Exploring the Estonian Startup Ecosystem and Sharing Experiences With Innovation Enablers From Africa

In partnership with GIZ Make-IT in Africa, Garage48 hosted 14 delegates from various African countries in our vibrant city of Tallinn. The purpose? To participate in Latitude59 and gain valuable insights into the Estonian startup ecosystem.

From May 23 to June 2, the delegates met with the key players in Estonia's public and private sectors and learned more about the blooming startup scene. The overarching goal of this exchange was to foster a dynamic transfer of knowledge between the two continents, with a specific focus on sharing best practices in startup ecosystem development, digital transformation, and effective ways of collaboration between the private and public sectors.

Participants were pre-selected carefully to represent African national innovation networks (NIN's) from across the continent with high potential to make a change in their countries. Each of the delegates is doing substantial work in their respective countries to support the development of local innovation and startup ecosystems. The goal for the trip was to support their work by giving them new ideas and inspiration to catalyze digitalisation and tech entrepreneurship.  

We had the pleasure of hosting the following delegates:

Chepkemoi Magdaline and Joan Mwangi from Association of Countrywide Innovations Hubs (Kenya), Mercy Kimalat from Association of Startup and SME Enablers of Kenya, Steve Tchoumba from KmerTech (the National Hubs Network in Cameroon), Akum Akyk Etta from Mountain Hub (Cameroon), Junior Gilbert Buregyeya from Startup Uganda, Josiah Eyison from Ghana Hubs Network, Angel Ezekiel Kiologwe from Tanzania Hubs Network, Anne Lawi Kihu from Pangea Trust (Kenya), Sheilla Otieno from Seedstars (Kenya), Wangiwe Kambuzi from Mzuzu E-Hub (Malawi), Simunza Muyangana from BongoHive (Zambia), Ornella Nkurunziza from Rwanda Innovation Fund, and Maman-Rouffahi Koabo from Afric'innov (Niger).

At Make-It in Africa, we believe in the catalytic power of African innovation and digital technologies for green and inclusive development. But first and foremost, we believe that the changemakers in innovation hubs are catalysts of local innovation ecosystems with the ability and motivation to make big things happen.

- Anna Vambe, Advisor: Research & Development at Make-IT in Africa

Our delegation trip’s happy selfie in front of Kultuurikatel

Welcome to e-Estonia!

The delegates landed on May 23, and without time to waste, their agenda kicked off with the e-Residency community gathering that same evening at the Noblessner district. This was the first opportunity for all the delegates to meet in person while also getting to know the team behind e-Residency and networking with e-Residents. We were honestly blown away by the positive attitude and energy of everyone, especially considering they had all just travelled 12h+.

Bright and early the next morning, we continued with the e-Residency theme with a meeting with Mats Kuuskemaa, Country Director of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Mats introduced the program's benefits – mainly being able to register and operate a company in Estonia. This led to a discussion about e-Governance and whether similar solutions could ever be possible in African countries where governments still aren’t actively adopting tech solutions.

After the session, we headed to the Startup Wise Guys Showcase Event to listen to the best of their startups' pitches.

Meeting the unicorns of the north at Latitude59

Latitude59 is Estonia’s flagship startup and tech event, which brought together over 3,000 attendees, 400 investors and 160 speakers. Before the conference, we asked all delegates to come up with a game plan where they had to write down their goals and KPIs for the event, who they wanted to meet and what they wanted to learn. Through the matchmaking app, the delegates arranged dozens of meetings with potential partners and like-minded participants with whom they could exchange ideas.

The opportunity to witness firsthand the work and passion of the startup scene in Estonia has left a strong impression on me. This experience has been a truly rewarding. It serves as a tangible reminder of the importance of connecting with like-minded individuals, embracing collaboration, and fostering growth. By nurturing these connections and seizing the potential for mentorship and reciprocal learning, we can fuel our personal and professional development.

- Joan Mwangi, Pangea Trust, Kenya

The main stage of the Latitude59 event

What’s a startup event without a party or two? After the first conference day, we all went to the Startup Ecosystem Mingle hosted by Startup Estonia at the Iglupark Saunas. Sweating in a sauna and jumping into the cold sea to cool off was a first for most delegates. As usual, the sauna sessions sparked many important ideas and conversations. This was quickly followed by the afterparty at Krulli, where our delegates showed everyone off with their impressive dance skills.

Weekend cultural getaway

Tallinn and its buzzing startup ecosystem are only a tiny part of Estonia. Over the weekend, we took the delegates on a trip to nature and introduced the country’s history. Saturday morning, we started with a 3-hour hike in the Kõnnu Suursoo bog, which is over 8000 years old. Our tour guide prepared delicious moss tea, homemade bread, and snacks made of wild garlic for the picnic – true authentic treats. She also made us do a 10-minute walk in total silence twice to let the sounds of nature take over, calm our thoughts and energize our minds. The views were immaculate, and those brave enough got the chance to swim in the bog pools.

Enjoying nature at Kõnnu Suursoo

After the bog, we hiked back in time to visit the 16th century Rakvere Castle, where a personal medieval host greeted us. True to the time, he gave us a tour around the castle and told fascinating stories, took us to the alchemist chamber where he made us do our gunpowder, and we tried our hand at shooting an arrow. And as custom foresees when visiting castles, such a mighty visit included a feast of medieval cuisine.

