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Official launch ceremony for the m:lab in June 2011

m:lab By John Kieti / June 26, 2013

m:lab East Africa Outcomes – Two Years Later


It is two years since the official launch of m:lab East Africa. Much was anticipated with regard to the m:lab’s contribution to the regional mobile ecosystem. The sheer interest and attendance by industry stakeholders at the June 2011 launch in Nairobi pointed at great expectations and an implied mandate for the m:lab to stir up the mobile ecosystem to progress. A seed grant totaling $725,000 given to the m:lab by the World Bank’s infoDev program also solidified expectations of stakeholders across the board.

Key findings of an outcome and impact study by University of Nairobi of the m:lab’s two year activities were reported at the third edition of Pivot East – the m:lab’s annual regional mobile startups pitching conference. The study which was conducted between April and May 2013 focused on  3 key activity areas at the m:lab namely (a) mobile entrepreneurship training (b) Pivot East regional competition and (c) the incubation program. Below are some of the findings.

The m:lab has attracted major partnerships, sponsorships and brand associations with industry players across the board. Besides infoDev, the m:lab’s key partners over the two years have been Samsung, Nokia, Microsoft, Qualcomm, inMobi, Intel and Mocality International Holdings (MIH). Other key partners that have sponsored the m:lab’s ecosystem building activities are Mercy Corps, USAID, CGAP, Omydiar Network, Uganda Communications Commission, National IT Authority – Uganda, Kenya ICT Board. Mobile network operators such as Tigo, Safaricom and MTN have also contributed financially and in kind to the m:lab’s activities over the last two years. Other private institutions such as Equity bank and Craft Silicon also contributed generously to the m:lab’s programs.

Mobile entrepreneurship training:

The m:lab held five waves of mobile entrepreneurship training programs each lasting over four months. A total of 125 trainees were recruited with 103 individuals completing the program. In the study, technical training, business skills , pitching skills and business networks were rated as the most beneficial aspects of the training program by the program beneficiaris as indicated in the chart below

training benefits 500

Benefits of training according to trainees

75% of the training participants were found to have been college graduates and 64% were between the ages of  21 – 24 years. A male to female participation ration of 4:1 was observed in the program. About half (55%) of the trainees had never run a business prior to being in the program.  The study also found that among alumnus of the program, 72% continued to be involved some form of entrepreneurial activity by the time of the study. 16% of the alumnus were found to to be working at their startups on a dedicated full time basis. Key recommendations of the study regarding the training program were :-

  • To extend the training’s business support period
  • To formalise entrepreneurial support beyond the training
  • To diversify the mix of participants by gender, professional background and citizenship
  • To enhance the business training component
  • To integrate the training with mentorship
  • To create a knowledge loop with past graduates

The regional mobile startups pitching conference – Pivot East:

The annual competition and conference whose first edition was in 2011 has gone on to be a strong regional brand. The competition has evolved from focussing on great mobile apps to great mobile enterprises according to interviewees in the study. The study found out that most (80%) Pivot finalists in 2011 and 2012 had registered companies. The study also found that 75% of the founders in previous finalist startups were still continuing to work at their startups. Most of the founders (90%) of the companies reaching the finals were male and most (86%) had a computing background.

According to the study, the most valuable benefits to finalists of Pivot in 2011 and 2012 were acquired pitching skills (87%), visibility (74%), training and coaching (68%). The finalists found least benefits in Pivot’s outreach activities and meetups (27%) and getting investment (37%). An expectation gap was found among the previous finalists in that for some, anticipation to meet partners (38%) and attract investors (14%) was not fulfilled. The most largely met expectations of the previous finalists were visibility (67%) and business skills (64%).

The study found that 75% of previous finalists stated that their businesses had been growing. 19% of them had suspended their business.

pivot company status - 450

Status of startups pitching at Pivot in 2011 and 2012

Through the competition, every year 25 startups have pitched to an audience of investors and industry players.  Five category winners were awarded a $5,000 prize each in 2011. In 2012, five winners were awarded a prize of $10,000 each. In 2013, five winners of Pivot East will be awarded a $5,000 grant and a $5,000 investment option.

