Perspectives from Africa,
engagement from Finland

Understanding Africa

Representing Africans


Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Lasers, Smoke, Slush!

They had my heart at the door!Aape Pohjavirta, Chief Evangelist of Funzi, launching their new mobile learning service

How many active users do you have? How much revenue have you generated? What is your viral coefficient?

The start-up game is all about numbers. So what better way to reflect on my experiences attending one of the worlds largest start-up conferences than to begin by talking about the numbers.

Let’s kick this off with 114,000. That’s the total square meters of space within the Messukeskus venue hall.

Next is 14,000. That’s the number of attendees at Slush 2014.

Followed by 4 - the number of stages hosting thematic streams of presentations from product launches, to success stories, and speaker panels.

Finally, the number 2. Not one but two full days, from 10am – 6pm, all complimented with an immeasurable number of side events, meetups, and parties.

These numbers are even more impressive when one considers the fact that the entire conference is organized and run by a massive crew of 1,000 university students and volunteers. 

Tech for the masses

In short, Slush is one of the most intense technology conferences I have ever been to. The Messukeskus venue was transformed into a science fiction fantasy land filled with every laser in Northern Europe. The four stages were spread throughout the cavernous interior. Despite the venues size there was just was not enough room for the mass of bodies that gathered at the Silver Stage for the kick off of the conference.

To paraphrase a popular internet meme, one does not merely walk between stages at Slush. There is too little time with too many great sessions going on. You hustle. The frenzy of action is reflected by the frenzy of emotions one feels. I beamed with pride as Nisha Ligon shared the journey of Ubongo Kids and the realities of establishing an education technology start-up in Tanzania. I watched in awe as Alex Klein showcased the Kano microcomputer, a project that I had been following since it’s first Kickstarter campaign. I buzzed with excitement as Aape Pohjavirta launched the Funzi, a new mobile learning service, that Kinu has partnered with. Watching Richard Stallman speak on his work fighting for freedom in the digital world cemented my migration to the open source realm. And I was a little perplexed when Rovio Entertainment’s big announcement turned out to be gender colour coded school uniforms.

After the heady two days of Slush, the trip continued with opportunities to explore the Finnish start-up ecosystem, including  meetups with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accelerators, and venture capital firms.

An ecosystem for economic stakeholders

As compared to the Tanzanian start-up ecosystem, where stakeholders are still largely operating in silos, the Finnish ecosystem is akin to a basket of eels; where ministries, industry, universities, research, and start-ups work together to drive the economy forward. Launched at Slush 2014, the Business with Impact (BEAM) initiative, championed by Tekes and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, is an example of this approach. BEAM will disburse fifty million Euros over five years with the aim of enabling “Finnish companies, research organizations and NGOs to expand into new markets and solve development problems with new innovations”. It seems clears that the Government, and it’s organs, fully appreciate the role that they have to play in growing the economy. The BEAMefits for Finnish stakeholders are clear.

For stakeholders within the Tanzanian start-up ecosystem the opportunities for knowledge transfer could potentially have a huge impact. As a co-founder of an innovation space in Dar es Salaam that aims to grow and accelerate Tanzanian start-ups, I would urge careful consideration when engaging ‘aid for trade’, or as I prefer to call them ‘traid’, funding mechanisms. With the vast differences in the health of the startup ecosystems between the two countries, importing Finnish start-ups into Tanzania could negatively impact the growth of home grown initiatives. As such the litmus test for me is focused on two points:

1. As with any relationship, partner selection is extremely important. To hit the often illusive win-win point, Tanzanian organizations and startups need to engage with appropriate partners that compliment the work that they are already doing. Chasing Euros will have a negative impact on the future of the local ecosystem.

2) Technology that is being imported needs to be open and hackable. There is no need rebuild the wheel in each ecosystem. If there is a Finnish start-up with the right tool for the job then by all means let’s kick the service provision into high gear, as long as there is a way for Tanzanian start-ups to connect to the technology and build complimentary services and products.

Pitching, practising and perfectingDoner Harju founder displays Finnish humility hiding behind the newspaper article

The meetings with the Finnish accelerators and venture capital firms were not as productive as I hoped they would be. One of the first things that they admitted was that they just did not understand the context or ecosystems that we came from. In the end no harm, no foul. The experience of pitching in front of a different audience was well worth the time spent practising. Pitching, like any other skill, requires copious amounts of practice. In addition, the conversations did solidify my resolve to raise a local fund, backed by investors that understand the market.

Slush 2014 was a spectacle. Akin to the games at the Roman Colosseum, the razzmatazz was off the Richter scale. But the show is balanced by a strong imperative to constantly tinker with the system to achieve greater outcomes. During a presentation on the Green/Impact stage, the speaker lamented the failures of the Finnish education system. The very few students that received less than a perfect pedestal to excel as individuals, were of such great a concern that the value of the entire system was being questioned. And this despite the fact that the Finnish education system has consistently been rated as one of the best in the world.

This sentiment extends past policies, legislation, and organisation. It is part of the very mindset of the Finnish people. On the last night, after experiencing a traditional Finnish sauna followed by a plunge in freezing waters, we were led to Doner Harju by Finnish friends who had lived in Tanzania and were well acquainted with my passion for food. The restaurant had ‘Star Wars Episode One’ levels of great expectations, considering that I was told for the first couple of weeks there was a line around the block to get in. Thankfully, Doner Harju not only lived up to the expectations but blew right past them, unlike the aforementioned unfortunate misstep in the Star Wars legacy.

I tend to try limit the use of grandiose statements like ‘the best I ever had’ when speaking about food, owing to a personal view that a great meal is an experience that that memory alone cannot recreate. But the lamb and chicken plates at Doner Harju were just that. I cannot think of a single other doner kebab experience that came close to the intricacies and balance presented that night. I had the good fortune to speak to one of the founders, whose passion for the food they created exemplified the strive for perfection. He explained that the reason they had not moved on to a larger premises and grown the business past the one location was because the doner recipe just ‘wasn’t perfect yet’.

This drive for perfection through prototyping, iteration, and results monitoring is possibly the greatest cultural export that Finland has. Past all the hype, the basket of eels is taking great strides to prove, that for start-ups, not all roads lead to Palo Alto.

Johnpaul Barretto, Kinu