Several months ago, I embarked on a quest to share the 'new news' coming out of the continent, specifically focusing on entrepreneurs who are birthing sustainable value through the ventures they are creating. Since then, I've grossly failed at sharing a number of these stories, partly because of confidentiality reasons from work, but mostly because I've struggled with finding time to conduct the homework needed to adequately represent these ventures.
The past two weekends, however, have more than made up for this lost ground, as I've had the opportunity to sit with almost 20 early stage entrepreneurs, each one with brilliant business ideas and emerging ventures. Entrepreneurs that will create an academy that teaches students how to produce household furnishings, or an all natural grocery store that procures from small scale farmers, or a computer accessories manufacturer that distributes through supermarkets, or a customized email template designer that also places advertisements, or a back office outsource solution that oversees clients' administrative tasks, or an animal feed processor that sells to the same farmers it buys the raw materials from, or a biomass stove manufacturer that uses sugarcane waste as fuel.
As the on-the-ground lead for a new nonprofit organization called Sinapis Group, I had the opportunity to be inspired by each of these entrepreneurs as I interviewed them for Sinapis's pilot fellowship, a 7 month program that will provide each entrepreneurial fellow with comprehensive business training, one-on-one mentorship and capital, with the ultimate goal of job creation and economic development.
When considering the business landscape entrepreneurs face in Kenya, it is painfully clear why an intervention such as Sinapis is mandated. Small to medium-sized enterprises have been largely overlooked by both the microfinance institutions that fund smaller ventures and the commercial banks that capitalize much larger establishments, creating a "missing middle" dilemma for SMEs. To complicate matters, many of the emerging SME interventions are only focusing on existing SMEs, not start ups.
And aside from capital, there are a number of other barriers, well articulated on Sinapis's website: the underdeveloped business knowledge/skill of many entrepreneurs, lack of SME sector support services (e.g., small business associations), prohibitive business regulations and bureaucracy, access to good industry and market information, and underdeveloped infrastructure.
For these reasons, Sinapis (meaning mustard seed) has realized the need to help fill in the gap. And based on the entrepreneurs' enthusiasm during the interviews, the organization seems to be heading in the right direction. As one entrepreneur said, even if I have the best idea and the most passion and perseverance in the world, I'll still need access to resources and a supportive environment to have any hope that the venture will succeed.