Sudan has the most affordable mobile internet in Africa and is ranked among the five least expensive countries for mobile internet globally. Despite its recent political woes, innovation in its digital space thrives on. With such growths like these, “and by that i refer to the level of internet users vs internet affordability” progress in its tech ecosystem should be seamless, but it isn’t always the case as there remains incredible work to be done.
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Here is where Innovation labs like Savannah, located in Khartoum cannot shy away; it’s their purpose and reason —to elevate innovation not just in Sudan but in the horn of Africa.
In this edition of Dreams Talks, we sat with the Co-Founder of the Savannah Innovation Labs, Yousif Yahya, in which he provided insight into this developing ecosystem.
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Dreams Talks: It’s been 4 years since the conception of Savannah, tell me has its core objectives changed since then?
Yousif Yahya: No, the objectives are still the same. Our objective is to enhance the Sudanese entrepreneurial ecosystem and create a bridge between Sudan and the international business community. Our aim is to complement the endeavors of organizations such as Impact Hub Khartoum and 249 startups and contribute to their efforts in resolving the challenges faced by Sudan. We believe that a multi-faceted approach, with multiple actors addressing different aspects, is necessary to effectively address the issues in Sudan.
Dreams Talks: SAVANNAH provides curated programs and events that offer learning opportunities to companies, entrepreneurs. Are these programs actually making a difference? And what examples are they setting in the Sudanese Tech Eco System ?
Yousif Yahya: So there are couple of pillars. We have our programs that we have curated for the community, and these usually are free events where we bring Sudanese and global change makers from the various walks of life that have made contributions in the field that they’re in and we have them come in and then pass on that knowledge and their experience with asbiring Sudanese entrepreneurs and change makers.
We also host a lot of art exhibitions in the space.We always had this idea that art is a great way to bring in people from different walks of life into the same space . To bring that idea to life, we partnered up with The Muse. Back then the Muse was an initiative to support the art scene in Sudan. Now The Muse is a stand alone exhibition space in Khartoum. The founder Reem A, is an architect turned curator and visual artis that is challenging and honestly reshaping the conversation with regards to the Sudanese art scene.
And for the other side, the entrepreneurship support programs that we’re running, we are trying to focus on incubating people, by incubating people, I mean just focusing on a younger demographic that is actually going to then build the next stage of Sudanese startups within the next 5 to 10 years. Right? So Sudan has a very youthful population. I mean, the stats reveal that almost 60% of the population is under the age of 25. So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to invest in that young population and taking a bet that they will build Sudan.
Within the next 5 to 10 years,they will be leading the conversation. So our focus right now is more on the individual level as opposed to the startups themselves. Even though we do work with startups, I myself am a co-founder of something called the Tera-b. It’s an angel investment network that leverages the diaspora dollars to invest in non Sudanese startups and also a venture partner of the only horn of Africa Venture Capital Fund called “Africa Renaissance Partners. The idea here is to complement and complete what is already happening in order for us to ensure a nurturing environment for entrepreneurs in Sudan and the horn of Africa at large.
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Dreams Talks: Sudan continued to face intersecting political and economic challenges in 2022, coinciding with increased violence in Khartoum. How is SAVANNAH thriving despite these state of affairs
Yousif Yahya: Yeah. I mean, despite the political challenges that are happening in the country and around it, I think there needs to be spaces where people are able to come in and unplug from everything that’s happening outside, being able to dream, plan and then execute. And with that being said, we want to carve a space out and then build a safe space and a safe haven for young entrepreneurs and young change makers to come in and imagine a Sudan where there is stability, where there is economic growth. People need to come and find these places and imagine these things in order for them to be able to build.
Dreams Talks: But how do you keep the belief, I mean, the motivation, because obviously we know in countries with deep rooted political crises there is low investment. Investors don’t want to come in because of the high risk. So how do you keep the youth motivated to say, ‘guys, keep on, we got this’.
Yousif Yahya: What the team at Africa Renaissance is currently doing, de-risking Sudan and the horn for international investors. By saying we have collective expertise and are dedicated to this region and we are going in first to show that it is actually possible to find a success stories. But you will have to unearth them and invest not only just capital in them in order for you to see the results. So when we come and look at venture capital globally, only 1% was in Africa. And out of that 1% that goes to African support countries. And we’re speaking about South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and then Kenya. So when we come in, we kind of look at the Horn of Africa. Sudan only got $8 million in venture capital last year when compared to places like Kenya that received $1.9 billion. So we’re trying to find, highlight and elevate success stories coming from the horn.
And that’s why we’re trying to leverage our own money, diaspora money, and local Sudanese and Ethiopian private sector money to tell people there are opportunities in the horn. We are invested, we are putting our own money in this place. And when people see that, they’ll come in . People say, build it and they will come. And this is what we genuinely believe in, right? We’re going to do the good work. We want to lay the foundation. Once people see that you are actually able to build, sustain and elevate in such environments, then they too are going to want to invest there and grow along.
Dreams Talks: Take us through Savannah’s incubation process. How do you select startups to work with in this?
Yousif Yahya: So there are different criterias. Are you creating solutions to regional and global problems? Is the idea scalable? What kind of social and economical impact is the idea having? Are you employing people? Are you helping the environment and so on and so forth? Right. So different programs have different thresholds to be accepted. But in general, these are the thematic areas that we look at when we look at solutions.
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Dreams Talks: What challenges does Savannah have?
Yousif Yahya: Yeah. I mean, one of the biggest challenges everybody’s facing in Sudan now is brain drain, right? A lot of talent is leaving the country because of the general quality of life. What we want to do with all of our partners is to invest in those that are building a better environment that is going to encourage people to stay. The solution to brain drain is collective, not one institution or government agency can solve that by themselves. So we need to invest in the general environment to encourage people to stick around.
Dreams Talks: What can you highlight as Savannah’s greatest achievement?
Yousif Yahya: We are walking into our 5th year. 5 Sudan years 10 years in any other context.We are proud of all of the mistakes we have made as a team very early on because they became reference points for my co-founder and I.
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Dreams Talks: 20 years from now what will Savannah mean to the next generation?
Yousif Yahya: We are now in a phase where we are thinking about the future of Savannah in relation to the country and the region at large. We are dreamers that implement and we take pride in that. So the goal is to expand on our research and advisory services, amplify our impact in Sudan and expand our regional footprint outside of Sudan
The name Savannah is a metaphor for the Savannah region, an ecosystem where all of its members are able to grow to their fullest potential following a natural cycle. We want to provide the resources for anyone that comes in touch with the organization to grow to their fullest potential.