Startup accelerator programs play a huge role in the growth of startups. They compress what would have been years of trial and error into an intense period of mentorship, teaching and financing. Little wonder why admission into these programs are so fierce.
Y Combinator (YC) is the first independent and arguably the most successful accelerator program in the world. It has incubated and funded billion-dollar startups such as Airbnb, Stripe, Dropbox, Quora, and Coinbase. Every cycle, "more than 10,000 startups apply for the YC program but they admit just a few". As much as they would like to contribute to most of the applicants, there is a cap to the number of startups they can admit.
However, there are other lesser known accelerator programs that admit African startups and can fast track the growth of young innovative startups. They might not offer the buzz of a Y Combinator-backed startup, nevertheless, they offer you the experience of successful entrepreneurs, intense education, mentorship and even funding. Rather than immerse yourself in the YC application bloodbath you can apply to these lesser known but equally valuable programs.
Here are 15 of these accelerator programs:
1. Norrsken Impact Accelerator
This is an impact accelerator program that targets startups focused on UN SDGs making an impact. They empower startups using the power of entrepreneurship to solve some of the earth’s greatest challenges such as poverty, food waste, mental health, cancer, pollution or pandemics.
Based in Stockholm, Sweden, they invite startups to learn for an intensive 8 weeks long program at Norrsken House. Each year, they highlight one or more verticals in which they bring a little extra domain-specific expertise but they accept applications across all UN SDGs.
Norrsken offers mentoring sessions with successful entrepreneurs, access to 24/7 workspace designed with tech entrepreneurs in mind, pitch training sessions facilitated by co-founders, mentors and investors, and an opportunity to pitch your idea to hundreds of investors who can fund you on demo day.
They start accepting applications in January and the sprint lasts from July to August of every year. A Nigerian startup that has benefited in the program is Gradely.
2. MEST Africa
MEST is an Africa-wide technology entrepreneur training program, internal seed fund, and network of hubs offering incubation for technology startups in Africa. It was founded in Ghana, 2008 by The Meltwater Foundation, (not-for-profit arm of Meltwater). Meltwater is headquartered in Silicon Valley and is a global leader in media intelligence and Outside Insight.
It comprises three components which are the training program where entrepreneurs (across Africa) apply to participate in a fully-funded, one-year entrepreneurship training program in Accra, Ghana. The program dives deep in business, tech and communications, with an emphasis on practical experience. Candidates who are accepted are admitted into the Incubation & Seed Fund.
Here participants try to convince the board of Investors. Successful candidates here receive seed funds and full support to launch their businesses with MEST incubation, with a goal of scaling across African markets.
The last component is the incubator program. It offers a year-long training programme which includes Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs) with MBA-level entrepreneurship training in business, software development and communications. MEST Alumni is a rich network with access to mentors, entrepreneurs, corporate partners and successful entrepreneurs.
MEST leverages Meltwater's deep connections with investors, entrepreneurs and more across Silicon Valley, Europe and globally. MEST provides entrepreneurs access to Meltwater's extensive network, filled with experts in sales, engineering, marketing and more.
The program provides critical skills training, funding, business, communications, and support in software development to Africa’s tech entrepreneurs. MEST hubs are located in Cape Town, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana.
Applications open in the 3rd quarter of each year and close in March the following year.
Pioneer was founded by Daniel Gross (founder of Cue, a YC backed startup which was later sold to Apple in 2013). His aim was to provide some of the non-intuitive benefits of Silicon Valley to many more people. The program is dedicated to finding & funding the world's most creative and ambitious folks who could build great companies, but might not have the resources or opportunities to do so.
There is no country or expertise limit and it is 100% remote. Pioneer is a two month program where mentors train on fundraising, product-market fit, hiring and more. The program runs in 4 stages. Applicants join through a project in step 1. In step 2 they compete in the pioneer tournament. Successful candidates reach the global Top 50 in step 3 and lastly startups get selected by an expert to become a pioneer in step 4.
Pioneers get some perks and benefits in exchange for 1% equity. As time goes on (depending on the growth of the startups) pioneers are occasionally offered the chance to advance to any of three bonus levels. Gold standard is $20,000 for 5% equity, Platinum standard is $100,000 for 5% equity and $1m for 10% equity.
Some Nigerians whose startups have been winners on Pioneers include Osezele Orukpe, Flux; Kelvin Umechukwu and Adetunji Opayele, Bumpa; Ibukunoluwa Salau, Afriktrip, and Dante Lex, Onboard. Participants from other African countries have immensely benefited from Pioneer.
