From media to investments: Adedana Ashebir’s journey to backing African founders

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Published: 2022-06-15

When Mark Zuckerberg, then a student at Harvard, had the concept for a social network, his intention was to create a medium through which students from Harvard could communicate with one another.

Eighteen years later, the social network that he established is now the largest social network in the world. Its influence can be seen in areas as diverse as marketing, relationships, and even job searches. It should be noted that Facebook is not the only successful social networking platform; nonetheless, given that it has more than one billion members, the significance of its influence cannot be overestimated.

In the year 2014, Adedana Ashebir was browsing on Facebook when she came across a post made by a friend. She decided to submit an application after reading about an internship opportunity at the African Leadership Network (ALN), which is a group of African leaders that is exclusively accessible by invitation. Prior to this, she had graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Studies. During her time there, she had also earned her undergraduate degree.

She then went on to earn a Master of Science degree in Environmental Management not long after, during which time she also spent some time studying in China. Because her post-graduation aspirations to work as a freelance journalist did not materialize, she decided to apply for a job at the ALN, which presented her with an exciting new opportunity.

She was offered the job, and just two weeks later, she was in Kenya. She started out at the ALN for what was intended to be a three-month internship, but she ended up staying there for six years before moving on to Village Capital, where she is now the Regional Director for Africa and the Middle East. She was headhunted through LinkedIn, just like her previous position at the ALN, so social media played a role in both of these opportunities.

Putting money into excellent company founders

In 2009, two businesspeople with the conviction that opportunities are not dispersed in the same manner as talent and ideas established the foundation for what would later become Village Capital. As a consequence of this, Village Capital operates in a manner that is slightly distinct from that of the vast majority of VC companies, namely, that business owners ultimately pick which businesses will receive funding.

Even though the majority of the firms who participate in Village Capital's programs have already generated money, the company does on occasion accept pre-revenue startups. Ashebir explains that the firms in question typically have exceptional founders or are working on developing a distinctive product. Over the course of its 13-year existence, Village Capital has made investments in more than one hundred different businesses, including some of the most well-known names in Africa such as PiggyVest, Youverify, Wanda Organic, and TalentBase.

Adedana Ashebir is currently serving as Village Capitals Regional Director for Africa and the Middle East.Adedana Ashebir, Regional Director, Africa and the Middle East at Village Capital. Source: Supplied

Every venture capital company has a thesis, which is something that directs the firm's investment decisions. This could be a concentration on a certain industry for some people, while for others, it could be a focus on the stage the firm is at. After questioning Ashebir about what motivates him to work with business owners, I received an intriguing response to my inquiry.

When it comes to my personal life, I always cheer for the underdog. I get a kick out of seeing people succeed who you wouldn't anticipate to win or who people are likely to disregard because they don't have the appearance of being winners. And in a very real sense, it is what we do here at Village Capital. It's all about the underdog here, which is something that really resonates with how I feel about the world.

Ashebir revealed that because Village Capital runs so many different programs for African business owners, it was difficult for her to single out a single founder or firm that she was rooting for to achieve tremendous success. On the other hand, she said that she is quite enthusiastic about the advances that are taking place in fields such as education, the future of employment, and the creative economy.

Regarding the upskilling of young people in Africa and the improvement of women's engagement in technology

It is estimated by professionals that by the year 2050, at least half of Africa's population would be under the age of 25. Assuming everything goes according to plan, that is an intriguing notion in terms of what it represents for productivity on the continent. On the other hand, judging by the current state of affairs, that is very likely going to be a significant obstacle.

During an interview with The Guardian in 2018, Graca Machel, the wife of the late Nelson Mandela, who was the leader of South Africa's apartheid movement, expressed concern about the potential risks of ignoring the continent's youth.

"Even though our young people have the ability to transform Africa, if they are neglected, they could increase poverty and inequality while threatening peace, security, and prosperity," Machel warned. "This is despite the fact that our young people have the power to revolutionize Africa."

On the other hand, women in Africa continue to be excluded from the majority of economic activity despite the fact that this has been going on for years. Ashebir offered some opinions on both of these topics, despite the fact that African countries have among of the greatest percentages of female entrepreneurship in the world. However, African women only receive a small portion of the venture money that is invested in the continent.

"You have to make people feel welcome if you want them to come to your event. If they are not aware that they are invited to a party, most people will not go to that gathering. If you care a great deal about who attends your party and want to ensure that those who do go have a good time and feel compelled to stick around, you need to make sure that you send out invitations. And that isn't always something that only applies to women. When I think about my professional network, many of the first people that spring to me are other women who are "busting it" in some aspect of their lives, whether it be launching funds, working at funds, or operating their own businesses.

Adedana Ashebir quote

Food security, education, health care, and financial stability are just some of the issues that African businesses are tackling head-on. According to Ashebir, this does not change the fact that the government is required to fulfill certain functions in certain situations.

"We have a habit of asking entrepreneurs to find solutions to all of our issues. At some point in time, there needs to be some government planning and forethought about who is in the country, what kinds of jobs are needed, what kinds of education are required for these jobs, how accessible the education in question is, and what you are going to do to make it accessible if it is not accessible.

In this aspect, it is fortunate that some governments have already begun to take action. The Kenyan Institute of Curriculum development gave its stamp of approval to a coding curriculum in April. The curriculum will be used in primary and secondary schools across the country.

Constructing narratives while keeping an eye on the international market

The typical investor hears approximately one thousand business proposals each year, so entrepreneurs need to differentiate themselves. Ashebir concedes that she does not give much thought to the possibility of being influenced in this manner, despite the fact that many people believe that this necessitates the use of narratives.

I don't worry about that when I enter a room because even if you know how to tell a narrative, everything you say has to be true. Therefore, it doesn't bother me that someone learned how to tell a tale in order to pitch an idea or talk alongside me.

Having said that, she did highlight a few key things that should be kept in mind while presenting to potential investors.

"What I believe to be of more significance is the content of what you are saying, who you are, and the reason why you are developing this firm. You have a choice in how you spend your time, but you've chosen to do this instead of something else; why is that?"

Adedana Ashebir.

Some individuals believe that developing products that can be used all over the world is the answer to the problem of how to make a profit when the number of people in Africa who have the financial means to pay for the services offered by startups is not expanding quickly enough. Ashebir believes that this is a fantastic idea, but ultimately, it is the responsibility of every entrepreneur to pick what kind of product they wish to develop.

"This is something that is quite unique to each individual, but every entrepreneur has to make a decision for themselves regarding the kind of company they want to establish, who their most significant customer is, and who they want to serve. It's not necessary for every founder to have the end objective of dominating the entire world.