As Africa continues to expand its entrepreneurial culture and emerge as a major startup leader, several organizations have emerged to help entrepreneurs realize their ideas . One of the most prominent of these is the African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC), which launched in Rwanda in 2012. Since then, AEC has supported more than 100 entrepreneurs in Rwanda, as they grow and expand their organizations to other countries in East Africa. What separates AEC from other incubators and accelerators is its focus on long-term support, even for companies that have survived the early stages. Recognizing that early-stage support can help drive the development of ideas, the organization offers continued support to help businesses expand and create new jobs.
With the goal of increasing the availability of jobs to fuel economic growth, the coalition primarily works with entrepreneurs to identify new avenues for business development. AEC helps companies to enter new markets and grow stronger in its existing operations. Working across a range of industries, AEC maintains several different accelerator and incubator programs. The African Innovation Prize works with students to develop industry-defining ideas. THINK is a Tigo-backed incubator that works primarily with technology companies. In addition, SPRING is an accelerator that works with female entrepreneurs across East Africa. Inkomoko remains the flagship AEC program that focuses on business development. The organization also operates AEC Rwanda Trustee, which offers low-interest direct financing.
The AEC Difference
AEC understands the difficulty involved in growing a business in Africa. The organization has worked diligently to identify key ways of removing barriers to growth. From an entrepreneurial perspective, scaling operations often means making difficult choices in terms of managerial changes, as well as gaining access to capital. In addition, growing businesses often face new regulatory challenges. In order to overcome these challenges, AEC provides affordable access to capital for businesses that have proven that they are ready to grow and key support during this difficult period. The skills required to grow a business do not always coincide with those needed to create a new venture. Through hands-on mentoring and strategic consulting, AEC ensures that entrepreneurs gain the skills they need as they enter new stages of growth. In addition, the organization offers practical training opportunities.
The AEC model has met with success in a wide variety of sectors. Some of its most recent success stories illustrate the versatility of the organization’s approach. One of the entrepreneurs that it supported expanded a cayenne pepper production company that markets the pepper according to its myriad health benefits. Southern Rwanda has an ideal climate for growing hot peppers, and the company now employs five farmers to sustain its operations. Another entrepreneur started a magazine for East African women and mothers. The publication is released in Kinyarwanda, a local language of Rwanda, in order to increase readership. The entrepreneur behind this publication was recognized with the Rwandan Youth and Business Excellence Award for her work to improve awareness of key maternity issues among local populations.
A Closer Look at AEC Programs
The African Innovation Prize: Available to students in Rwanda and Burundi, the prize seeks to encourage entrepreneurship by rewarding excellent ideas with seed funding. The three-phase program challenges students to dream of world-changing ideas, design new products, and then dedicate themselves to the idea. The resulting business plans are presented in a two-part competition that examines the feasibility of each idea and the dedication of the entrepreneurs. In addition to seed funding, winners receive entrepreneurial training and mentorship.
THINK: Seeking to fast track the development of digital solutions for Africa, THINK provides funding and support to technology entrepreneurs. The program consists of a six-month intensive incubation period that takes place in Kigali, where participants have the opportunity to collaborate with leading business experts and technological innovators. THINK is open to tech startups around the continent.
SPRING: Committed to the needs of East African entrepreneurs, SPRING supports businesses owned and operated by females, providing services and products to benefit adolescent girls. The five-year program offers financing, mentorship, and technical assistance. SPRING receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Nike Foundation, and the U.K. Department of International Development (DFID).
Inkomoko: As the flagship AEC program, Inkomoko targets young Rwandan entrepreneurs who have already started thriving enterprises and are ready to expand their operations. The accelerator connects them to the funding and skills training necessary to meet their goals. Participants have access to a wide range of different services according to their specific needs. Once they are accepted into the program, entrepreneurs receive support for a full year as they develop their business plans, consult with business leaders, and secure capital.
AEC Rwanda Trustee: The financing arm of AEC, this initiative offers direct financing at rates that are considerably lower than those of local banks. In addition, the repayment terms are written to be flexible according to the needs of entrepreneurs. A Kiva partner, AEC Rwanda Trustee seeks out companies that plan to expand operations and create new jobs through the loan. Clients must participate in an AEC accelerator, which is the organization’s way of minimizing investment risk.