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Pandemic defines a new direction for pitch competitions in Africa

By Dolapo Adeyanju

“Virtual means borderless and this gives us a golden opportunity to unite the world of start-ups in online travel” – Siew Hoon, founder of WiT Start-up Pitch

“Pandemic or no Pandemic, the show must go on.” This is the active voice of many start-up pitch organisers as the current pandemic continues to disrupt businesses and economic activities across the World.

With millions of jobs lost, start-ups struggling to survive, and a dysfunctional labour market,  there’s no more critical time to support existing start-ups with huge potential to expand as well as encourage new innovative individuals to build businesses, create more jobs, and fill the huge market gap the pandemic has created.  

The far-reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic in countries around the world have forced a shift for annual entrepreneurship events and pitch competitions. While some organizers have postponed for a later date or cancelled till next years, some are adapting to short-term solutions to ensure that events go on as planned.

One of the notable organizations which have cancelled is the Tony Elumelu Foundation, one of the leading organizations that support young African Entrepreneurs.

In early April, the organizers announced the postponement of the 6th edition of its Entrepreneurship Programme and annual TEF Forum until 2021. This decision was attributed to public health and safety challenges posed by the current pandemic.

“Health and safety are our priority, and the Tony Elumelu Foundation urges everyone to stay safe and observe the health precautions outlined by the World Health Organisation (WHO), national governments and other relevant health organisations,” reads a press release published on their official website on April 2, 2020.

The Foundation, however, assured applicants who were shortlisted for the 2020 cohort that they need not to panic as they will be considered for the 2021 cohort without re-applying. Also, the foundation has promised to raise its commitment to 2000 entrepreneurs for the 2021 cohort, instead of its annual selection of 1000 entrepreneurs, while reassuring that there will be no opportunities for the 2020 applicants of the programme.

On the contrary, as the world went virtual amid the pandemic, some organizations have stated that cancelling is not an option for them and have decided to go digital instead, thereby bringing a mixture of entrepreneurship programmes/prizes, mentoring sessions and judging processes to Zoom and other video chat platforms.

Interestingly, the usually in-person events are being adapted to online formats with applicants pitching their ideas from the comfort of their homes through timed videos, Zoom, and other video chat/call platforms. In turn, the judges review these pitches individually and convene virtually to deliberate and select the winners.

For instance, Alpha Expo — an annual African Fintech Summit that provides an opportunity for up to 15 early-stage start-ups to exhibit and demo their products to a wide variety of stakeholders —   restructured their event this year and held a virtual Bootcamp in place of their annual in-person event. The Bootcamp, which was held in early April trained a total of 14 start-ups virtually after which they were given 6 months to apply their learnings before they are invited back to exhibit at the 5th Africa Fintech Summit scheduled for October 16, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

The organizers have also published that the Summit will be held virtually in a way to adjust to the “new normal.”

Similarly, after an Africa-wide search for the continent’s rising tech start-ups earlier this year, the annual MEST Africa Challenge — a regional pitch competition which provides investment capital and coaching to tech software entrepreneurs in Africa—kicked off an all-virtual event 0n the 3rd of June 2020 for the first time since its inception three years ago.

The in-person event was initially scheduled to take place in Accra, Ghana in the same month, instead, the pandemic birth a virtual Zoom event which provided a stage for technology start-ups to pitch for funding and gain international visibility in front of the MEST team and renowned judges from the local ecosystem.

Other pitch competitions that have announced to go virtual include Seedstars World Competition which was initially scheduled to take place in Switzerland, Global SUN Pitch Competition 2020 – an event which brings SMEs from across Africa & Asia together to pitch their nutrition solution for cash prizes – and VC4A’s annual Venture Showcase which was initially scheduled to hold in Cape Town.

Some of the advantages echoed by these virtual event organizers include a new format which presents an opportunity for more start-ups in need of funding to participate in their competition, network expansion, safety, larger audiences during the pitch competition, and multiplied impact in emerging markets.

“The new virtual format presents an opportunity for more start-ups to access our competition and multiply our impact in emerging markets.” – Seedstars World Competition

Following the success of many virtual pitch competitions during this crisis, it won’t be surprising if some of these online programmes are not discontinued after the pandemic — either to complement in-person events or as completely new options to penetrate a larger audience, attract more start-ups to compete, and expand their networks.

Featured image: ALA studentat the 2020 ALA Enterprise Festival (Photo Credit: Mfundo Mbanze)

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