Muhammida El Muhajir is a marvelous melanin maven of entertainment marketing and brand communications. Her list of accomplishments includes entertainers, trendsetters and brand development from Dubai to Fifth Avenue. She has the essence of entrepreneurial innovation in her veins. A well-traveled and outspoken arbiter of Black culture, she’s not one to shy away from a challenge. But who knew the challenges awaiting when she decided to relocate to Ghana and focus on African tech startups?
EBONY: Your career has been steeped in the sports and the music industry with a tenure at Nike. Forging entertainment relationships, you’ve dabbled with film production creating music videos and your award-winning documentary, Hip-Hop The New World Order, and the founding of your publicity and marketing agency, Sun in Leo NY, where you’ve worked with Pharrell, Alicia Keys and Snoop Dogg. How did you find your way into a tech fellowship with Meltwater in Ghana?
Muhammida El Muhajir: I came to Ghana at the end of 2013 for a film screening. I really liked the vibe in Ghana and decided to look for opportunities for staying. I’ve been curious about tech and found out about the fellowship. I applied and that’s how I got involved.
EBONY: Just like that?
MEM: Well, I’ve been visiting Africa since I was young. So it wasn’t like I wasn’t familiar with the landscape. I feel like Ghana has really grown since I was last here over 10 years ago, and it was time. I was looking to live and work in Africa. I feel like now is the time. The climate at home, the race relations, it is all very tense. It’s at an all-time high. People don’t realize how that affects you.
EBONY: Was that a factor for you?
MEM: OMG are you kidding? People underestimate how that affects you psychologically or emotionally when you see those stories or it happens to you. That really has a deep effect. Imagine how much more productive we could be if we didn’t have to be marching or tweeting about Black Lives Matter, or how much brain time could be dedicated to building or growing something if we didn’t have to deal with race-related matters?
Seeing these stories, I’m like, I don’t want to go back home. I don’t want my child to have to deal with that. It’s a huge factor.
I’ve been traveling to Africa since I was 15. Coming here was not a new thing. Africa has lots of struggles. Africa has 99 problems, and guess what? Race is not one. I don’t want to deal with that right now. It’s liberating. I can walk into any upscale hotel, restaurant or shop and no one is looking at me sideways, giving me crazy treatment just because of my skin color. I like that feeling.
EBONY: Can you describe the working transition from New York to Accra?
MEM: I work with a lot of young entrepreneurs, so the energy is always fast paced—though fast paced in a Ghanaian sense. They are a different breed of entrepreneurs. It is not like most places. They are more measured thinkers, more focused and safer. They like to take time and are more conservative with their decisions. I’m able to really hone my skills. Everything I’ve been doing for entertainment and brands applies here and more to tech, because I’m helping to build new companies.
EBONY: What’s the basic premise of the school?
MEM: Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology is currently a two-year program and will transition into a one-year program. The thinking is that the next Facebook or Google could come from Africa, but it needs to be nurtured and cultivated. We welcome those futurists into the school and go through a rigorous program where they learn the business side and tech side of being an entrepreneur.
There are professors for tech coding and finance. Everything you would need to learn.
At the end of the program, students form a group and pitch their ideas to Meltwater.
If Meltwater likes the idea, the company invests. The designated group then comes into the incubator and we provide business development.
EBONY: And your role in the fellowship?
MEM: I’m a fellow in the incubator. I’m their relationship manager. I help them to do everything they need to get their relationships going. This is the fourth year of the incubator. The school has been around for eight years. The different companies in the incubator are very diverse. There are eight to 10 companies in total. The ones I work with are all consumer-related companies.
EBONY: Can you describe the startups you mentor?
MEM: I work with SUBAapp.com, which is a photo-sharing app. At a party or an event, you can upload your pictures to a group album. We are connected by the event. No need for Facebook. It’s for everyone. It recently partnered with Ghanaian Celebrity Reggie Rockstone and will be soft launching soon.
LetiArts.com is an interactive video game and digital comics company. MeQasa.com is an online real estate classified. You can buy and sell real estate online. All amazing people.
EBONY: How much is tuition, and can anyone apply or only Ghanaians?
MEM: It’s a free program. Open to Ghanaians and last year Nigerians; next year there will be Kenyans.
EBONY: Why the decision to open it up to other countries?
MEM: They discovered that there is more interest in the program and Africa needs this.
EBONY: Kenya is widely known as the Silicon Safari and South Africa has a great deal of techies. Nigeria is notoriously tech savvy. Why did Meltwater choose Ghana to launch this program? Is the founder Ghanaian?
MEM: Jorn [Lyseggen] is Korean, but he grew up in Norway. He already had business in Africa and wanted to give back, but not a charity. Why not train the future leaders of a country? You know how it is with the brain drain. Most smart Africans go abroad. This program gives them an opportunity to stay at home. His team did the research and decided to start here, in Ghana.
And it is working. If they didn’t come here, the talent in this program would go abroad. These are the brilliant people of Ghana. They are starting businesses. They are hiring people. It’s happening. The process is working. The businesses are working. It’s happening and having an impact.
EBONY: But this isn’t just an altruistic endeavor. This is business, right?
MEM: Meltwater gets a small percentage if the program participants start a company.
If they come to the incubator and get investment, then Meltwater becomes a shareholder of their company.
EBONY: What are your four tips to give someone embarking on a startup in Africa?
MEM: One, as a business owner, there are things I would say to anyone anywhere. Have a clear vision of where the ultimate goal is for your company. Is it short-term success or long-term success? Once you have that, your business is in a better position. This is something I lacked myself initially. I didn’t know my long and short-term goals.
Two: really understand your target consumer. For example, when creating the website, are the elements you’re adding to the website benefitting the consumer? Is it something the consumer wants? It’s important to get in the mind of your target customer.
Three: build your brand. You don’t need a lot of money to do it. What is your brand about and how do you relay that message to your customers. Really building a strong brand. When they see your logo, it should trigger something in their mind about your product.
Four: Your team is so important. Who is on your squad? Why are you choosing them? Should they be on your team? What value are they building? Are there others who are better suited? What is their value to the team, and are they upholding their positions?
I work with many teams. Each company in the program is composed of a team. I see it all the time, that one person who isn’t doing what they need to do to contribute. I’ve been here for a year. There are some teams where I still don’t know what that one person does. That should not be.
Building a strong business team is like building a strong sports team. You need a strong goalie or a strong forward. They are on your team, not because they are a friend or a relative, but because they serve a purpose. But these tips apply to business across the board, especially if you are a small company, and even more so in Africa.
EBONY: What’s the situation for women in the African Tech Space?
MEM: Women are definitely a minority in the tech industry wherever you go. There’s a definite push here to get more women in voted. There were years where there was only one woman here. This past session there were 10 out of the 50. There was a crazy number like 2% women in Silicon Valley, and it is probably the same in Africa. I feel it’s happening, it’s growing. I work with at least three women who have started their own tech company. The change is real.