What UK businesses can learn from the start-ups in Africa

The Baobab Network works with African start-ups by connecting them with business in the UK, to help stimulate growth in the African start up economy. Co-founders Toby Hanington and Tom Fairburn explain the benefits of these partnerships for businesses and staff from both cultures…

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most challenging environments in the world to start, and scale, a new business. Funding is hard to come by, infrastructure is still very underdeveloped and access to the right talent can still be difficult to find.

In the entirety of 2015, only 125 start-ups across the whole continent secured early stage funding – a statistic really brought to life when compared to the 300 start-ups in San Francisco alone, that received funding in the final quarter of the same year. However, there is a big talent gap throughout Africa’s start-up ecosystem, especially when it comes to strategy, growth planning and investor readiness.

Despite the tough climate, entrepreneurs in countries all over the region are starting businesses. Innovative, agile businesses solving pressing local market problems with incredible potential to not only scale commercially, but to have a powerful impact on the customers and markets they interact with.

By complete contrast, employees at big corporates all over the world work in environments where budgets are huge, support frameworks and infrastructure are world class, however the freedom to be creative, innovative and drive social impact is limited.

We’ve worked with many business, where high level potential staff are faced with outdated talent and innovation programmes; and organisations are struggling to develop citizenship and sustainability agendas that that truly create impact and make a difference.

However, with a shift in mind-set, there is real opportunity for organisations to align themselves with innovative start-ups, from a different cultural background.

Combining African start-ups with UK talent can have a powerful impact on both sides, and this is exactly what drove us to launch The Baobab Network – which aims to change the way UK businesses think about talent development and cooperate social responsibility (CSR), while driving growth and innovation across Africa.

By spending time on the ground in the UK and in Africa, we’ve seen the potential for learning and growth first hand, which led us to develop an innovative programme that aims to combine these two different worlds – creating real impact on both sides; with high potential entrepreneurs in countries like Kenya and Rwanda able to access some of the best business talent in the world.

Today, we facilitate programmes that partner start-ups in Africa in sectors like healthcare, education and agribusiness with highly qualified teams from some of the biggest companies in the world. What’s amazing is that the biggest learnings that arise during these programmes, come on the side of the corporate teams as it exposes teams to a completely different way of doing business – in an environment where resources are incredibly light.

Through collaboration comes innovation and through innovation comes an abundance of learning opportunities.

At a time when the stories making the news headlines are about shifts back towards nationalism, we can see first-hand the good than comes from working together as part of a global community… and long may that continue.

For more information on The Baobab Network and their programmes, visit

By Tom Fairburn and Toby Hanington, Founders of The Baobab Network