Upon selection, you will be assisted to work out the best process for creating a US company (or US parent company) where they can invest. If you already have an incorporated company, these investment terms still apply. All Pioneers are required to be incorporated as a United States C Corporation. There’s no charge or any other fees for the program.
4. Tech Stars
Tech star is an accelerator program for startups who seek connection to Silicon Valley. Each year 500 early-stage companies are selected to join the 3 month program where they will be provided with mentorship, investments ($120k) and access to Techstars network for life.
Established by Western Union in 2006, and managed by Techstars. The accelerator program focuses on startups creating innovations around management or flow of money through machine learning, artificial intelligence or blockchain technology. They also work with startups across other verticals such as aerospace, logistics, finance and retail.
Prior to 2017, the accelerator program never accepted African startups but things have improved lately due to the keen interest shown by US organisations in the last five years. In 2017, Fintech OnePipe was accepted by Techstars, crowdfunding platform Farmcrowdy got into Techstars Atlanta, and ecommerce platform Oja Express was accepted into Techstars Kansas City. In 2020, Rise Capital also got admitted into the year’s cohort with other founders in Egypt, Gambia and South Africa.
There are different Techstars hubs in different cities in the USA and across Europe. Some of the in-program activities include workshops on hiring, marketing, tech; founder stories; pitch practice; demo day and fundraising. The programs could be virtual, hybrid or in person depending on Covid-19 restrictions.
5. Google for Startups Accelerator
Is a three month accelerator program for Seed to Series A technology across the African continent. The accelerator is designed to bring the best of Google's programs, products, people and technology to startups that leverage machine learning and AI in their company today or plan to in the future.
In addition to mentorship and technical project support, the accelerator also includes deep dives and workshops focused on product design, customer acquisition and leadership development for founders, specialized training, media opportunities and access to Google’s network of engineers and experts.
Although this program offers no grants or funding here are some of the benefits selected startups get access to Google engineers, resources, and mentors, during and after the program
- Hands-on Google for Startups collaboration and support
- Inclusion in the Google for Startups Accelerator Global Community and network of alumni and mentors
- Google Cloud Credits
- Marketing spotlight opportunities
The accelerator runs as a fully digital program for a period of 3 months. As part of the Google for Startups Accelerator, selected founders outline the top challenges facing their startup, and are then paired with relevant experts from Google to help solve those challenges.
Participating startups receive deep mentorship on technical challenges and machine learning, as well as connections to relevant teams from across Google. Founders will also have access to labs and workshops addressing different aspects of managing a tech startup.
6. Village Global
Backed by formidable entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Reid Hoffman and other outstanding entrepreneurs, transparent collective help founders to sharpen their business focus, speed up their learning and avoid pitfalls.
The program targets and invests globally in startups using softwares and IT to transform global industries. Some of the startups are those disrupting health, fintech, SaaS, consumer internet, cryptocurrency etc. The accelerator program is held for 3 months and the village network cuts across Silicon Valley, London, Mexico City, Tel Aviv and other major cities around the world.
Accepted villagers are offered $125,000 funding in exchange for 7% equity. They get to meet with mentors, do pitch practice, meet with top experts to provide expert answers in growth, product, marketing, branding, etc; they’ll also interact with peers for support to overcome challenges.
Applications are reviewed throughout the year as they come in and successful founders get an interview invite within two weeks. If they are successful they get connected to an advisor and receive funding. If you’re just getting started with a new company, then this is a great accelerator you should consider. A Nigerian startup that has participated in Village global is Eden Life.
7. Village Capital
Globally, Village Capital is one of the largest organisations supporting impact-driven, seed-stage startups. Established in 2009 in Washington DC, the program has invested in 1,100 entrepreneurs in 28 countries. They have teams in London, UK; Bogota, Colombia; Mexico city, Mexico; Bangalore, India; Mumbai, India; and Nairobi, Kenya.
The program targets entrepreneurs building solutions in financial health, sustainability and the future of work. They help entrepreneurs connect with investors who will provide them with the capital needed to bring their ideas from vision to scale. Village Capital helps high impact-driven entrepreneurs build a compelling case for their businesses and build a formidable team.
Village Capital runs a unique model compared to other accelerator programs around the globe. They use a problem based approach which means identifying a problem in the world and forming a hypothesis around how innovation can be used to solve it. Before they run any program they convene a diverse advisory board which includes investors, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, activists and academics to speak on the challenges at hand.
