Fast Company

New, Unlikely Startup Frontiers Include Estonia, Kenya, and Ghana

Garage48, the biggest name in 48-hour hackathons in Estonia, is coming soon to several African countries.

When you think of startups, what cities come to mind? San Francisco, Palo Alto, New York, and a handful of others, probably. But how about Tallinn, Estonia--or, for that matter, Nairobi, Kenya? With the Estonian startup hackathon group Garage48 soon bringing events to five African countries, the geography of startups begins to shift.

Garage48 launched about a year ago, the brainchild of Ragnar Sass, who runs the startup Pipedrive, and a few friends and colleagues. It hosted a hackathon in April of 2010 in Estonia, with 16 groups going from idea to a very basic proof of concept in just 48 hours (hence the name). "We were just thinking we wanted to do some event that's 100% about execution," Sass tells Fast Company. Garage48 is the antidote to the Hamlet complex: stop talking, and just do it.

Estonia is not exactly synonymous with high-tech; Garage48's own website links to the Wikipedia article on the country. But the event was a hit, spawning several others in Estonia and elsewhere in Europe (Latvia and Finland). Last fall, though, Sass began to take an interest in Africa, which he says has rapidly increasing demand for different IT and mobile services. He had a test event (not formally under the name Garage48) in Kenya. "It was so great," he says; one of the offshoots of that event, a farming IT startup called M-Farm, is still going strong. The visit was Sass's first to Africa.

Today, Garage48 announced that they would be holding their first formal event in Lagos, Nigeria, from May 6-8 this year. Designers, software developers, mobile developers, and others can apply to participate; 100 will be selected. Google and Nokia are helping to support the event.

Sass thinks the African market has enormous potential. "I believe with this kind of event, we can help build a startup community. Hopefully after one, two, or three years, there will be big success stories in Africa." He estimates that about 80-90% of those participating in the Nigerian event will be from the area; 10-20% might be folks from Europe or elsewhere who have an interest in learning more about that market and its needs. "Definitely some people will fly over," he says.

He sees the event as a way to effect positive change in Africa. "Humanitarian aid is not what the continent needs most," he says. "A functioning ecosystem for business activity is what really would help."

Of course, he says, "you can't start a startup in one week." But you can--in just 48 hours--clarify a concept, rally a team around a few core ideas, and even put together the rudiments of a prototype. "It's possible," says. "We've done it many times."

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