On the up · 18 May 2017

Meet the socially conscious startup connecting corporates with Sub-Saharan African innovators

Toby Hanington and Tom Fairburn
Co-founders Toby Hanington and Tom Fairburn

In March 2016, Toby Hanington and Tom Fairburn gave up their highly-paid finance jobs to pursue their ambition to change the way corporations thought about social responsibility and training.

Both in their mid-twenties, the entrepreneurial pair set up socially conscious startup The Baobab Network to partner corporate brands with innovative startups and entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa.

With the aim of giving African entreprenuers the necessary tools to scale their businesses, whilst giving UK consultants valuable experience in innovation,  The Baobab Network has gone from strength to strength. Regular programmes now run in Nairobi, Kenya,  with British consultants from the likes of Credit Suisse, UBS, Dell, Barclays and PwC participating.

Business Advice spoke to co-founder Hanington following his venture’s first successful crowdfunding round, worth £150,000.

 (1) Who are you and what’s your business?

My name is Toby and I am the co-founder of The Baobab Network, which immerses top talent from global organisations in some of Africa’s most exciting tech startups.

We put together one or two-week programmes to match the skillsets of our consultants with the problems being faced by each startup we work with.

We focus on startups in the fintech, agriculture, healthcare, education and clean energy sectors – companies who can solve local problems but also have the potential to have a global impact.

The consultants are exposed to some of the best entrepreneurs and disruptive technologies in these emerging markets, learning how to be more lean and agile in their work back at their home companies, whilst also having a real social impact.

We see it as more than just a talent programme for employees who sponsor their involvement. It’s a tool to drive millennial engagement and retention, encourage diversity and inclusion, and encourage an entrepreneurial and innovative culture for their workforce. The startups we work with benefit from having world class consultants at their disposal.

(2) How long have you been around for?

Tom and I founded The Baobab Network in August 2015, quitting our city jobs in March 2016 to go full time, running our first programme in Nairobi that month.

(3) How do you make money?

Large organisations sponsor their employees to join the programmes. For this we run pre-programme workshops focused on working in a new startup environment and culture, and scoping out of the project, on the ground project management, and post-project workshops on what these global organisations and their employees can learn from startups in Sub-Saharan Africa. Long-term, we would like to invest our profits back into the startups we work with.

(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?

Big companies struggle to attract and retain top talent. No longer are investment banks the top choice for those graduating university in the same way they were ten years ago. There is so much talk at the moment of employees, especially millennials, wanting more from their job than just a pay check at the end of the month – they want to have a social impact too.

We carefully partner organisations and their employees with startups who benefit from their specific skillsets – we aren’t taking consultants and asking them to build a school (which of course has its own value).

We take bankers to help startups with raising capital, marketers to drive new social media campaigns and consultants to help with overarching strategy. Our aim is to help startups that can really scale and help not just one farmer for example, but farmers across nations, continents and potentially worldwide.

(5) What was key in terms of getting started?

I think the key moment was running a first programme as a minimum viable product. We wanted to test the concept, to see if we could add value to both the startups and the consultants.

We put an advert out asking people to cover their own costs, and flew out to Nairobi a couple of months later. The successes and learning from this first programme helped us shape the business into what it is today.

(6) What’s your most exciting achievement to date?

After dreaming up the concept of The Baobab Network, we ran a crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube. We managed to raise £150,000 in just 11 days, which has allowed us to grow the business much faster than we originally planned. We now are working with startups in four countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, and have just made our second hire.

(7) How would you describe the African startup scene? Does it differ to that in the UK?

Over the last three years or so, the tech startup scene in Sub-Saharan Africa has developed into something very exciting. As ecosystems in cities like Nairobi, Accra, and Kigali have improved, so have the quality of ideas and businesses.

Entrepreneurs are building solutions to big problems in their markets, with a real focus on financial inclusion and payment, healthcare and education. The ecosystem is still at a very early stage however, and this is the key difference when compared to the UK.

(8) What setbacks have you had along the way?

Learning when to run the programmes was probably our biggest setback. We had a couple of programmes early on that we advertised too late, so we didn’t end up running them. Now, we have too many applicants for each programme which is a great problem to have!

(9) In five years’ time, I will be…

Running the company as the market leader on supporting growth and innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

(10) What one tip would you give to others starting out?

Don’t be too stubborn with your business idea – pivot if you need to. I think too many startups fail because they believe their idea is perfect and stick to their original business plan when they get signals they shouldn’t be.

I think it’s imperative to continually learn and improve your offering, even if it is slightly different from Plan A – the market will dictate the problem that needs to be solved.

(11) Who are your business heroes and why?

An obvious one I’m afraid – Richard Branson. His core values are something that resonate with us, especially his core values on his employees, social impact and his appetite for calculated risk in particular.

Making corporate social responsibility work for a small business and improving employee engagement as a result.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage is deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London. He previously worked as a reporter at Global Trade Review magazine.

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