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From Africa to Seattle, Building Businesses to Solve Big Problems

Listening to a Zambian entrepreneur pitch his goat meat business in the middle of a first-world technology hub, I glimpsed the degree to which entrepreneurship and capitalism have been called upon to address the problems of the world’s poor.

Seattle-based Fledge, billed as a “conscious company” accelerator providing investment and Techstars-like mentorship and coaching to startups with an explicit goal of doing well and doing good, presented a half-dozen companies from its sixth cohort to an audience of impact investors and supporters earlier this month. While several startups from overseas or focused on non-U.S. markets have participated in the program in the past, this group featured an all-international lineup.

The accelerator received 170 applications from 45 countries for Fledge 6, said Fledge founder Michael “Luni” Libes. He evaluates potential “fledglings” first on the strength of the founding team, then on their potential for making a positive impact. “How is this company going to make the world a better place?” Libes said. Third, he considers whether the company will make enough money to create a return for Fledge and its investors—mainly impact angel investors from Seattle.

“What came to the top were six companies from Africa and one from Argentina,” he said. The entrepreneurs behind six of the seven companies received visas to visit the U.S. for the 10-week program.

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Fledge calls the company presentations a demo day in keeping with the convention of other startup accelerators, but the point of the evening was to tell stories and show what’s possible, Libes said. The stories were good: Several of the entrepreneurs who followed Libes on stage had already completed an incredible journey, starting on subsistence farms or in rural villages with no clean water, spending hours each day to gather firewood, walking miles to school if their families could scrape together tuition.

Now here they were, in the vital center of prosperous technopolis Seattle, pitching for-profit solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems—problems they know intimately, having grown up in the face of them, and thrived in spite them.

Paul Nyambe, the entrepreneur behind Zamgoat, said he didn’t have shoes until after graduating high school. His goat meat business has generated $150,000 in the last three years, but needs capital to buy a truck and refrigeration for further expansion.

Another business, ColdHubs, is deploying solar-powered refrigerators to extend the shelf-life of produce, improving returns to smallholder farmers and reducing waste. Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, the Nigerian social entrepreneur and broadcaster on Smallholder Farmers Rural Radio, said as much as 45 percent of the harvest is lost for lack of refrigerated storage and transportation, with 606 million tons of food wasted.

“In our world of so much advancement of science and technology, there is no reason for those numbers,” Ikegwuonu said. ColdHubs charges farmers 50 cents per crate of produce per day, eliminating their losses and increasing their income, he said.

In Uganda, where David Opio is a pineapple farmer and entrepreneur, the rural poor have little or no access to reliable savings and credit. His mother was able to put only two of her 10 acres into productive use for lack of credit, he said. Ensibuuko, the company Opio is building, provides mobile banking technology to the thousands of rural credit cooperatives that Ugandans use, many of which still conduct their business on paper and are “soiled with corruption and mismanagement,” Opio said.

“I applied to Fledge and came to Seattle seeking support to revolutionize finance for rural Africa,” he said. “Savings and credit is a basic need, and with Ensibuuko, our goal is to drive financial inclusion to the 80 percent of Uganda’s population that is unbanked.”

The innovation here is not so much about new technology or even novel business models. Rather, it’s about … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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