Every year they run more than a dozen accelerators, forums and bootcamps which have impacted more than 1,100 entrepreneurs from 28 countries. Some of the previous programs they have run in Africa include Vilcap Communities Africa, Agriculture Africa 2019, and most recently Future of Work 2021. A Nigerian startup, Utiva (and other prominent African startups) participated in the Future of Work program.
Seedstars was started in 2012 by three entrepreneurs from Switzerland. Every year they hold a pitching competition (Seedstars World competition) to discover the most promising early-stage high growth startups. The program targets the world’s most dedicated entrepreneurs in growing their startups to create meaningful and lasting change.
They also hold a virtual three month post accelerator growth program. It helps startups to build a growth team and implement a growth methodology in order to support scaling up the venture and raise Series A and beyond. Benefits include $50,000 initial investment ($30,000 cash + $20,000 services), up to $100,000 in-kind Perks, up to $500,000 follow-on
Seedstars is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland and they currently have offices in 15 offices spanning 90+ countries across Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Central-Eastern Europe and Asia. Some Nigerian startups that have participated in their program include Chaka, EazyPapers, Lendigo, Medsaf, Quickcheck and Edves.
9. Digital Financial Services Lab
Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, DFS Lab is an accelerator for fintech startups who are building the future of digital commerce in Africa. The program supports promising early-stage startups by connecting them with seasoned entrepreneurs (venture scouts) and a network of global mentors.
They help startups with at least a compelling minimal viable product and significant user feedback raise their pre-seed rounds. They invest up to $25k for a small portion of equity of advisory shares to fund cohort support programs.
We invest a $25K check into a post-money YC SAFE with a standard valuation cap. We also take a small portion of equity in the form of advisory shares directly as DFS Lab in order to fund our cohort support programs. They organise a virtual 4-6 months growth plan program for startups after their pre-seed round which leads to the next round of financing. Some Nigerian startups who have benefited from the program include OnePipe and Suplias.
10. Injini Africa’s Edtech Accelerator
Injini was established in 2017 as the first edtech accelerator program in Sub-Saharan Africa. The accelerator is based in South Africa (although they also work remotely) and is interested in promising edtech startups to help them achieve the goal of positively impacting educational outcomes on the continent.
Selected startups into the program are admitted to a 5 month incubator program which takes place in Cape Town, South Africa and remotely for participants from other countries. During the program, startup founders are trained on key topics such as education, business, technology, and entrepreneurship.
At the end of the program, participants are given a grant of R100,000. Much later, if Injini is impressed with a startup’s growth, performance and trajectory, they might offer a R1,000,000 investment for equity in the startup.
Since inception, Injini has accepted 24 edtech startups from eight different African countries into its incubator program. Startups admitted so far into the program are from the following countries: South Africa, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria. The program has active ecosystem activities in the following countries: Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Injini is owned by Cape Innovation & Technology Initiative (CiTi). CiTi aims to encourage and support educational startups that are looking to impact and change the education system in South Africa and across the entire African continent. A Nigerian startup that has benefited from the program is ScholarX.
11. Co-Creation Hub Incubation Program
Established in Lagos in 2011, CcHub is Nigeria’s first open lab designed to support a community passionate about using technology to transform Nigeria. The initiative seeks to leverage technology to effect social change in Nigeria and across Africa. Currently, the program is domiciled in Nigeria and Kenya.
CcHub is committed to uncover startups who are interested in using technology to solve local problems and help these organisations achieve their ideas. Over 90 startup ideas have benefited from the support they offer. It’s areas of focus include startup funding, innovation support, design for health, governance and digital security, and education.
CcHub has a six month pre-incubation program, a 12 month incubation program and a 12 week accelerator program for startups. The accelerator helps startups polish their products, business model and processes, and position themselves for sustained growth. The core focus of the program is on product development, business modeling, financial management, and investment readiness. The program is flexible and provides support tailored to individual startups' needs.
The accelerator program gives participants access to internal experts at CcHub, free credits from partner products, coaching sessions with leading industry experts, access to mentors and access to partners and networks. Some of the program’s previous and existing partners include Intel, Enviu, Endeva, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, GIZ and Nokia.
Numerous startups have participated in the program. Notable among them include Whisper, Lara.ng, Crop2Cash, Gradely, Vetsark, Edves, Stutern and Budgit.
