In February 2020as the world came to a standstill and companies downsized due to the Covid pandemic, John Kamara was setting up a new startup Adanian Labs in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. It had taken him two years to finally make this dream come true, and nothing—not even the pandemic—would derail him.
And so, swimming against the tide, he co-founded the venture studio with co-founders Irene Kiwia and Bendon Murgor.
‘People thought we were crazy’ kamarawho is also the CEO of Adanian Labs, told londonbusinessblog.com.
It may have been a tough time building a business, but they’ve carried on with their mission.
“We stay on track with startups and make sure they become successful companies – we reduce the risk of them failing,” said Kiwi†
How Adanian Labs started
The idea to build Adanian Labs came about in 2018, when Kamara lived and worked in Cape Town, South Africa, where he witnessed the rapid growth of the startup ecosystem and how accelerators were the default launch pads in most countries. He thought the continent was ready for better support beyond the mentorship and training most accelerators offered.
“The startup ecosystem was growing, but I couldn’t help but notice the problem of accelerators. You know, startups come out of accelerators and most of them don’t have a real chance to go to the next level,” Kamara said.
“I thought, there must be some way that I can build something that could” to empower African founders and provide a better support infrastructure to startups… and retrofit them in a way to build a business as well.”
Forced to bring more value to startups, the co-founders launched Adanian Labs in Kenya and joined other players, such as Nailab, in the space. Adanian Labs targets tech startups in the idea phase and provides them with all-round support, including capital, consulting and operational support; by building them from the ground up.
Adanian Labs is making an equity investment of up to $120,000 in these startups.
By the end of the one-year business-building program, the startups should have launched a product, be on-board and have repeat customers, have a defined revenue model and have raised seed capital or are in the process of closing seed capital.
“We help these startups build their teams, iterating where necessary, until we find a product that fits the market,” says Kamara.
“I have no illusions that every startup has to succeed, but from the moment they become part of the Adanian Labs, it means they have the potential to succeed,” he said.
Over a period of two years, Adanian Labs has grown outside of Kenya by having a presence in Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa and Nigeria – some of the largest startup and tech hubs in Africa.
It looks to a pan-African presence in 2025 as it races to help build 300 companies over the next five years. In the meantime, the lab plans to have a presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Senegal and Ivory Coast, and is considering a franchise model to grow it faster.
Having an Africa-wide reach means startups under Adanian Labs can easily scale into other markets as they use the venture studio’s existing infrastructure as a launch pad.
“Our presence in multiple countries means that our startups can launch in a second country or even five countries without thinking too much about it. This means that we focus on innovations that are applicable in all markets. Not just one,” Kiwia said.
“The speed at which our startups can scale into these markets is about ten times because we have a presence, have local partners and we understand the terrain and the legal aspect of setting up,” Kiwia said.
Joy Mwangi, co-founder of ada animationa startup in the first cohort, confirmed this to londonbusinessblog.com, saying the lab’s broad network has also allowed them to attract talent from other major animation markets on the continent, such as South Africa and Nigeria.
While Adanian Labs includes startups in the idea phase, they also help investor-ready startups, with scalable products, raise funds. The venture studio plans to build a fund targeting growth-stage startups.
“We have come across startups that are not young to breed, they are doing very well, but would never get the attention of VCs because they lack the visibility we bring to these startups. So we have a short program to help them educate ‘ says Kamara.
The venture studio is currently incubating its second cohort of 20 startups from the five countries. The group follows up on the first cohort of 12 startups, including: eCoBba† lend and AfyaRekodall three co-founded by the founders of Adanian Labs.
The eCoBba is a platform co-founded by Kiwia to digitize savings groups and use their data to expand their offering of financial services. Paylend, co-founded by Murgor, helps small and medium businesses access credit, while AfyaRekod, co-founded by Kamara, is a patient-driven health technology start-up ensuring the mobility of patient data. All of these startups have raised an average of $2 million in seed funding in the past few months.
AI and Blockchain
In addition to the venture studio, the lab is affiliated with the Artificial Intelligence Center for Excellence (AICE) and Africa Blockchain Center (ABC), led by Natasha Ochiel and Jeff Mkungusic respectively, which are independent training and consultancy firms. The AICE has trained 100 data scientists and AI engineers, while the ABC, which is backed by Asia-based blockchain and consultancy firm Next Chymia Consulting, has trained a similar number of blockchain engineers to date.
Adanian Labs said such investments ensure that there are enough skilled people to build the next-generation startups.
“We’ve lost engineers to bigger companies. And we feel we have a greater responsibility to keep training the techs to meet the demand. And so at Adanian Labs, we’re not just building startups, we’re building the next generation of African tech experts,” said Murgor, who also heads the labs tech team.
The tech skills gap in Africa has become a thorny problem as multinational corporations such as Visa, Microsoft, Google and Safaricom, East Africa’s largest telecom provider, pick up on the few talents available on the market and force entities such as Adanian Labs to to bridge the gap. Moreover, as multinationals look to Africa for technical talent, it has become important to increase digital and technical skills locally.
“Many companies in Africa and beyond are outsourcing AI and blockchain expertise from India. And we want to change that, and that explains why our capacity building component is so crucial, because that’s a lot of lost value. If we want to build 300 companies, we also need the capacity to be local. The world is also shifting towards Africa and we are preparing young people on the continent to work in the tech space of the future,” said Kiwia.
And they seem to be delivering on their promises when Adanian teamed up with US tech multinational NVIDIA last year to collaborate on projects and train 4,000 AI engineers (via AICE) in Africa over the next few years.
Adanian Labs also recently partnered with LBank, a cryptocurrency exchange, to build a community of crypto and blockchain developers in Africa. Through ABC, they will also run a crypto accelerator to help build next-generation startups on the continent.
The venture studio, which is raising its Series A funding, also sees itself as one of the first partners of Emurgo Africa, also one of the first investors. Emurgo Africa is a branch of Emurgo, the official commercial division of the Cardano blockchain that insists that “Cardano’s blockchain be adopted as the technology platform standard in Africa for socially impactful solutions.”
Looking ahead, Adanian Labs hopes to overcome the current phase where the global flow of deals is slowing down and rise to power more startups and conquer more markets across the continent.
Kamara echoed this, saying, “We built it and made it work with what little resources we had. We didn’t stop then and we don’t plan to stop now or scale down.”
“Adanian Labs has turned into an ecosystem, a place where people come to seek value.”