The Value of Community in Creating Change

Guest Contributor, Thursday April 12th 2018

This post was written by Jakub Byc, a MEST Incubator Accra Fellow, with Engineers Without Borders Canada.

There’s a saying at MEST: “Once a MEST-er, always a MEST-er.” That phrase was one of the first axioms I heard when I joined as an Incubator Fellow in Accra last year, and over the next ten months I would come to understand the community built around that phrase.

I arrived in Ghana as a fellow through Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB), a non-profit organization that invests resources in ventures that are committed to creating systemic change in sub-Saharan Africa. EWB and MEST have a lot in common: both invest in startups across Africa, both provide mentorship support, and both believe in the importance of capacity building for African entrepreneurs. But the most significant learning that both organizations have harnessed is the value of community in creating systemic change.

EWB begins building the community at the chapter level. Thousands of passionate leaders from 32 universities and eight professional chapters all over Canada work together to tackle issues of poverty and inequality in the country. In sub-Saharan Africa, fellows are matched with ventures to provide support and guidance to help businesses grow and scale. In 2017, EWB had a total of 74 active fellows embedded in 25 social change organizations across Canada and Africa. Similarly, the Kumvana Fellowship brings 10 – 15 African professionals to Canada for thought leadership discussions and workshops with the ultimate goal of knowledge transfer and collaboration.

[caption id="attachment_6643" align="aligncenter" width="665"]West Africa EWB Retreat with Kumvana Fellows in July 2017 West Africa EWB Retreat with Kumvana Fellows in July 2017[/caption]

MEST begins building its Pan-African tech community at the training programme. Each year, 60 talented entrepreneurs-in-training from 5 African nations come together to acquire the skills they need to launch their own tech startups. At the incubators, companies interact with one another to tackle challenges ranging from customer acquisition, to usability testing, to social media marketing strategies. MEST alumni are eager to give back to the community and offer perspectives on scaling up your business and market pitfalls to avoid.

EWB, MEST, and the other communities in the startup space cannot operate in silos. It’s the overlap of these worlds where the most impact is created. What experience can we leverage from one community to improve the other?

Maureen Nakamura, an EWB Fellow with MBC Africa, provides support as a data expert for DataHack4FI, an event held at MEST each week in partnership with insight2impact.

“As someone that is currently trying to build my own startup, I believe that being involved with MEST has allowed me to build relationships with individuals who have diverse skill sets. I'd love to have the opportunity to partner with these startups when the time comes to further advocate for a collaborative startup ecosystem.”

Prince Anim works for TransGov Ghana as a Social Impact Lead and co-founded OnceNOut, both MEST incubated companies. He recently participated in EWB’s Kumvana Fellowship.

“I was fortunate enough to meet and share my experience in running a startup in both Ghana and Nigeria with students in the University of Regina and Toronto EWB chapters, and Masters students in the Munk School of Global Affairs. Through my interaction, we got to understand the power and privileges that we possess in our separate worlds and how we can collaborate efficiently to use these to create a better tomorrow.”

The power of collaboration in developing the capacities of both EWB and MEST stems from their fundamental commitment to community. A strong network of people who believe in the same vision provides a variety of perspectives, skills, and knowledge that can be folded back into other EWB ventures across Africa and into other companies being incubated at MEST.

[caption id="attachment_6644" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Jakub Byc with Accra Incubator staff at MEST Guest Lecture Weekend Jakub Byc with Accra Incubator staff at Guest Lecture Weekend[/caption]

And let’s not stop there. MEST and EWB not only connect with other hubs in the startup ecosystems in Accra, such as iSpace and Impact Hub, but also across Africa. As the community deepens, the quality and quantity of the network improves, and the stronger everyone’s capacity to create systemic change becomes. As both the EWB and MEST communities continue to grow, we need to continue to grow the positive feedback loop not only within our respective communities, but within the entire startup ecosystem itself.