12. The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL)
HiiL is a social enterprise committed to making justice easy to access, easy to understand, and effective. Based in Hague, Netherlands the program is driven to increase access to and use of justice services for people. The institute is guided by 5 pillars of approach which are working from data, applying best practices, scaling game changers, creating an enabling environment, and strengthening the movement.
Under the scaling game changers approach, the enterprise supports innovations known as ‘Gamechangers’ and created the Justice Acceleration Programme in 2012. The programme supported around a dozen of the world’s most promising justice innovations around the globe. They provide advising, mentorship, networking connections, mentorship and help them engage with the justice sector.
The program targets startups who have a proven solution with increasing annual revenue and impact, have a scalable business model, on the way to financial sustainability and are led by a strong team with experienced founders. The Justice Accelerator offers a four month long programme that provides justice startups with coaching sessions, training by industry specialists, international exposure, potential investment opportunities, chance to win €20,000 at the pitch event of the Innovating Justice Forum and a €10,000 non-equity seed funding.
Currently, the programme has regional hubs in West Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, MENA and Ukraine. Justice Accelerator has supported 120+ justice startups globally. Applications open from March to April. The selection which includes an interview, bootcamp, and pitch event takes place between May and July. And the acceleration program is held between July to December.
Numerous Nigerian startups have participated in the program. Some of them include Avocat, House Africa, Think Help Restore Media (THR Media), Stand to End Rape, MamaMoni, Iverify, Donate-Ng, Curacel, Bankly, Africlaim, Community Peace Initiative, etc.
13. Startup Wise Accelerator
This is a startup accelerator focused on coaching startups on sales, fundraising and exposure to a powerful network. Based in Talinn (Estonia), Vilnius (Lithuania), and Riga (Latvia) they recently expanded their operations to Africa targeting East and West Africa with a hub in Namibia.
Startup Wise Accelerator runs an immersive 3 months long virtual mentors driven program for African startups. It focuses on sales, fundraising (supporting startups to raise funds within the next 6 months) and scaling. The program has four verticals - Cyber, Fintech, B2B SaaS, and Sustainability.
Some of the benefits they offer include: a cash investment of about €30,000 for equity, upon selection into the program, an intense sales curriculum for each step in the sales funnel – all the way from target customer identification to deal closing, exposure to business angels and VCs during and after the program, connections to a strong alumni community of 145+ startups in more than 35 countries.
In 2020, the majority of the African startups that participated were B2B entrepreneurs in fields like agritech, legal tech, and finance.
14. Founders Factory Africa
Launched in the UK in 2015 but established in South Africa in 2018, Founders Factory Africa (FFA) is committed to create, nurture and scale tech startups in Africa. FFA is not like the typical startup accelerator program. They partner with startups to build the product, develop the AI tool, discover new distribution channels and walk hand-in-hand to attract global investors.
FFA negotiates deals for their portfolio with many providers they need to get work done. Such as software to specialist legal services, accounting, customer service, etc. The program is currently sponsored by Standard Bank and Netcare.
Startups in their portfolio are turbocharged by mentors with hands-on experience and local knowledge. They also get to join a global community and get investment opportunities (an initial cash investment of €30,000 is provided). The program is for a duration of six months and is designed to effectively work in person or remotely.
FFA has a rich and diverse portfolio using technology to solve everyday problems. Some startups in their portfolio include MVXchange, Rxail, Foodlocker, Wellahealth, and Schoolable.
15. Start Path Program
An initiative launched in 2014 by Mastercard to help startups build innovative business solutions from across the globe. They are fostering powerful connections for startups to accelerate their growth. Innovative startups who go through this program access new markets, drive strategic initiatives, grow awareness of their brand and build business ecosystems.
Since inception, Start Path has supported 250 startups with commercial engagements, $3B investments and access to a diverse and strong network. Every year, they work together with a diverse network of innovators who are looking to accelerate their business growth. The annual program holds virtually for a period of 6 months and participants get access to Mastercard’s technology, resources and expertise.
They look for startups who have a unique and proven solution with clear market differentiation & reference customers; diverse founders with strong & relevant backgrounds; teams that are passionate & ready to scale and who align with Mastercard's strategy & business .
Participants who gain admission into the program stand to get facilitated introductions, meet with industry experts, work with a start path sponsor, and propel their product to the market. They are also admitted to alumni of the brightest startups across the globe. Some noteworthy African startups who have participated in the program include MAX.ng, Smartpesa, Kwara and Karri.