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A month in Accra: Africa first

Accra, Ghana startup aXd program Rebecca Mqamelo

It’s 2pm and our vehicle is wending its way through another afternoon of chaotic traffic. Picture the universal bustling African city: cars approaching from all sides, vendors weaving in and out between lanes, balancing towers of fruit, cold drinks, hats, blankets, gas cannisters – you name it – on top of their heads. The air is thick with dust, and the midday sun has tanned Accra’s sky a golden brown.

I am tired. I am annoyed. I am sweating like hell. And I’m loving it.

Just before Covid-19 hit, I spent four weeks in Accra helping to build an insurtech startup from scratch. I came as part of the aXd Program – a pilot program by an Afro-German diaspora network – precisely because I wanted to experience first-hand what it’s like living and working in an African country other than my own. I’d done brief research work in Kenya, but beyond that, my experience was limited. Unfortunately, when you’re talented and African, there is every incentive to look for opportunities outside of your own continent. The grass is supposedly greener abroad. Having travelled the world over the last 5 years, I realized that if I don’t start contributing now to the ecosystem here in Africa, I will simply become another brain drain statistic. No thank you!

If you’re smart, and you really want your work to matter, you’ll join the hustle.

My time in Accra was a crash course on how to innovate and do business in a tough environment. More than anything, however, I learned why talented Africans need to put Africa first.

The little things matter

Consider this contrast: in San Francisco, if you want to attend a networking event to expand professional relationships, it’s as easy as hopping into an Uber and commuting 20 minutes downtown to an air conditioned venue where there will probably be fast Wifi and free food. In Accra, I often decided to forego potentially valuable events because it was just too draining to sit in traffic for two hours in a vehicle with no AC. I’d spend my backseat commutes trying to type with a laptop balanced on my knees while the driver swerved and breaked in an effort to save his tyres from potholes and ditches. If it wasn’t the terrible roads, it was the traffic! Random police blockades were the norm. Multiple times, the car broke down in the middle of the highway.

I know what I sound like. Bad drivers patchy GPS, unreliable Uber – first world problems! But here’s the thing: we underestimate what a difference efficiency makes. It’s really difficult to “get shit done” when the environment feels like it’s set up to oppose your success. A day’s work in one part of the world might easily take a week in another part where the infrastructure conspires against you. I’ve witnessed “African time” on steroids, and I’m starting to wonder if the stereotype has less to do with cultural attitudes and more to do with the need to make constant adaptations to an unpredictable environment. I’ve been taught that success starts with a good plan. In Accra, I learned that success rests on how well you adapt when the plan inevitably changes. Agility is everything.

Talent is nothing without financial infrastructure