Thursday, October 18, 2018

Lessons from West Africa: PARTNERING OUTSIDE THE BOX

By Shameen Prashantham

It is conventional to do things conventionally – including partnering. There are certain “obvious” partnering situations we seek out. However, in my research on entrepreneurial partnering, I have come across efforts to go beyond the conventional. I think of this as partnering outside the box.

The need for, and value of, reaching out to partners in ways that one normally doesn’t think of is especially salient when partners and resources are scarce. Over the past three years, through my interactions with several entrepreneurs from West Africa where traditional partners like venture capitalists (VCs) are in short supply, I have come across examples of partnering that are somewhat unconventional in a world dominated by Silicon Valley. Specifically, I’ve observed three (potentially interrelated) facets of partnering outside the box – relating to the who, the how and the where.

Non-traditional partners (Who). Some partnering opportunities that arise involve organizations that one would normally not think of, yet have aligned interests and the capacity to provide valuable resources. An intriguing example of a non-traditional partner that I came across in Ghana is the United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF). UNICEF Ghana partnered with Reach for Change, an NGO, and the European Union to establish the “I imagine Ghana” initiative to support problem-solving entrepreneurs developing solutions that improve children’s lives, and take their solutions to scale. A small group of competitively selected social ventures received financial and mentoring support for up to two years to incubate interesting ideas pertaining to child-related issues. A promising example of a venture nurtured through this programme is Special Attention Project, which has a literacy-related solution to teach the English language using local language phonetics.

Non-traditional processes (How). In some cases, the partnering opportunity involves a novel way of engaging with a partner that could compensate for a lack of more conventional means of partnering. A case in point is Oasis Websoft, a Ghanaian venture whose mobile app, Bisa, connects patients with free medical advice. In an environment where VC funding is scarce, Oasis Websoft’s young entrepreneur, Raindolf Owusu, seized the opportunity to participate in Bayer’s Grant4Apps Accelerator in Berlin where he spent three months, before returning to Ghana and expanding the business. More conventionally, startups are accelerated within their home environment and get connected with the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. But in a resource-poor climate it was advantageous for Owusu’s startup to leverage a process available further afield. New opportunities arising from the Bayer partnership led to more focused expansion of the business, and reduced its need to diversify into potentially distracting areas just to bring in some cash flow. Keeping an open mind to atypical partnering opportunities can help ventures gain access to scaffolding that moves them forward.

Non-traditional places (Where). Sometimes partnering opportunities arise in locations that are off the beaten track. While many ventures in emerging economies look West (especially to Silicon Valley) for inspiration, I have come across young West African entrepreneurs who’ve begun looking East. An example is 'Tayo Bamiduro, a Nigerian entrepreneur who was selected to the eFounders programme, a joint endeavour of UNCTAD and Alibaba in China. While an MBA student at MIT, Bamiduro conceived of his venture,, to solve a major problem in Africa: making motorcycle taxis safe and accessible. A largely informal sector providing livelihood to millions, it was plagued by issues such as limited accessibility in certain areas, opaque pricing, and a lack of safety. Bamiduro’s venture offers a platform to connect drivers and users, as well as training and financial support to drivers. But Bamiduro refined his offering after his experience in China where he believes he gained valuable lessons that were highly relevant to an African setting, notably the importance of deep support for the driver community. He dramatically increased the number of teams that dealt with driver support from one to six. Since then, he says, not a single driver has left the community.

The above examples from West Africa, a region whose entrepreneurial ecosystems attract far less attention than Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv, or even Bangalore and Beijing’s Zhongguancun, show us the value of adopting a mindset that actively looks for unconventional partnering opportunities. While obviously of greater relevance in a resource-scarce environment, this has application elsewhere too. For instance, even well-endowed companies are increasingly being encouraged to adopt a frugal orientation, in order to achieve more with less. Partnering outside the box is one important means of doing so.  

What’s more, all three examples above indicate that this mindset can have a broader societal impact. Indeed, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collective call to action to promote sustainability and end poverty by 2030, seem more likely to be accomplished if non-traditional allies work together. Perhaps partnering outside the box can help create a better world.

Dr. Shameen Prashantham is Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy at CEIBS. His research and teaching interests relate to international entrepreneurship and strategy. His research focuses on new venture internationalization, in particular how start-ups “dance with gorillas” i.e. partner with large multinationals as a means to improve their prospects of innovation and international expansion. He also has interests in strategy-as-practice.

This article was first published by the Economist Intelligence Unit on October 15.


Hello Shameen, thanks for drawing my attention to your insightful piece. Strikes me as a suave entrepreneurial move in its own right. The catchy, memorable title - 'partnering outside the box' - reminds one of your very effective 'dancing with gorillas' imagery. Continuing best wishes.

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