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No man’s burden: U of T’s African Impact Challenge incubates startups for continent’s local development

First cohort focuses on early childhood education, sustainable drinking water, online learning
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African Impact Initiative founder Efosa Obano with the African Impact Challenge’s inaugural Ghana cohort. COURTESY OF THE AFRICAN IMPACT INITIATIVE
African Impact Initiative founder Efosa Obano with the African Impact Challenge’s inaugural Ghana cohort. COURTESY OF THE AFRICAN IMPACT INITIATIVE

All too often, international efforts to drive growth in low-income countries are tinged with ‘saviourism’ — the idea that poverty can be alleviated through top-down management by those in high-income countries. The African Impact Challenge, hosted by Toronto’s African Impact Initiative (AII), was founded by African U of T students to show that African nations can develop independently.

Through its inaugural challenge this past year, AII has begun a new effort to spur local economic development in Africa. It successfully partnered with three Ghanian student startups in 2020 and is now looking forward to applying the lessons it learned for their 2021 cohort in Kenya.

From Africa to U of T and back

The African Impact Initiative was founded in November 2016 by executives of U of T’s African Students’ Association. While it was originally run by undergraduates, has a student executive team, and is still affiliated with ULife, the AII’s original founders — who are now university alumni — are still heavily involved with its endeavours.

One such co-founder is Efosa Obano, a Nigerian-born UTSC business graduate, who wanted to use his management skills to give back to the continent of his birth. He spoke to The Varsity on the AII’s history and the inspiration behind the African Impact Challenge.

“While at the African Students’ Association… my role was really to connect with other students, get the word out [about] the events and stuff we planned,” he explained. “We had a lot of different conversations that planted the seeds for African Impact Initiative… about just taking action and the different ideas that we had to build or fix the places that we called home, and to fix our community here in Canada.”

Over the past few years, the AII have matured these ideas into a number of African-centric ventures. These include efforts in Toronto — like the U of T-based African Impact Conference — and in Africa, like rural development projects.

Home-grown innovation

One of the initiative’s projects eventually evolved into the African Impact Challenge, a pitch competition-cum-incubator program. The challenge is open to young African entrepreneurs who have a big idea to solve a critical problem in their community. The project was funded by a $50,000 pledge by the AII, which was matched by the U of T Entrepreneurship’s True Blue Fund, yielding a total investment of $100,000. It ran for the first time in 2020 and accepted pitches from young innovators in Ghana.

According to Obano, out of around 90 applications from across Ghana, the AII selected three teams to mentor based on criteria intended to promote economic growth. These included a focus on solving local community issues and a desire to tackle non-consumption — the inability for consumers to access an existing product due to costliness or other barriers. 

Obano noted that he felt unable to make real change before earning his degree, and said that part of the program is about giving inexperienced students the opportunity to make a difference. “They’re all first-time founders that ordinarily wouldn’t have the opportunity,” he said, speaking of the Ghanian entrepreneurs. “We’re trying to give those people a chance — people that wouldn’t get looked at by other investors because they don’t have any experience or credibility.”

A prosperous prototype

The core of this opportunity is professional mentorship, startup incubation, and $10,000 in pre-seed funding for successful applicants, which the three Ghanian teams used to create solutions to local problems.

Team Abofra was composed of students from Ashesi University in Ghana’s capital of Accra. The team’s local problem was the prevalence of poor-quality early childhood education across Africa, and its solution was to deliver such education via a text-and-audio mobile app. The service is subscription-based but markets itself to economically disadvantaged people with affordable fees.

Team Rüwã on the Go was created by fourth-year students also at Ashesi University and aimed to address the excessive plastic waste from bottled water consumption across Ghana. The team’s plan to reduce this excess involved setting up refillable water stations at popular points around communities.

Team Lookupp was founded by third-year students from the Ghana Technology University College. Also education-focused, Lookupp’s target audience was older than Abofra’s, emphasizing the teaching of practical skills to Ghanian youth. Its solution was a web app that connects students with tutors online.

New opportunities for Black creators

With the success of the Ghana cohort, Obano is ready to apply the lessons he learned to the Kenya cohort in the coming year.

“The one thing that we’re changing for sure is adding a phase called pre-incubation,” he explained. “[With] very young, first-time founders who haven’t really started companies before, there’s a lot of capacity building that’s needed before they even get to the point of actually getting funding and building a company.”

Although his sights are now set on the youth of Kenya, Efosa’s final message in the interview was directed to Black and African students who, like him, came to develop themselves at U of T.

“We have a unique experience: either you’re African or you’re Black or both… You’re already at a point that isn’t an advantage point, just by virtue of being one or both,” he said. “Instead of being discouraged by that challenge, you should view it as an opportunity… You get to change that narrative by what you do with your life, by what you do with your time, and your ideas.”