On Sunday, our tour guide Koit (or Gregorius Durchnacht as appropriate in this case) transported us even further back in time to the Tallinn Old Town. We learned about the city's colorful history and role-played some of the most notable moments. Gregorius told us the story of 200 peaceful merchants who came to Tallinn or Rewal, as the town was called back then, in the 13th century and, within 200 years, built a prosperous trading network (later known as the Hansa League) which helped the city to bloom and benefit its inhabitants. And as already customary for our delegates, the tour was complete with many group pictures and medieval dance breaks.

One of the many happy group photos from our tour of the Tallinn Old Town

Back to work on Monday

The following week was packed with meetings, knowledge-sharing and discussions about digitalization, e-governance practices and policies that could potentially transform the innovation ecosystems in Africa. Over two days, the delegates had meetings with the stakeholders, both from the public and private sectors.

Startup Estonia was definitely amongst the top 3 meetings for most delegates and set the mood and parameters for all the afterwards meetings. It was a good overview of the Estonian startup ecosystem and about the underlying mechanisms that make it work. 

The lesson that we learnt from Startup Estonia, together with the e-Governance Academy, you'd realize that we definitely have to move faster than the government, but we must move closer to the government for us to make big steps.

- Junior Gilbert Buregyeya, Startup Uganda

As the Startup Wise Guys have invested in Africa, including in very early-stage startups, this meeting was spot on for the delegates as well, to see the link between Estonia and Africa on a founder-investor level.

Coming from a hub myself and being an investor, it was great to see Startup Wise Guys, the amazing work they are doing, and hear how they host startups, including African founders, to come in and build their startups here that will hopefully get more African unicorns out in the market.

- Simunza Muyangana, BongoHive, Zambia


At the e-Estonia Showroom, the delegates were given a complete overview of the digitalisation process and timeline, which the Estonian government has developed in collaboration with the private sector.  

Looking at the e-Residency permit where you can live in another country and still operate within Estonia is fantastic. And when looking at the Kenyan Ecosystem, we are very vibrant; we are technologically advanced - that's an opportunity that we can offer to other African countries to be an e-resident in Kenya and launch businesses globally. That's the lesson I picked up at the e-Estonia session."

- Mercy Kimalat, Association of Startup and SME Enablers of Kenya  

ESTDEV introduced their courses of action in the African continent and plans for collaborations in the near future. To date, it has been the biggest African delegation to visit ESTDEV, so a perfect opportunity to carry out a joint workshop for getting valuable insight from the delegates about what is truly needed in their local ecosystem to boost international development cooperation possibilities even further.

I´m very positive about the session today and also positive about the partnership that is being developed between Estonia and Africa. I think it's interesting to develop partnerships and that we are also developing partnerships not with the so traditional partners that Africa has had in the past. I'm quite excited about activities and programs we'll co-build and bring together.”

- Steve Tchoumba, KmerTech

We also met with the ICT Cluster, Digital Nation, e-Governance Academy, the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bolt, and lots of other players who have their foot in the startup ecosystem in one way or the other. Here, we want to thank everyone who found the time and willingness to receive the delegation.

Vaido Mikheim from Startup Estonia talking about the local ecosystem

Wrapping up the trip with a co-creation workshop

On the final days of the delegation trip, we wrapped up all the learnings and insights with two full-days of workshops.

On day one, all the delegates gathered to showcase the collaborative work conducted so far by the national innovation networks (NINs).The day-long event aimed to align participants and gain a deeper understanding of the network's collective obstacles.

The second day was all about finding solutions to some of the collective challenges the ISOs and NINs are facing. The day of the workshop was led by Garage48’s longtime host Joao Rei. Mari Hanikat - the project lead of the Empowering Startup Community Workshop Series (four events between 2020 and 2022 in Zambia, Namibia, Uganda, Kenya) opened the second day with an overview of the key findings of these workshops. The presentation revealed the same overall challenge categories in both Eastern and Southern Africa. The overall challenges that the ISOs were facing in both of the regions were finances, lack of skills and talent, roles and responsibilities division, lack of collaboration between hubs and lack of regulatory policies. 

Then, during the hands-on co-creation session, the teams got the task to design a program that would support the ISOs in tackling the challenge areas. Each team had to choose one key challenge area and co-create the ideal timeline with activities. The final part of the workshop was focusing on designing solutions that tackle the challenge areas of the NINs itself.

Workshop at the Palo Alto Club in Tallinn

To wrap up the intensive 10-day study trip, we had a lovely goodbye dinner at Olde Hansa restaurant with all of the delegates, the Estonian Center for International Development and the GIZ team. We absolutely loved meeting everyone and were inspired by the work they’re already doing. We hope that each of the delegates has the opportunity to put all the learnings into practice in their innovation hubs and transform the startup and innovation ecosystems in Africa.

Thank you for joining us and we look forward to working together with everyone again soon!
The delegation trip was financed by GIZ and Make-It Africa and supported by ESTDEV.

About the author

kadi aguraijuja

Kadi is an experienced hackathon and events organizer working with events across various industries from Food Technology to Construction. She is extremely detail-oriented and caring about everyone involved in the project! 🥰

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