MEST, my greatest adventure so far

admin | Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

I have been working for Meltwater for just over three years now, and one of the things I most appreciate about the experience is the fact that I have had an opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people from so many different walks of life all over the world. New York, San Francisco, Germany, South Africa — it’s been quite an adventure. My recent 3-month stint as an Engineering Fellow at MEST in Accra Ghana, however, has been the greatest adventure yet.

BillCanon

There are many cultural differences between Ghana and the United States.
Some are obvious and visible; others are more subtle. The obvious ones, though perhaps less important, are the ones you notice first: People carry heavy loads by balancing them on top of their heads. People seem to spend most of their time outside (not surprising given the warm climate). Taxis are not metered; instead, you have to haggle with the driver over the price. Traffic laws are regarded, at best, as suggestions.

After a while, you discover a much deeper difference that may account for some of the cosmetic ones. Of all the places I’ve been to, the place Accra reminds me of the most is Wheatland, Wyoming. Wheatland is a small, rural community in a sparsely populated region of the Rocky Mountains where I grew up. It was a place with a certain ethos one normally associates with small towns: Everybody knew everybody else, so people were comfortable enough around one another to be laid back and informal. Everybody was your neighbor, and people did business on a handshake. Many small towns are like this, but Accra is the first major city I have been to that has somehow been able to maintain that small town, rural ethos despite having a population of over 1.6 million people.

The culture at MEST reflects the best aspects of Ghanaian small-town neighborliness combined with the Moro, Enere, and Respekt that Meltwater is known for.

This may be a good place to explain exactly what MEST is. Aspiring entrepreneurs from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa are recruited and selected, in a highly competitive process, to participate in a 1-year program at the MEST school, where they are taught the skills they need to start a successful technology company. During that time, they organize themselves into teams, and actually begin the process of starting their companies. The process culminates in a “pitch,” which serves both as a request for investment capital and a de-facto final exam. A group of people led my Meltwater CEO Jorn Lyseggen travels to Accra to hear each team give a polished, 10-minute presentation explaining why their business is worth funding and likely to be successful, and after that pitch each team may or may not get funding.

Those teams who are given funded go to the incubator, where they are provided with highly subsidized office space, internet access, utilities, and other resources to help them as they build their business. In exchange for the training provided by the school, the funding, and the assistance provided by the Incubator, MEST gets a minority equity share of the companies that the Entrepreneurs start. The profits from that equity interest are used to fund new technology start-ups, and the cycle continues. Meanwhile, new entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs in training, work to start a wide variety of different types of businesses in sub-saharan Africa. One company is in the process of starting a housekeeping service, with an on-line presence replacing the informal word-of-mouth methods by which such enterprises are usually promoted in Accra. Another company is creating an easy-to-use framework for the back-end portion of web applications – something that, if successful, could reach an international market. A variety of other businesses, catering both to local and international needs, have been started or are in the process of getting started due to MEST.

And this is where the Ghanaian/Meltwater community spirit comes in. Picture this: You are one of ten teams of highly motivated, aspiring entrepreneurs, and you are about to pitch your idea to someone who you know has a finite amount of money to spend funding new businesses. Some people would expect such a situation to foster a highly competitive, cutthroat environment in which people constantly try and undermine one another in order to gain an advantage. That is not what happens here though: Entrepreneurs in Training live together, eat meals together, and work together, and are highly supportive of each other. Those companies who have graduated to the Incubator are also highly supportive of one another and of their newer aspiring brethren, and often serve as a resource for their younger counterparts. Assistance can take a number of forms ranging from simple encouragement, to technical expertise, to services (MEST companies sometimes have one-another as customers), to the occasional joint venture.

This environment of mutual support is a really good thing, because sub-Saharian Africa is not an easy place to start a business. In addition to all the challenges that face anybody trying to start a business anywhere in the world, entrepreneurs here have to contend with a largely ineffective postal service, an unreliable electric grid (you need to supply and maintain your own general), tap water that is not safe to drink, as well as certain other shortcomings in the local infrastructure. Additionally, many common items that are necessary to effectively run a business are not made in Ghana, and have to be imported at great expense.
But yet, somehow, they manage to accomplish this difficult feat.

The level of talent and dedication that I have seen in the Entrepreneurs I have worked with at MEST cannot be overstated. My role has been to assist both the Entrepreneurs in Training and the businesses in the Incubator with their technical issues, and I certainly hope that the assistance I have been able to provide has a positive impact. Yet, when thinking about the impact that was made by my stay in Ghana, I cannot help but be reminded of something James W. Loewen said about the Peace Corps: “It does not disparage this fine institution to admit chat its main impact has been on the intellectual development of its own volunteers.”

I can’t speak for the Peace Corps, but MEST certainly has had a positive impact on my intellectual development. Thanks to MEST, I will never think about Africa the same way again. Africa is not a dilapidated wasteland filled with starving children, surrounded by flies, who can be saved for only 70 cents a day, nor is it a warzone where local subsistence farmers are constantly on the run from feuding warlords. It is a large, diverse place where talented, dedicated people are working hard to build a future for themselves and their communities, and the future looks bright.

  • Wow William! Extremely well written. One can tell that you are speaking from the heart!

    So many great observations in here that really resonate with me e.g. that “the culture at MEST reflects the best aspects of Ghanaian small-town neighborliness”. I wish more people could make such experiences and see Ghana through your eyes. But maybe accounts like this will help to change some of the misconceptions that many have about Ghana.

    Glad for you that you were able to make this experience, and thank you for sharing them with us.