In Gabon, private companies came together to create an incubator for startups. Since its inception in 2018, it has incubated over 140 startups. 

Gabon, an oil-rich country in central Africa, has the makings of a supercharged tech ecosystem. With a young population, the 3rd highest gross national income (a metric used to measure a nation’s wealth) on the continent, and 72% internet penetration, the country has a stable foundation for digital solutions. Another advantage is that most Gabonese (91%) live in the urban region. However, the ecosystem is still very young and far from reaching its potential. 

To bring the country’s ecosystem closer to its potential, a group of companies and private investors decided to create and fund Société d’Incubation Numérique du Gabon (SING), an incubator for startups, in 2018. “With all this infrastructure, how come Gabon is still not a powerhouse regarding the digital economy and startups? This is what we want to solve,” Yannick Ebibie Nze, the CEO of SING, told TechCabal. In its quest to drive the digital transformation of Gabon, the incubator has provided access to capital, equipment, expertise, and offices for anyone building a startup in Gabon. The catch? Companies must have a Gabonese living in Gabon on their founding team. 

According to Nze, the incubator is also backed by Gabon’s ministry of the economy and financed by the World Bank to train up to 750 people in Gabon and hold an exhibition programme for 50 startups. “The mandate was to do it in five years, and we did it. Today, we have exhibited more than 140 startups and raised close to $1 million in capital for startups. These numbers have to be put in perspective, Gabon is a relatively small market with only 2.3 million people,” Nze said. 

SING’s approach underscores the francophone tech ecosystem’s drive to catch up to its English-speaking counterparts. Operators and governments have come together in countries like Tunisia, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and others to accelerate the development of their respective ecosystems. In Tunisia, the government funds a program that gives startups grants. All three countries have a Startup Act. 

In building the Gabonese ecosystem, SING’s approach has been sector-agnostic. A look at the startup page on its website shows fintechs, logistics startups, healthtech startups, cybersecurity startups, and several others. Nze told TechCabal that SING only accepts startups with founders with expertise in the problem they are trying to solve and a business model in place. After the incubation process, which lasts 3-4 months, startups should have a “functional prototype”, and then SING takes up shares in the company, according to Nze. 

Building global solutions locally 

Given Gabon’s small population, all startups that come to SING have a unique approach to solving the country’s problems, Nze told TechCabal. “When startups come to us, I always look at how their business model is specifically solving the problems of Gabon and other countries in the region. We want our startups to expand to other parts of the continent.” Just as Tunisian startups build locally but export their solutions (think Instadeep’s $682 million acquisition and Expensya’s acquisition), Nze is hoping that Gabonese startups can expand into multiple countries. 

“It’s very important that the solution is unique and not just a copy/paste of what has been solved. If someone has already solved the problems elsewhere better than us, what we want to do is bring them to Gabon to create the market. This is how we get value. But if a Gabonese startup has a specific and unique solution, we will get you out there.” Nze explained that this is to promote a complementary environment rather than a competitive one. 

How does SING get funding?

SING currently has four streams of revenue. Nze told TechCabal that after doing research on incubators on the continent, SING realised that funding was a big problem. “We thought that we needed to develop services that would bring cash flow whenever there’s no funding from the government or external donors,” he said. The incubator rents out office space, which accounts for 20% of its revenue, according to Nze. SING also gets money from advisory services and funding from the government and Gabonese companies ($1 million yearly), or external donors like the European Union.

How does SING incubate startups?

SING runs two incubation programs. The first is a 4-week training program for entrepreneurs based on a methodology called “Traction” that was developed by Gina Whitman. In 2007, Whitman released Traction, an award-winning and bestselling entrepreneurial book that sold over a million copies. Nze told TechCabal that at the end of the programme, startups are connected with potential clients, partners, and investors through a Demo Day event. 

A second programme takes startups through three months of acceleration. During the acceleration period, startups will take a test to measure their maturity. “We realised that sometimes the age of a startup does not reflect its maturity, so we created an in-house diagnostics tool to measure the maturity of startups based on founder capacity, business model execution, and market opportunity,” Nze said. After ascertaining the maturity of the startup, SING creates a roadmap and assigns a startup manager to its execution for 3 months.

When startups complete the accelerator, they have the option of signing a contract if they reach a certain level of commercial success or finalise a “functional product.” This contract will allow them to enter a second level of acceleration, which takes 1-3 years. “In those years, what we’re looking for is commercial development. We try to help our startups get additional market share and expand their network of partners and clients. The goal is that they either have commercial success or raise funds with venture capital.”

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