Founders Spotlight: Naledi Magowe (Co-Founder & Chief Growth Officer, Brastorne Enterprises)

Fresh off being accepted into Google's prestigious Black Founders Fund program, its safe to say Brastorne Enterprises is on a roll. The startup, which uses mostly USSD technology but also SMS and voice technologies to create solutions for rural communities, aims to provide solutions for 19 markets in the continent over the next 3-5 years. In this interview, co-founder and Chief Growth Officer Naledi Magowe talks more about how they plan to reach this milestone, what challenges they have faced in trying to scale up, how they faced the challenges, her experiences as a woman co-founder and much more!

In your own words, please tell us who Naledi Magowe is?

I’ll keep it very simple, A young woman who is very passionate about solving big problems and making a difference in the world. That is in essence what I do every day and believe is my purpose.

Briefly take us through your career journey up to your current role at Brastorne Enterprises

I have a background in sales and marketing and did some work in the NGO and development space. However, I always knew I wanted to end up in business. I guess I'd say I stumbled into Brastorne. My co-founder had a history in tech and development and discovered the wonderful things that can be done through mobile solutions to bridge the digital gap for rural populations. He came up with some concepts (mAgri and Mpotsa) and I loved and believed in his vision. It then became my life's mission to see it through because I believed so strongly in the potential impact it could have in Botswana and Africa. I immediately got involved in product development early on, building out our concept notes and starting my journey as the international fundraiser, attracting international attention. What I love about Brastorne is that while everyone was going upstream focusing on the top of the pyramid, we did the opposite and focused on what is relevant NOW. I decided this was the journey for me and haven't looked back since.

Your academic background is in business administration and marketing. What inspired your career pivot from corporate to tech entrepreneurship?

I wouldn't say I have pivoted at all. I have a BBA and MBA, and well, I run a business along with my exco team and our board. I am doing exactly what I've learnt through my qualifications. There is a difference between being a technology expert and running a technology business. A technology business is still a business, and you must possess strong business acumen to succeed. When investors approach you it's not necessarily the technical skills that they look out for. What precedes that is your business model, market/scale potential, product-market fit, financial models and a passionate team, all those very businessy things we learn in business school.

Women's representation in the tech startup space is still unfortunately low. As a woman founder, what has been your experience?

Representation is certainly very low and it is very challenging being a woman in this space. In fact, women founders raise 50%+ less than their male counterparts. Women, especially young women are more likely to be undermined and less supported. Fortunately, there is a huge movement internationally towards women empowerment and prioritising women founders. I have been very fortunate that our international partners who believe in me as a female founder have really been intentional about supporting me and putting me at the forefront as a female leader. I have received huge international opportunities, speaking opportunities, funding and accolades because of that intentionality and I hope that we follow the same trajectory in Botswana and take women's leadership as seriously as we should.

If there have been challenges as a result of this representation gap, how have you managed to surmount them? 

I just focus on doing my job as best as I can and let my work speak for me. I also find places and platforms where my voice matters, is important and valued over and beyond my gender and I am enabled and empowered to share my experiences and deliver value. If you aren't invited to have a seat at the table, find another table of your own. That's what I believe I do.

What do you think can be done to reduce this lack of representation?

Being intentional and serious about inclusion as much as possible. There needs to be a clear focus on driving inclusivity with the right motives. Right motives mean: seeing women and youth as value-adding entities, as thought partners, as contributors not as groups that need to be helped to tick a box or out of pity because it's the right thing to do, but because of their value and worth. We should recognize that they can actually bring bright and amazing ideas and solutions to solve our challenges and should include them in decision-making and showcase their contributions to society.

Please tell us more about Brastorne Enterprises.

Brastorne is a company committed to connecting 760 million Africans who lack meaningful access to today’s digital world. Our focus is on connecting the unconnected in Africa by providing solutions that enable our users to access and experience the advantages of the internet without having to incur the hefty costs of a smartphone or data bundles.

What was the motivation behind starting Brastorne Enterprises?

We wanted to address the digital gap. We recognized that the internet has become a necessity and a human right. Many people who use mobile devices in Africa (77%, about 279 million) would like to connect to the advantages and convenience of being connected but can't simply because of affordability and access issues. This to us was a HUGE problem, but also a HUGE opportunity. We have currently reached nearly 2 million Africans through our products and have a presence in 4 countries (Botswana, DRC, Cameroon, Guinea). We are currently heavily focused on expanding into 15 more countries over the next 3- 5 years.

Branstorne’s solutions utilize USSD technology. Please explain to our readers what USSD technology is and why you chose to use it for your solutions

Brastorne uses mobile solutions (USSD, SMS and IVR/Voice) in partnership with mobile network operators to deliver our solutions. While the technology isn't necessarily innovative, our use cases and applications of it are and that is what makes Brastorne solutions so unique. USSD is the same technology used for mobile banking and airtime top-ups so it isn't new or innovative in Africa. It is very familiar and accessible to everyone like how SMS and IVR (voice prompts) are. We use these familiar, inclusive and easy-to-use technologies to enable and facilitate access to the digital world.

