What motivated you to start Volkeno?
Before Volkeno (Swahili for “volcano”), I was working for a start-up in Paris, creating iPhone and Android apps. Whenever I would return to Senegal, I kept meeting people who had great ideas but did not know how to make those ideas into companies.
For the first month, I was hiring and managing interns remotely from France. We had so many projects ready to be developed; however, I soon realized that our interns were incredibly motivated, but not very well-trained. So before we could develop new products, I first had to focus on training. As I began training them, and providing technical resources, I saw an opportunity to provide well-trained developers to local digital start-ups.
What is Volkeno’s business model?
We train developers to turn them into makers, into entrepreneurs, into risk-takers! When I tell people about Volkeno, they think that I still just want to help people, but I am not a social entrepreneur. I want to build a business.
Our first business line is Bakeli, which means “creators” in Lingala. It is a three-month program, where we provide intensive training for the first month, and the interns work for an entrepreneur for the remaining two months. Thus, we provide both technical training and an opportunity to receive real-world experience.
The start-ups pay about $600 for the training, and in return, they receive capable interns who are able to help them build their businesses. I believe the best people to train you in a field are the people who have already succeeded in that field. So, all of our trainers are developers themselves.
Our second business line connects freelance developers to our network of digital start-ups, and we charge $100 per month for co-working space and technical support. Ultimately, our goal is to help people become financially independent while doing what they love. We want our trainees today to become our clients tomorrow — either as freelancers utilizing our space or entrepreneurs hiring our future interns.
What has been your company’s impact so far?
We have trained and provided internships for 25 students. Nine were promoted, and two have earned full-time contracts. Since late 2015, we’ve had 140 applicants from which we’ve interviewed, accepted only 25 interns and supported 10 start-up companies.
In five years, what is your vision for Volkeno?
Five years from now, I see Volkeno becoming what I call a “Make Tank.” Generally, a “think tank” produces thoughts and ideas. But we don’t want to be a think tank — we want to be a Make Tank! This year, we want to launch a second phase as an incubator. After completing the Bakeli program, developers will have six months to build a prototype and hit several target goals. As we continue to grow, we will have a large space where people could come and develop their ideas. In my vision, in five or six years, we will have 10 acres and host 1,000 IT companies working to solve local issues.
Tell us about your journey to SLUSH and what you learned from the experience.
CTIC Dakar organized a pitch competition to enter the Slush Global Impact Accelerator (GIA). Out of 12 start-ups, we were among the three winners. The Slush conference was a great experience. In Finland, one of their strengths is the community they have among the digital start-ups, but we still lack a strong community in Senegal.
After the GIA, I am focusing now on how to grow our business faster. Since our business cannot scale the same way as a tech start-up or an app, I learned that we have to market our services to a much broader audience and we have to attract more local investors.
In Helsinki, I realized that investors from abroad would not come right now because there are too many risks in Africa. Building a start-up is risky, but building one in Senegal is twice as risky. Due to political instability and other factors, some investors told us that they would invest in Europe, America, maybe Asia, but not in Africa, maybe in five years. That was a good wake-up call! Many entrepreneurs want to build a business and look for investors abroad, but I tell them, “solve your local problems and solve them well.” We want developers to work for themselves and for our countries. We need to solve our problems right now, right away! Because our problems are not waiting for us.
What advice would you give other aspiring entrepreneurs?
I think it’s important to understand what it means to be a “founder.” When starting a business, many entrepreneurs make decisions based on their personal relationships, but you have to choose your partners wisely. As you take on investors, while you’re accepting their money and their advice, you also have to remember that you will have to do a lot of the work to build the business on your own. So, sometimes it’s better to take less money for a small share. Also, it’s really important to start learning about legal processes early on. If you know more about relevant laws and taxes you’ll need to pay, then you can avoid making mistakes.