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Workshop Adventures Across Africa

Pollinate Impact hosted an exceptional workshop alongside incubators and accelerators in Nairobi and Abidjan

Pollinate Impact hosted an exceptional workshop alongside incubators and accelerators in Nairobi and Abidjan 

Workshop Adventures Across Africa

Transcontinental Traveling, Workshopping, Regular Shopping, and a Royal Visit!

When we bought Shami’s ticket for the Sankalp Africa Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, we figured – why not make the most of her transatlantic trip?!  Ambitiously and naively, we decided to hit up both East and West Africa before Shami returned home across the pond.  It was a brilliant idea in concept, but as we discovered later, terrible in reality.

Our grand plans of convening incubators on both sides of the continent, back-to-back, proved to be a very heavy lift for our tiny team. In East Africa, we knew that Sankalp would offer us a great anchor event from which we could piggyback our own workshop and fortunately this part went smoothly. I’d never been to Dakar, Senegal – but we’d heard positive things about the country and its vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, so we added the country to our itinerary and booked our tickets. Then, oops…elections were postponed and political instability ensued, at the last minute we decided to pivot – we would save Dakar for later in the year, and instead headed to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Yes, it’s a relatively small market for incubation, but one that is really hungry for support. We rebooked our flights and went on with planning and extending invitations – for both Nairobi and Abidjan. And this is when our adventures across Africa began.

Day 1:

Nairobi is an easy market for us at Pollinate Impact – I’m based here and have pretty good networks, plus the Sankalp Africa 2024 conference was taking place and we had strategically aligned our own workshop with this popular and well attended conference. Our Nairobi workshop was above and beyond our own expectations- I’d even argue it was AMAZING! In our planning, we had asked participants to arrive at 8am in order for us to begin on time at 8:30 to account for ‘African time.’

On the day of the workshop, people started trickling in at 7:55 a.m. as we were still setting up! And in typical Nairobi fashion, they were kind enough to give a helping hand. We put them to work helping us set up everything for the workshop. By 8:30am we had a room full of 35 people! I asked my husband to make two emergency drop offs (for cough drops and a back-up projector) and I never saw him either time he dropped something off – it was that packed.

The Nairobi edition of Pollinate Impact’s Peer-Powered Workshop kicks off with breakfast and a full house.

The room was electric, full of ideas, solutions – and of course commiseration over shared woes. I consider myself to be fairly well-networked, but there were many organizations participating with which I was not familiar. I was impressed with our reach, the diversity of the participants and the interest we generated in the incubation community. During the workshop, we broke out into groups to discuss investor engagement, alumni engagement, sustainability strategies, pipeline development tactics, due diligence approaches – and so much more. There was such energetic engagement that we burned through our mountain-supply of post-it notes (sidenote: the imported ones, because the local ones in Kenya don’t stick to anything!) with challenges, ideas, and most importantly, awesome crowd-sourced solutions.

Even though this successful workshop was complete, mine and Shami’s day was continuing on with the all important activity of networking! So we divided and conquered the networking scene in Nairobi the day before Sankalp Africa 2024. 

Days 2 & 3:

Then it was two full days of networking and learning at Sankalp in Nairobi. We had meetings; attended sessions; picked brains; debated with friends, new and old, drank an awful lot of coffee; hosted a discussion on hub-hopping – and even celebrated an investor friend’s birthday!  All in two days. Woosh.

Day 4:

 Because more than half of our Stewardship Group was in Nairobi, we finally had the opportunity to spend quality time together over an amazing Ivorian, Senegalese, and Indian dinner. Potluck style is really how we roll. Halfway through dinner, my neighbor’s daughter, who was babysitting my children, called. Half a dozen of the neighborhood kids had descended on our house for a “Friday Movie Night”, and she had walked them all home while accidentally locking herself and my kids out of the house. Not missing a beat, my rockstar husband rushed back to our home, managed to crack open the back door and let everyone back in, and returned in time to finish his meal at our feast.

If you recall, Pollinate Impact’s Stewardship group hadn’t seen one another in a while and we had a lot of fun when we were together and the food, as I mentioned, was phenomenal. This is all to say that I arrived home so late that I was packing for our early morning flight at midnight. I did a very poor job of packing.  

Day 5:

We departed for Abidjan early in the morning.  When we arrived at the Nairobi airport, it was a chaotic mess – people couldn’t get through the first security checkpoint because the lines to check-in were ridiculously long.  We just had to stand in non-moving lines and wait until the airport staff called, “Abidjan!” and then we ran to cut the queue. While waiting, I told Shami, “This doesn’t look good – we’re cutting it way too close. Make sure you have spare clothes in your carry-on just in case our luggage doesn’t make it on the plane.” We finally got checked in, got through immigration and we RAN.  We ran so hard and fast that the handle on the bag of our banners broke off mid-stride. We barely made it on the plane.

They say that networks must be built on trust.

We made it! Even though my luggage couldn’t. Fortunately, I did have one change of clothes in my carry on, but my luggage wasn’t to arrive until 3 days later – the day of our workshop.  All our workshop materials, my clothes, my shoes, my toiletries – everything was in that bag. 

Day 6:

 Fortunately, we have friends in Abidjan- the founder of CommandYa (a local incubator focused on women entrepreneurs), Pervenche, took us shopping on Sunday and I procured a new and BEAUTIFUL Ivorian wardrobe!

And let me say, those Ivorian tailors are something else! The fabrics, the cuts – I have never had as much luck shopping anywhere else in the world as I did there. It was a good excuse for a colorful new wardrobe. After we exhausted ourselves from shopping, we followed up with a delicious barbecue on the beach until the skies opened up with pouring rain. Poor Shami pretty much survived on attieke (couscous from cassava), yam chips, and tomato sauce the whole time, as the vegetarian options were pretty limited.