What challenges have you faced in scaling up Brastorne Enterprises?

The thing is funding is a crucial element in supporting business growth, especially for highly scalable companies. The biggest challenge has been access to the type and amount of funding that we need to scale to our target 19 African countries. We have currently scaled to 4 countries mainly through our earnings and this limits how fast we can scale to more countries. Less than 1% of the funding in the world is given to African start-ups, and even less when founded in Botswana. Most investors only invest in East and West Africa and are only willing to invest in southern Africa once the start-up’s business model has been proven in more than 2 countries. This has been our experience.

How have you been trying to surmount these challenges?

While waiting for the right lead investor, we have been fortunate enough to generate enough income to self-fund our expansion efforts and focus heavily on proving our business model in new markets. We also have built relationships with organizations such as MIT Solve, the DRK Foundation and Google who have supported us with funding, entrepreneurship support, team capacity building/training, board governance, and investor relations. We are always actively searching for such opportunities and partnerships that will help support our scale.

Brastorne recently got accepted into Google’s Black Founders Fund Africa program. Please tell us more about the program and what Branstorne stands to gain from it

The Google for Start-ups Black Founders Fund provides non-dilutive cash awards to Black led startups that have participated in their programs or have been nominated by partner communities or a previous recipient. Selected founders receive up to $100,000 (about 1.2 million pula) in capital along with Google Cloud credits, advert grants and hands-on support to help their startup grow. Google started its Black Founders Fund in 2021 as a commitment to invest in Black entrepreneurs to fuel generational change. This is because Google is uniquely positioned to provide capital and support to help founders grow their businesses as well as create opportunities for founders to thrive and create greater impact for their communities.

Brastorne will gain $100k in funding, exposure and expertise from Google experts to help expand our impact.

You have been a part of accelerator programs including the Facebook London Accelerator. How important have these been both in your professional development and that of Brastorne?

Accelerator programmes especially when done right with a results-focused programme team are really very eye-opening and can have a positive impact on start-ups. Many tech startups have capacity gaps in their teams because they can't afford the best talent, and in addition, their founders are usually very technical and lack business skills as well as access to the right opportunities. Good accelerator programmes plug that gap beautifully while prioritizing business growth. The accelerators I've been in have added so much value not only to my personal growth but to my teams. We got to travel a lot, learn best practices from the best in the world and have built long-lasting relationships and partnerships. We still engage closely with our mentors from our accelerator programmes even today. 

Botswana also has numerous accelerators and incubators for tech startups but their results have not been impressive over the years. In your experience, what are the important elements that make an accelerator/incubator tick?

A dedicated programme team is essential in a successful accelerator programme. The programme team (mentors, programme support officers, pitch day event coordinators, experts) actually need to care about the start-up achieving its business goals. The team needs to leverage its connections and network to help the business in a meaningful way, not just through training and workshops but also through opening doors and making connections as well (new partnerships, contracts etc). Most start-ups need those doors opened and exposure just as much, if not much more than they need the training. If the team is dedicated to seeing an actual impact for the startup, that's where success will be seen. An accelerator/incubator is only as successful as its portfolio companies.

Where do you envision Brastorne to be in the next 3-5 years?

Footprint in 19 African countries and impacting 45 million lives

Are there any projects or ventures being launched by Brastorne in the near future that you would like to share with our readers?

We have several projects in the pipeline that our R&D team is working on, including new products that I'm not allowed to announce yet as they are still in development. Once the time is right, you’ll be the first to know.

What has been the proudest moment of your journey with Brastorne so far?

Becoming an MIT solver (Massachusetts Institution of Technology) was the biggest achievement for me both personally and professionally. MIT is one of the best technology universities in the world and being recognized by the institution as people solving important problems in important ways is truly moving. It is a very prestigious accolade, especially in the USA and the affiliation scores us some very big points with American partners/funders. It's a big deal. We were also the first MIT solver team from Botswana, and among our solver challenge cohort, I was the one selected to be a panellist speaking alongside billionaire, Eric Yuan, CEO and founder of ZOOM (this was such a highlight for me). The process was quite vigorous but once we made it, it was extremely worth it. We gained so much exposure and so many opportunities (we will be having some very big news to share very soon!). It has been a wonderful journey. The MIT team and network are so amazing to work with and have been incredibly supportive. I believe the validation from MIT will and has positively contributed to our subsequent wins.

What is the best advice you have ever received in your entrepreneurial journey?

Focus on what you are really good at, and be consistent. 

What advice can you give to a young woman reading this who is interested in founding a tech startup?

First, make sure you are solving a pressing problem. Focus on the problem and ensure your solution is a must-have, not just nice to have. It should be more of a pain killer than a supplement and should have an impact. When impact is at the heart of what you do, you become more purpose-driven, product-market fit is easier and your partners become more inspired to help you achieve your goals. Lastly, be consistent, and tenacious and never give up.

Lastly, please share with our readers your contact details if they are interested in getting in touch

NB: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity

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