It’s Startup Weekend.
Entrepreneurs, inventors, and spectators arrive on a Friday night, tickets in hand, eagerly anticipating the 54-hour weekend marathon of brainstorming, presenting, and developing their technology-based ideas into a business plan.
But this isn’t in a tech mecca like Seattle or Silicon Valley. It's in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Accra, Lagos, Kigali, Johannesburg and Cape Town have established themselves as major tech hubs in Africa, and Harare may have all the ingredients needed to be next.
But Zimbabwe’s tech talent has faced challenges to turning their hard work and ideas into the next big innovation. One major challenge was Zimbabwe’s out-of-control economic extremes over the last decade: Inflation exploded by 231 million percent in 2008, and 95 percent of Zimbabweans were unemployed in 2009.
“Because of the economic situation in Zimbabwe, the country can sometimes seem isolated from other regions and even other parts of the world,” explains Allison Deverman Vietor, the legal operations manager and impact investment coordinator at Mercy Corps.
Inflation has significantly slowed since the worst years, but the economy is still in rough shape. Many Zimbabwean entrepreneurs battle roadblocks and face a business environment that doesn’t reward on merit. And youth unemployment rates still remain four times higher than that of adult unemployment, and confidence in the workforce is low.
But Zimbabwe is in the midst of a technology boom, and it’s equipped with universities, and designers and techies who are ready to improve the situation.
Nearly 10.9 million Zimbabweans own mobile phones, and internet usage is increasing. Opera, one of the world’s largest mobile browsers, says Zimbabwe is its fastest-growing market, with the highest number of “page views” in 2011.
Tech developers are eager to find a platform for their ideas, and Startup Weekend has helped with just that in more than 300 cities around the world. The group will host an event in Harare May 16-18 this year, giving participants a chance to show their skills and creativity. The event will be produced by Hypercube Hub, in collaboration with Mercy Corps, and a host of partners, sponsors and judges.
"The weekend’s theme, No Limits, reflects Zimbabwe’s tech sector’s to generate the next big innovation—the talent, the drive and the savvy,” said Jennifer Mayer, Mercy Corps country representative based in Harare. “And a platform like Startup Weekend, where innovators can develop their ideas in collaborative context, with hands-on mentorship and exposure to players in the sector, is what can help turn those ideas into viable businesses.”
At the beginning of the weekend, participants have 60 seconds to present their initial idea, which could range from tech software to mobile apps. The group votes on the best ideas, narrowing them down from about 60 to 10. Once the top ideas are selected, teams naturally form to develop the projects based on the participants’ skills sets or passions, such as programming, marketing, business and graphic design.
The teams work through the weekend with the help of mentors, and by Sunday night the teams have a basic working product with a business model and plan for making a profit. A panel of judges, who typically include venture capitalists and law experts, evaluate the ideas and the top three projects are declared winners.
Last June, Mercy Corps co-sponsored "Tech 4 Change," a Startup Weekend focused specifically on social enterprises, or businesses that have a positive impact on society, in Portland, Ore., where the agency is headquartered. Ticket sales raised enough to support an additional event, which is what launched the event in Zimbabwe.
Many of the project leads will walk away with further business-development education and mentoring opportunities, and a few ideas are even are brought to market. But many are not.
“The nature of Startup Weekend is to gather people to develop an idea,” Deverman Vietor said. “A lot of times teams don’t survive after the weekend. If someone wants to step up, champion the project and take it forward, they can. But mostly it’s about the process of rapidly pioneering an idea, encouraging people to take risks and collaborate, and connecting Zimbabwe to other tech hubs in Africa.”
Find out more about the Zimbabwe event at the Startup Weekend website
Prior to the main event, a preparatory Boot Camp will take place on May 10th open to all registered participants to refine their pitches, identify open source and other technologies, and connect with would-be customers to validate their ideas before the main event. The Boot Camp will feature experts in business and intellectual property law to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of collaborating on ideas in an “open IP” environment such as Startup Weekend, and general advice on taking on risk and accepting set-backs in entrepreneurial endeavors.