When Somalia is often mentioned in the news it’s often followed by “explosion,” “drought” and “corruption,” but this hasn’t discouraged IBM computer scientist and Somali Abdigani Diriye from attempting to turn around the country’s fortunes.
Diriye left Somalia in 1989 for England, where he attended school, eventually achieving a PhD in computer science from University College London in 2012. After several internships and research positions on both coasts of the United States he felt an urge to go back to the land locals simply refer to as “the continent” — Africa.
As luck would have it, IBM launched a new research laboratory in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013, which conveniently shares a border with his former homeland. After meeting with the lab director and chief scientist, Diriye was convinced that it was the right next move for his young career.
After moving to Nairobi, Diriye started travelling back to his homeland to visit friends and family, but he was saddened by what he was seeing.
“There was a sense of hopelessness everywhere, but I knew there was talent to be found. They just needed the opportunity.”
Opportunity would come less than a year later. While he was still at IBM, Diriye and several partners, including Oxfam, VC4Africa and Telesom raised capital and launched Innovate Ventures, the world’s first Somali tech start-up accelerator. He also reached out to other Somali IBMers who contributed their ideas and provided training on DevOps and infrastructure.
“Our goal is to change people’s perceptions about the region,” Diriye said.
The accelerator offers a 10-week programme to support and fund the next generation of digital startups in both Somalia and its northern half Somaliland. Participants receive mentorship and training by domain experts and entrepreneurs and four exceptional startups would receive $15,000 to grow their business.
On 27 November, the first cohort of 11 startups graduated from their program and four received a share of the seed funding including: Guriyagleel, an online property rental startup; MuraadSo, an e-Commerce startup, who both received $5,000; and SomSite and Hargeisa Daily Media, which received $3,000 and $2,000 respectively.
“At the offset we had hoped to receive around 50 applications, but ended up with almost 180. Our work ended up being aired on Somali TV to an audience of over a million people in the Somali diaspora. Our roadshows and billboards were also well-received, and we did an SMS blast to thousands of people.”
Not every application was fully ready for prime time, but there was lots of potential.
— Abdigani Diriye (@AbdiganiDiriye) November 28, 2016
“The biggest errors we saw was that a number of the applications were either not really a tech startup or the applications were at the ideation stage and did not think thoroughly enough about how to scale or generate profit. In the end the best ideas had traction, paying customers and they already iterated on their idea and business model.”
Innovate Ventures has already secured funding from Oxfam for the next three years.
“Next year’s programme is earmarked to build on the foundation of this year and give the Somali tech startup scene a jumpstart by engaging with more startups, partners and investors. We expect next year’s batch to be even bigger and better.”
Diriye is also speaking with IBM’s Bluemix team about making the platform available for free during the 10 week accelerator programme giving the start-ups access to dozens of APIs, including Watson.
Listen to the interview he gave on BBC World Radio.