The technology boom has seen a huge rise in the number of business incubators in the UK, Europe and United States. Incubators exist to accelerate the successful development of entrepreneurial companies, through an array of business support resources and services. A business incubator’s main goal is to produce successful firms that leave the programme, financially viable and free-standing.
Critical to the definition of an incubator is the provision of business assistance that comes in the form of management guidance and consulting tailored to young companies. As the industry has matured, a number of poor examples have soured the image of this type of support and we were fascinated to see a remarkable example of this model at work, in the most unlikely of places, sub-Saharan Africa, more specifically Lawra District, Upper West Region, Ghana.
This sub-Saharan region, is desperately poor, as 60% of people do not have access to toilet facilities (Ghanaian Statistical Service, 2014) and the estimated per capita daily income is about $0.87 (UN report, 2012). As such, very few job opportunities exist; unsurprisingly there is no capital and very limited assets. Entrepreneurship might seem like an odd notion for those living in a sub-Saharan region, but as the population exists hand to mouth, developing a business is the only way to avoid the consequence of a bad harvest. We saw a breadth of skills and passions, which included weaving, cooking, livestock farming, even xylophone building (Lawra is a global centre for xylophones). But the road to entrepreneurship is difficult anywhere, and in Lawra, the lack of education and business skills only intensify this.
Action Through Enterprise (ATE) sees the potential in the people of Lawra. Their BIZATE programe delivers a fundamental spring of progress, which generates hope for the entrepreneurs of Lawra. Unlike incubators in the developed world, BizATE (ATE’s small business development programme) is supporting extremely deprived but entrepreneurially minded individuals, with lack of access to electricity or running water, and high levels of illiteracy.
Action Through Enterprise, might not call BizATE an incubator, but we saw an exceptional example of a not for profit incubator that produces successful businesses through structured, diligent and empathetic support services and capital.
Like a traditional incubator BizATE exists to provide new and emerging businesses with support to increase their likelihood of success. The selection process is rigourous, exploring personalities, the viability of business ideas, and commitment to enhancing the wider community through their success. BizATE’s support includes investment capital, training, direct business assistance and mentoring.
BizATE is able to offer this critical holistic support, through a local network of smart and ambitious young people, who have achieved senior high school education, and all have been trained by Action Through Enterprise. A high proportion of consultants are either teachers or nurses. The support provided comes through training workshops, facilitated peer to peer learning and one to one support for the next generation of local businesses.
BizATE is a critical tool in the economic development toolkit of the area. Not only is it a means to increase turnover of individual businesses, it has also led to higher employment and an apprentice scheme supporting young women in the region. The impact of the lives of the entrepreneurs supported is inspiring and word has spread fast leading to a wealth of applications for support from across the region.
BizATE is a learning opportunity for anyone working or interested in working with young businesses, as it keeps true to the structured, goal-oriented programme of support, that can be found lacking in organisations claiming to be incubators on the start-up landscape. Learning from the edges brings home the truth of what really matters, rather than only looking inwardly at the existing startup accelerator market.
It’s easy to see ATE as a charity, but our experience leads us to believe it is an investment in the economic development of the region.