During the Mobile West Africa conference in Lagos, we’ve met with Neal Hansch, the managing director of the MEST incubator in Ghana. The program is a 24-month incubation for African startups, and its history is quite interesting as we explore the different forms of corporate innovation.

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MEST Incubator: training West Africa’s entrepreneurs on the long-run

First, because it was founded in 2008 (and even planned in 2007), which is pretty early. As we travel across several emerging markets, something we noticed is that, from Hong Kong to Nairobi, many of these new tech scenes started somewhere between 2008 and 2010, and it’s not usual that a big company would be present so early.

With such an early foot in a nascent startup ecosystem, they guarantee themselves an influential relationship with high potential future founders and entrepreneurs (as one can expect the first batches of incubees will turn into mentors). As investors say sometimes, you bet on entrepreneurs when you think about their next venture.

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Ghana is often mentioned as one of four African countries with innovation potential alongside Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, at least when it comes to startups, so it makes sense for a media company like Meltwater to be there. The group itself is a media company with 900 employees and a presence in 26 countries.

The long-run vision of MEST incubator makes it original in the world of incubators, with incubation durations going from 12 to 24 months, and several stages. They also adapt to the local needs of entrepreneurs, and provide everything, from food to housing, for the Entrepreneurs in Training and the incubees.

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As its founder says, “MEST is the worlds earliest early stage startup. We invest in people even before they know how to programme or have even touched a computer.”

A bridge for startups to go from Africa to the United States

When they began in 2008, the first batch was actually made of so-called Entrepreneurs In Training, or EiT, to stress on the effect of launching a wave of entrepreneurs in the country through the incubator. Only two years later, in 2010, do the first EiT graduate, and MEST launches a funding possibility for these alumni.

In 2011, they record a first success as Nandimobile, a MEST incubated company, gets an award at the Launch Festival in the United States.

Three years is both a long time at a startup scale, and a very small one at the ecosystem level, which proves that incubation, a longer process than acceleration, proved fruitful in the case of Ghana and Meltwater.

More results are on the way, as compiled by this article from Silicon Africa:

  • Saya, a web-based chat app, was the first African company ever to attend Techcrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield in San Francisco.

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  • Dropifi, a contact widget you can customize, has been awarded Kauffman Foundation’s Best IT Startup globally for 2012, and also got into Forbes’ Top 20 Startups in Africa. They have been accelerated by 500Startups as well.

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  • Retail Tower, a service helping retailers to list their stores on price comparison engines, is among Amazon’s Top 6 Preferred partners.

It’s of course a great way to be part of a network of future tech leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region with a robust economic growth, a young and fast-growing population and quite an entrepreneurial mindset.