’s in the WSJ or TechCrunch, but they’re Tanzania’s bridge to a developed economy. It seems like a million years ago, but when I was in China in the mid-90’s ‘town and village enterprises‘, small local businesses, were the country’s economic dynamo. Fast forward and, well, it looks like it was a good thing. Acknowledging the gigantic differences between China and Tanzania, I think it’s well accepted that these small scale local businesses are a key pivot in Tanzania’s transition to economic self-sufficiency and growth.

How relevant are lean principals? For the small scale enterprise, scarcity and uncertainty are a long-standing fact of life. Will the two person enterprise processing seed oil or baking bread hear about lean principals, understand them and find them relevant? In most cases, probably not, at least not in that form. But it’s the role of the folks at the Nelson Mandela AIST to help propagate this kind of innovation, with help from partners like GKI and UNESCO. For larger projects, I think the principals are readily applicable. For example, there are various NGO and state-funded research/office parks across Africa. Some are humming along, some are basically vacant. There isn’t an obvious, proven recipe for development and modernization in Tanzania and a lean, iterative, adaptive approach may be just the thing. In classic lean fashion, all I can really say is ‘we’ll see’.

Below are working version of my presentation:

I’ll also be posting a worksheet and recording of the delivered presentation.

All that’s the easy part. I’m just starting to work with my collaborators at GKI and the Nelson Mandela AIST. The next steps are the more challenging:

  1. Communicate the Materials Effectively
    This isn’t as hard as the items that follow, but I am still learning about the audience.
  2. Complete a Successful Pilot Program
    This is our first real discovery item. The idea is to successfully apply the principals to sample projects in business, government, and academia. Once we’ve seen those through, we’ll either persevere to the next step if they’re successful or assess what we’ve learned and pivot to a new approach.
  3. Replicate and Scale those Successes
    Once we have a working recipe, we’ll look to scale it, finding beachheads in similar situations and industries.

If you’ve worked on similar projects, particularly if you’ve worked on applying lean principals, please post here or drop me a line at acowan@alexandercowan.com.