Interview with She...

Interview with Sheilah Birgen, CEO of m:lab East Africa

m:lab East Africa Identifies and Scales Mobile Solutions for Social Needs

m:lab East Africa is a consortium of four organizations (eMobilis, World Wide Web Foundation, University of Nairobi, and iHub) that aim to become leaders in identifying, nurturing, and helping to build sustainable enterprises in the knowledge economy.

The consortium’s mission is “to facilitate demand-driven innovation by regional entrepreneurs, ensuring that breakthrough low-cost, high-value mobile solutions can be developed and scaled up into sustainable businesses that address social needs."

Sheilah Birgen, m:lab East Africa CEO We met in Finland with Sheilah Birgen, m:lab East Africa CEO and Team Lead. She participated in Slush, the largest startup event in northern Europe drawing 1,700 startups and 800 investors to Helsinki. infoDev-affiliated digital entrepreneurs and mLabs participated to increase their exposure to international investors, mentors, and industry players.

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you joined m:lab East Africa?

A: I joined because I am passionate about technology and entrepreneurship. I like things that are progressive and move quickly. You can’t get any faster than technology.

In 2012, I quit my job and came to m:lab East Africa as an intern. After two months, I was hired as the communications lead. A year later, I became the community lead after working with entrepreneurs on investor relations and partnerships. Then, the previous m:lab team lead decided to go back to school and I stepped in as the m:lab East Africa team lead and CEO. We have a small but amazing team at m:lab East Africa who are very motivated and get things done. 

Q: What innovative offerings do you provide to entrepreneurs in East Africa to help them grow and scale?

A: Our three main offerings are: 1) market-driven training on different platforms, 2) business incubation, and 3) a testing lab for apps.

Some of our best support for entrepreneurs comes from Pivot East [East Africa's premier mobile startup pitching competition]. It provides our clients a platform to connect with other entrepreneurs in the sub-region. We believe that exposing them to fellow entrepreneurs gives them a different mindset and perspective on their own business. It also enables them to enter different markets. Each year we receive amazing applications.

We also organize sector-specific forums on how to best utilize technology. For example, we held a forum on the agribusiness sector and posed market challenges to developers. These forums offer opportunities for developers to tap into on-the-ground challenges in the markets in which they hope to operate.

Q: How are you leveraging local and global partnerships?

A: In the past, we’ve had partnerships with Microsoft and Intel on capacity development for developers. We want to continue these types of partnerships because they bring more developers into the market. We also want to nurture the growth of game developers. For example, Leti Arts has a partner in Kenya and was incubated at m:lab East Africa. I want to encourage more young folks to go into the gaming industry. It also spreads the reach of the m:lab to other industries that could possibly have the next unicorn.

In the public and non-profit sector, we are seeking partnerships because technology offers solutions for many of the challenges they face. For example, why can’t I use my phone to report that I’ve lost my ID card, rather than taking five buses to issue a report at a police station? The traditional way of doing things does not work anymore. 

Q: How is m:lab East Africa ensuring inclusiveness and gender balance?

A: Twenty percent of businesses that apply to Pivot East have a woman founder or co-founder. A majority of these firms make it to the finals—based purely on the viability of their business. What this tells us is that even though fewer women apply, the businesses they are leading are solid.

To create a stronger pipeline of women in this industry, we’re collaborating with partners such as Akirachix. We offer internship opportunities to the young women they are training from high school. However, it becomes more challenging to offer internships outside of Nairobi.

This is where government organizations and other partners can help out. For example, if governments organize events at the county level, we can hold sessions with these groups outside of urban areas. Collaboration with different stakeholders will help us expand our reach.

Q: The Global Entrepreneurship Summit was recently held in Nairobi. In what ways does the m:lab serve as an important resource in improving the ecosystem for entrepreneurs?

A: m:lab East Africa can inform the Kenyan government and other stakeholders in the ecosystem about real-life challenges faced by entrepreneurs. For example, some of the top concerns for our entrepreneurs are: 1) the lack of tax incentives for entrepreneurs and investors, 2) the lack of an efficient system for patents, and 3) the lack of an open market in East Africa, which limits market size for entrepreneurs.

Q: What do you think is the biggest impact of m:lab East Africa?

A: Our entrepreneurs are the biggest and proudest impact we have at m:lab East Africa. Several of the entrepreneurs across sectors are making a positive difference in people’s lives.

  • In education, Eneza now has over 500,000 users and are providing additional income for teachers as content developers.
  • In finance, Kopo Kopo has created jobs in Kenya and has over 40 employees.
  • In health, Toto Health is helping over 30,000 mothers monitor their maternal health and child’s development.
  • In agriculture, mFarm is multiplying sales of farmers and increasing income for their families.  A mother is able to buy paracetamol for her child because she is able to earn an income via mFarm.

This is the kind of impact of which I am most proud.


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