Day 7:

 By Monday we had to replace all the missing workshop materials while also preparing for our workshop the following day. By this point, candidly,  we had very few registrations for the workshop, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. We’d used our personal networks, I’d sent cold messages on LinkedIn, Facebook, and What’sApp after trolling the internet and stalking the organizations that we wanted to attend. We were also anxious about the French-English situation, so we met with one of the co-founders of Impact Hub Abidjan, Nabou, to discuss the flow of the workshop, how translation-cum-facilitation would happen, and who was attending. 

Poor Nabou was still suffering from a bout of Malaria when we met on Monday, but she is a force to reckon with – her personality and energy fills the room. As we sat down with her, she went through our list of attendees, and organizations we wanted to attend, but who hadn’t yet been confirmed.  Of course she knows everyone, so she called them one by one and said, “You have to come to this workshop tomorrow, it’s very important for the ecosystem.” I don’t think she actually told people to reschedule their days, but she might have!  In the end, she got every one of them to attend. What a woman!

Day 8:

Abidjan is a small ecosystem, and we had nearly every single incubator, accelerator, and community hub present for a fantastic workshop. What’s really crazy about the Abidjan workshop – and really all of our workshops up to this point – is that the challenges – and more importantly the solutions – that these incubators generated are all consistent. We’ve done the same workshop in Accra, in Mumbai, in Nairobi, and now in Abidjan. 

  • The geographic difference doesn’t matter. 
  • The maturity of the ecosystem doesn’t matter.

The common fundamental problems that incubators and accelerators face are the same, same, same.  It’s nuts really. There is so much more that binds us together than divides us.

Pervenche takes a selfie of some of the participants of the Abidjan edition of Pollinate Impact’s Peer-Powered workshop. Pervenche was of critical importance to make sure I was looking fabulous in Ivorian couture, despite my lost luggage.

Maybe this shouldn’t be a shock of inspiration – after all, this is the basis for which we established Pollinate Impact and the reason why we want to empower incubators, themselves, to share and solve these problems. They know best because they are in the thick of things. Nonetheless, this realization is the type that gives you goosebumps and validates all the hard work, late nights, and long flights that have gone into building this new network.  It’s genuinely needed.  

One of our Stewardship Group members was joining us for dinner, who’d just flown in that afternoon. Shami and I were trying our best to convince Pervenche to come, so we could appreciate her for all the negotiating and shopping she’d helped me do. She was reluctant to share her reasons for not being available, but finally, she conceded, “I have too much to do tonight, the Queen of Belgium is visiting CommanYa tomorrow.” Shami and I were in shock!? The Queen? Is this a joke?

Day 9

She was very serious! Shami and I decided that the best way for us to show our gratitude was to help her prepare for this very important visit. So that evening and into the next day, we helped her practice what she would say to the Queen – going over her story again and again. Her Majesty had just 30 minutes to visit CommanYa, speak with Pervenche, meet 6 of the women entrepreneurs who’d gone through CommanYa’s programs, and overall learn more about women entrepreneurship in Côte d’Ivoire. The day of the visit, we moved furniture, artwork, and banners. We printed signs and created welcome messages for the Queen.  Everyone was abuzz – running here, there, and everywhere. Entrepreneurs were setting up their fabulous products – I instantly regretted spending my last Franc on lunch because there were quite a number of products I wanted to buy! Finally, everyone’s shouting, “Elle arrive!” a French phrase, even I understood. Everyone assumed their positions to receive Her Majesty, as the nine car motorcade pulled up to the front gate of CommanYa.

Pervenche, the Founder of CommanYa, an incubator focused on supporting women-led businesses in Abidjan, welcomed Her Majesty, Queen Mathilde of Belgium as she visited the incubation center and met 6 of the entrepreneurs CommanYa has supported over the years.

Shami had flown out the night before, but my flight was the night of the Queen’s visit. Everyone told me, you must get to the airport early – after all, I still had to collect my luggage, which had finally arrived the day before. I was to leave for the airport at 3:30pm, with a healthy buffer. The Queen was due to CommanYa at 4 pm. Obviously, I waited – I mean who wouldn’t?! I’d never been in the presence of royalty ( struck is a nice way of putting it), so I stayed for as long as I could, until 4:15 pm. My work was complete – I had helped Pervenche prepare, and that was the most important thing. I managed to get to the airport, collect my luggage, and check in with an hour to spare. And it was worth the risk.

I write this after a two-week whirlwind of activity (partly to help me procrastinate my truly overflowing email inbox), but really to reflect while it’s fresh in my mind.  

Tomorrow I’ll move on to my ever-growing list of to-do’s in order to catch up. But what an adventure – of learning, of bonding, and making new friends. They say that networks must be built on trust. Despite the craziness and the intensity of these two weeks – meeting people in person, where they’re at, in their home environments – nothing comes close to this. That in-person connection, the conversations, the weird coffee flavored Ivorian soda, the funny moments…and the frustrating ones…are all what connects us in a very deep way.  And it is these experiences and interactions that are the foundation for building trust and the very reason why the Pollinate Impact network was started.

Until then, I’m off to our next set of adventures with Pollinate Impact!  Did you enjoy reading this? Have you had similar fun-filled, frustrating, or inspirational adventures? Feel free to share your journeys and adventures in the comments!

Arielle Molino

Arielle Molino is the Chief Convener of Pollinate Impact. She has 15 years of experience in impact investing, social entrepreneurship, and non-profit sectors in Africa, India, and the United States.

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