Climbing Sand Dunes and Talking Seed Accelerators in Namibia

05/28/2015 04:38 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

Since early May, I have been based at the Polytechnic of Namibia, working with students and faculty on entrepreneurship on a Fulbright Senior Specialist fellowship. Located in Southwest Africa, Namibia is one of the least dense countries in the world. Namibians earn $2,000 per year on average. The majority of its 2.3 million residents are dependent on agriculture and herding, but not everyone farms. In my ramblings around Windhoek (the capital), my nine-year-old son and I have noticed thousands of entrepreneurial residents working in their shops and restaurants. We tasted traditional foods such as cow intestines (tasty but chewy), zebra steak (delicious), and mopane worms (crunchy and earthy). We had haircuts at a barbershop where we paid a bit of a premium to the local price because of the texture of our hair. Tourism is another big part of Namibia's economy (and for good reason--I recommend visiting Namibia's amazing Etosha National Park and climbing the magnificent sand dunes of Sossusvlei).

Climbing Sossusvlei's Famous Dune 45 with my son Matthew

In the Polytechnic's Innovation Village, I discovered FABlab Namibia. Any Namibian with a new idea can come to this bright green, yellow and red cluster of container buildings to build a prototype, find a business mentor, or access a global network of businesspeople. FABlab opened just over a year ago and is quickly becoming a center for entrepreneurship, engineering and design. My home university, Case Western Reserve, has our own maker space called think[box] where I have also experienced the importance of giving entrepreneurs a place to create prototypes of their innovative ideas.

Last week at FABlab, I facilitated a vibrant discussion with around 30 participants from Namibia's three accelerators (FABlab Namibia, the Namibia Business Innovation Institute and Global Business Labs Namibia), plus several Namibian entrepreneurs, investors, government officials, university students and mentors.

Together we watched my MOOC video lecture on seed accelerators (part of my Case Western Reserve University online course, Beyond Silicon Valley: Growing Entrepreneurship in Transitioning Economies). Professor Brad Bernthal, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Colorado-Boulder, joined the discussion by Skype. Brad's current research examines the organizational structure of accelerators, with a particular focus upon mentor interactions with portfolio companies. With Brad's guidance, we exchanged ideas about strategies for growing entrepreneurship in Namibia that have worked in other parts of the world.

Professor Brad Bernthal Joining the Discussion at FABlab Namibia via Skype from Chile

We examined how governments and donors can support the formation and growth of seed accelerators when private sector capital alone is not available or sufficient to do so. We looked at how this was done in Cleveland through the State of Ohio's Third Frontier Program. By providing grants to a number of seed accelerators, The Third Frontier passes money on to their portfolio companies in exchange for a small percentage of equity ownership.

Kirstin Wiedow, Director and Co-Founder of FABlab Namibia reflected on the impact of value of the event:

"It was a really insightful session; having stakeholders from the various sectors all sharing their experiences together with the guidance of Brad and Michael made for a truly valuable experience - as even the word 'seed accelerator' was not known by all attendees from the onset. I hope this is the start of some regular sessions and continued engagement between the seed accelerators, entrepreneurs, private equity, academia and all involved parties."

While the pipeline of entrepreneurs is still very much emerging in Namibia, I was pleased to see that there are organizations in place to provide critical early stage support. Access to capital remains a challenge for companies that complete seed accelerator programs in Namibia and many other emerging economies, but opportunities are improving. I am looking forward to my continued engagement with entrepreneurs and accelerators here in Namibia and throughout Southern Africa over the next several weeks.