When Safaricom launched a $1 million venture fund for Kenyan startups, it was applauded by everyone who follows the sort of relationships African mobile network operators have with the startups in their countries.
This was the story of the big player in the tech ecosystem reaching out to the little guys, the fledgling startups. It was praiseworthy when you consider the strong and intimidating presence telecoms companies have in the African tech ecosystem.
In several instances this looming presence has in fact been blamed for steam rolling startup innovation, so when the opposite happens, its bound to catch people’s attention in a good way.
In a not so surprising move, its been reported that another MNO, this time Airtel Nigeria, has shown its commitment to the its startup ecosystem and has launched its own initiative.
Called Catapult-a-startup, its not a venture fund but a platform to assist budding developers with mentorship, funding and marketing for their ideas with an opportunity to integrate their apps and services with the Airtel platform.
Interested startups submit their ideas to the catapult-a-startup website where they are shortlisted for an opportunity to pitch to a set of esteemed judges. A group of selected startups will then qualify for mentorship and funding as well as support of 1 million naira (about US $5 500).
Other MNOs across Africa will follow suit, you can count on that. It might not be in the form of $1 million funds or platforms exactly like catapult-a-startup, but the formula will be replicated across other regions that have any startup ecosystem worth the focus.
Why is this happening really? The environment that telecoms giants are operating in is changing, there’s no need to mention that again here. The challenges that the operators are now facing are about churning out more creative services.
An in house creativity model just won’t cut it. The MNOs have to extend this opportunity to others. This stage however comes after admitting that they can’t do EVERYTHING on their own. Interestingly it looks like cultivated startup creativity is one of the solutions for the MNOs in this race to be innovative.
We want the same thing to happen in our ecosystem. We have all heard of the countless startups that have reached out to our three networks. Sadly we haven’t seen much engagement. So maybe our own catapult will do the trick.
While we wait for this wave to hit Zimbabwe (it’s bound to, eventually) local startups need to acknowledge that this will only happen when they show that they are ready to engage with these big players. After all for the MNOs It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.