What happened when 15 disruptive startups came together in Lagos

Serving as a judge for TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield Africa in Nigeria

When I arrived in Lagos last week to judge for TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa, I had a sense of déjà vu. It had been only a few months since I was reviewing startups in Nigeria as part of Company Builder, Accion Venture Lab’s inclusive fintech incubator, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. My mission this time was a bit different. I’d be judging 15 diverse technology startups from all across Africa, and from a variety of industries — health care, agriculture, financial inclusion, and more.

Apollo Agriculture co-founders Eli Pollak and Benjamin Njenga onstage at Startup Battlefield Africa

Apollo Agriculture’s Benjamin Njenga and Eli Pollak onstage at Startup Battlefield Africa

These 15 startups had been selected from hundreds of applicants — a whole continent’s worth of innovation. I was pleased to see that a third of the startups that made it to the final 15 were fintech — this industry is truly innovating in an incomparable way. And I felt even more pride knowing that two of the startups were ones that we at Accion Venture Lab are connected with — our portfolio company Apollo Agriculture, which uses satellite data and machine learning to support farmers with agricultural inputs in Kenya, and Bankly, a startup that grew out of our inaugural Company Builder cycle and uses vouchers to bridge the divide between cash and digital payments in Nigeria. Don’t worry — I served as a judge in a round that didn’t include any of the companies we work with, and I didn’t let my biases get in the way of judging among Africa’s best and brightest early-stage innovators.

As each startup presented their case on stage, we judged their business based on potential for impact or potential for scale and growth. I was glad to see that TechCrunch looked at both of these pieces; when we evaluate startups in our Company Builder program, we want to see both of these elements converge. One of our core tenants in Venture Lab is that social impact and business returns can go hand-in-hand.

The company that took top prize for the day was M-SCAN, an affordable ultrasound startup from Uganda with remarkable potential to improve maternal health, but there’s more to Startup Battlefield Africa than what you see on the stage and more for startups to gain than just the grand prize. TechCrunch provided each of the 15 finalists with coaching to help entrepreneurs pitch their concepts and networking opportunities. They made sure to invite relevant people to Startup Battlefield Africa. From large corporations, like Facebook and IBM, to other entrepreneurs and investors, the whole social startup ecosystem on the continent gathered together in Lagos. Making the right connections is crucial for any startup to succeed, something we’ve seen firsthand as we support our portfolio companies and help our Company Builder alumni build strong networks.

It was an honor to serve as a judge for Startup Battlefield Africa and see how TechCrunch lays the ground for these startups to live up to their potential. Getting to know so many entrepreneurs that are disrupting broken systems and building a better future made me excited to kick off our next round of Company Builder early next year. If you were inspired by Startup Battlefield Africa and you want to try your hand at creating a social enterprise that uses technology to make the world more inclusive, watch this space — we’ll be recruiting entrepreneurs in Nigeria for our second Company Builder cohort soon.

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