Uganda’s Most ‘Unreasonable’ Entrepreneur is Shaking Up East Africa’s Startup Scene

· @thewarnke ·

Joachim Ewechu is an unreasonable guy. It’s a badge he wears proudly. In fact, he heads up an institute dedicated to helping fellow unreasonable people.

Ewechu is the CEO and cofounder of Unreasonable East Africa (UEA), an international business accelerator for entrepreneurs tackling pressing social and environmental challenges. UEA is part of the U.S.-based Unreasonable Institute, which also runs programs in Colorado and Mexico.

The organization encourages its entrepreneurs to embrace radical ideas and disruptive innovations, hence the “unreasonable” tagline. It annually accepts 12-15 high-impact entrepreneurs from Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania for a five-week boot camp in Kampala, Uganda. These entrepreneurs gain access to mentorship, entrepreneurship training, capital sources, and an extensive support network. Earlier this year, UAE welcomed its second class of fellows.

AkilahNet’s Melissa Batchelor Warnke caught up with Ewechu via Google Voice chat and, after connectivity failed, over email. In a wide-ranging interview, Ewechu shares everything from what UEA looks for in selected startups to why the time is right for entrepreneurship in East Africa. This is the first of a two-part interview.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about your background. How did you get into the entrepreneurship space?

When I was right out of school, I was trying to start a couple of businesses with my parents, but they kept failing. I thought about creating a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs to combat this problem and cofounded Angels Initiatives, a business incubator in Kampala. I also co-founded and managed one of Kampala’s first co-working spaces, Mara Launchpad.

After a bunch of back-and-forth conversations, we decided to start the Unreasonable East Africa Institute. There are three Unreasonable Institute locations: the flagship program in Boulder, Colorado, and the programs in Kampala, Uganda, and Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Why East Africa?

The time is right in East Africa for something like this as more and more young people want to start and run their own businesses; that’s the tone of this generation. We pick the best of the best of those entrepreneurs.

“The time is right in East Africa for something like this, as more and more young people want to start and run their own businesses; that’s the tone of this generation. We pick the best of the best of those entrepreneurs.”

We are also seeing a trend in East Africa where people are looking to invest in startups, as the underclass is rising. Additionally, unemployment rates here mean that there’s lots of talent out there and people looking for jobs. One of the easiest ways to get a job is to start your own business. We had 160 applications in our first year. This past year we had 180.

The ventures of the class of 2014 are super varied – from Grab a Book, a literacy program, to SmartLife, a water-subscription service. How do you know projects have the UEA special sauce?

Great question. This is also how the 2015 class is. We have found that a diverse-sector program works best for us, mostly because of the cross-pollination of knowledge among the companies. We saw a lot of this last year.

Specifically, for the companies we select, we focus on four critical areas:

1. Do they have a FIT with us?

  • Do they have high levels of integrity?
  • Are they self-aware about what they need, and can they articulate how Unreasonable can help them?
  • Are they coachable?

2. Are they creating IMPACT?

  • Are they addressing a widespread problem that seems impossible to solve and urgently needs to be addressed?
  • Is the venture creating a deep and lasting impact?

3. Do they have a great TEAM?

  • Is the team loyal to the vision of the company, and do they have great cohesion with each other?
  • Does the team have the necessary skills and experience to address the problem they are confronting?
  • Is the team ferocious in their quest to acquire the resources necessary to grow their venture?

4. Is the venture SCALABLE?

  • Does the venture make money the same way they create impact? In other words, do they create impact with every dollar they generate?
  • Does the venture have a convincing path to reach 1 million people?

What does your typical day look like?

Every day begins with a cup of coffee in my hands. I try to read an article or chapter of a book while sipping on my coffee. After breakfast, I do some work at home, then head to the office at about 10 a.m. My mornings are dedicated to meetings with the team or getting more work done if there are no meetings.

My afternoons are when I schedule most of my meetings with people external to us — partners we are working with, prospective mentors for our program, etc. I try to get dinner with a friend when I can in the evenings, then head home around 9 p.m. and focus on responding to emails until about midnight. I try to go to bed about midnight or 1 a.m. at the latest.

How do you take care of yourself with this crazy job?

I struggle with this sometimes being a young leader. The key thing here is that I have such an awesome team.

I try to spend some “me” time at least once a week. I also have a routine that I am learning to follow. This has been helpful. But I am still working to figure out what works best for me.

Many of the UEA fellows of 2014 are white dudes not from East Africa. Talk to me about that.

We get asked this question a lot. I would not agree with the statement that most of our fellows are white dudes not from East Africa. Of our past class of 12 ventures, only four have CEOs that are white dudes not from East Africa.

All of these CEOs have committed to living in East Africa, and all of their companies have black dudes (or ladies!) from East Africa in management positions.

Here’s the thing: When selecting companies, our first consideration is a sustainable business model that will create massive, lasting change in the region — everything else comes second. We don’t want to run the risk of missing truly transformative ideas because we judged based off entrepreneur nationality first. To avoid bias, our initial review of written applications is blind, meaning we do not know who has written the application or where they are from when we do our first cut.

  • We try to maintain a 50-50 balance in every cohort between natives to East Africa and those not native to East Africa. We have learned this is magical because both groups have things they can learn from each other. Non-local companies tend to have more formal business training, which many local-run companies have not been exposed to, while local-run companies have an indispensable understanding of the local context, which non-local companies frequently cite as a barrier.
  • We also work to make sure all the non-natives are settled in East Africa. Closely related to this, we work to understand why they were drawn to the East African region. We look for all of our applicants to have an in-depth understanding of their target market.
  • And lastly, for companies led by non-natives, we expect to see natives in key management and decision-making positions in the company. This serves the company well in terms of transition if the non-natives decide to move back to their homes.

When will you announce the class of 2015?

We just did, and we are so proud and excited about all of them! I urge everyone to visit the Unreasonable Marketplace to learn more about them.

Don’t miss PART II of this interview: Joachim Ewechu’s best business advice and biggest challenges.

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