Among the previous finalists, 47% had began generating revenue according to the study

pivot company revenue status - 500

Current financial status of startups pitching at Pivot in 2011 and 2012

The study found areas of improvement as follows :-

  • There was a mismatch of interpretation of purpose of PIVOT between the finalists and the organizers
  • There’s a need to ensure that everyone who got to finals was a winner in some way
  • Follow up mechanisms beyond competition were required
  • There’s need for increased incubation capacity
  • There’s a need to bridge the apparent  gap between investor and start-up expectations
  • Attract skilled business people into start-ups
  • Tiered competition levels

The on-site incubation program

The m:lab’s onsite incubation program has had 8 startups incubated. These are Kopokopo, MTL systems (MShop), Uhasibu, Mfarm, MedAfrica, Whive/CrowdPesa, Zege Technologies and MPrep. Among these, two of the startups (Kopokopo and MedAfrica) graduated from the program within the 12 months of being there.

Expectations of the startups with regard to the incubation program are depicted in the chart below

incubation benefits 450

Expectations of startups incubated at the m:lab

According to the incubated startups, the m:lab was most helpful in giving visibility (62%) and access to business networks (50%). The least helpful component was in pitching to investors (38%) and Technical skills (12%). The study also found that the most useful aspects of being incubated at the m:lab were office space (75%), shared meeting rooms (75%), internet connectivity (75%) and coaching (50%). The study also found out that 7 out of 8 incubates perceived their businesses to have grown. Areas of business growth as perceived by the startups were :-

  • setting up own offices
  • positive cash flow
  • evolution of business and products
  • Growing customer numbers
  • Growing visibility
  • Partnership commitment
  • Signing on investors

Of the 8 startups incubated, 4 of them had signed on new investors according to the study. The greatest challenges expressed by the incubated startups were scaling businesses, fundraising, and arriving  as a business model.

The study recommends the following as areas of improvement

  • more personalized coaching and mentorship
  • creating stronger investor networks
  • bridging the investor – startup expectation gap
  • Support on going to market.

The m:lab  is hosted by a consortium comprising iHub, eMobilis, The World Wide Web foundation and University of Nairobi

Author : John Kieti

John Kieti is the Lead at m:lab East Africa. He is an exponent for mobile entrepreneurship and an experienced m4d professional. John is passionate about the growth of East Africa's knowledge economy. He holds an MBA and BSc in Computer Science. He also occasionally shares his thoughts about East Africa's knowledge economy on his blog -

  • Jennifer Haun at 00:58:29AM Thursday, June 27, 2013

    It’s truly a great and useful piece of information. I am glad that you just shared this useful info with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

  • adolf at 12:54:23PM Thursday, June 27, 2013

    One thing that on my opinion needs improvement with regard to Mlab is the fact that you guys are only focused with Kenya in almost each and everything that you do , all trainings are held in Nairobi and not surprising that almost all if not all of those attending your trainings are from Kenya. Don’t you think it’s high time you take these trainings to other countries that needs this type of training so bad like Tanzania and Uganda instead of always focusing on Kenya? There is no point in calling this Mlab East africa, if you are only focused with Kenya, Better call it Mlab Kenya!

  • Athman Mohamed at 13:57:35PM Monday, July 1, 2013

    great work! but confused about the pie chart… 47% began generating revenue and 20% began generating revenue…

  • John Kieti at 15:15:11PM Tuesday, July 2, 2013

    @Adolf, yes we should have trainings outside Kenya. This we realized from the onset given the gaps and opportunity to build a robust talent pool across East Africa and not only in Kenya. Give us a couple more months and we might have a good answer to this concern, with us directly or with one of our partners.

    @Athman thanks for noticing the repeated chart label. It is a discrepancy that we shall are fixing.

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