Written by: Alessondra Springmann
July 3, 2012
We visited the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology on Friday, as well as their startup incubator, two houses connected by a rope bridge over a creek. Home to a handful of startups, MEST serves meals throughout the day, provides broadband, power, and a "family" for entrepreneurs looking for a strong grounding in web frameworks, marketing, and networking in Ghana and beyond. Louis remarked that the facilities were inspiring him to want to sit down and "hack on some project code". This is the perfect environment in which to develop a startup.
TechCrunch did a good job of covering MEST's projects and successes; I'll cover our visit. Edward Tagoe of Nandimobile was our host, first showing us this suspension bridge across the creek separating MEST from the incubator run by Meltwater, MINC. Both metaphoric and literal, the bridge was designed and built by MEST students. Once they graduate from MEST, some students cross the bridge on to the incubator program run by Meltwater.
MEST's focus is not just on developing apps and startups for Ghana, or even Africa: their companies have an international focus. Regardless of where you are in the world, talent is talent; just because Ghana lacks consistent network connectivity or power should not prevent its citizens from making world-class companies. RetailTower, for instance, works with Amazon, yet, the difficulties of having a company in Ghana become apparent when you start trying to do financial transactions and the first thing people associate with your country is massive credit card fraud. The more companies from Ghana that become successful and demonstrate integrity in financial dealings, the better it will be overall for future companies from Ghana. Shame that a few rotten apples (mangoes?) have made it rather difficult for the rest of the barrel (bag?) to be successful.
In addition to two fantastic houses with lecture halls, rooms for companies, kitchens, living rooms, conference rooms, and other facilities, MEST provides three cooked meals a day for their program participants. They also kick everyone out by 8 pm and tell them to go home! We joined the MEST and MINC folks for dinner, some of the best Ghanaian food we'd had so far in Accra. Shading the courtyard cum dining hall cum parking lot was a coconut tree.
Let me tell you, I have a love affair with coconuts, especially young ones. I get dehydrated easily, so the electrolytes in coconut water are great at fighting headaches and fatigue. Young coconut pulp is a real treat, but consuming it out of a coconut from Berkeley Bowl gets to be an expensive habit at $2.50/coconut. Plus, drinking coconut water of a can is nowhere near as good as the fresh product. You can buy coconuts here on the street for about 1 GHS ($0.50), and the fellow at the coconut stand will machete the nut as you wait. I still wanted my own, plucked fresh off the tree.
I asked, and Edward said I could take home a coconut as a souvenir, so I stood on my toes and twisted one off the tree as he laughed and took photos. Jovana had never seen a coconut picked fresh off the tree. She was rather amused at its "tail". Still in their husks, they look nothing like the brown dried ones you see in US supermarkets.
(Edward later quipped that, "With the coconut, we may start considering giving away one coconut per visiting team in the future, thanks for bringing this idea up....no royalties will be paid though.")
We were really impressed with everyone we met at MEST, and we had some productive conversations on how to best approach teaching students in Ghana, especially with MEST students who weren't too much older than the MIT AITI Ghana ones. It's exciting to see folks in different stages of their entrepreneurial journeys, and make connections that'll hopefully provide support to our AITI participants in their adventures in startup land.
After heading home, I took a knife to my coconut, which I'd named Kofi since he was born on a Friday. I took him outside after draining out the coconut water and yet he refused to be opened. A few smashes against the concrete of the apartment courtyard later, I was able to scrape out some very gelatinous coconut jelly. MEST visit success!
A note on journalism in Africa: I'm glad TechCrunch is focusing on some successes in Ghana, but the line about "Out of Africa" has been overused. There's a lot more happening on this continent than bad news; let's both highlight good things happening and move away from cliche phrases in headlines.