Start-ups get boost from Villgro Africa as pandemic bites

Villgro Africa Co-Founder Robert Karanja

Villgro Africa Co-Founder Robert Karanja during a interview with the Nation on January 8, 2021.

Photo credit: Courtesy

Access to affordable capital is a tall order for most start-ups in Kenya and matters have worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed at least 1,713 people in the country.

It is estimated that the economy shed at least 3.5 million jobs and that more than 200,000 businesses closed down in the small and medium enterprises (SMES) sub-sector.

Although a recent Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) report estimates that 1.5 million new jobs have been created since the government reopened the economy, the problems of unemployment and a harsh business environment persist.

By 2023, it is estimated that Africa’s share of the poverty-stricken population in the world will rise to 80 per cent from 60 per cent in 2016.

However, it is not all gloom and doom in the enterprise sector as a little more than five years ago, a start-up incubator came up with an ambitious plan to promote budding businesses and make them successful.

So far, Villgro Africa has pumped Sh100 million into 21 firms that have since turned successful, generating revenues of at least Sh240 million, attracting nearly Sh1.1 billion in foreign direct investment, and impacting over two million lives.

Lion economies

As part of efforts against the pandemic, Villgro Africa has funded 11 innovative start-ups that have made significant contributions to the country’s health system.

One of the beneficiaries is Rescue, which worked with the Ministry of Health, Nairobi County, Amref Kenya, online taxi hailing firm Bolt and other partners to start the “Wheels for Life” initiative to help pregnant mothers quickly access free emergency transport to hospital, especially during the curfew.

According to Villgro Africa Co-Founder Dr Robert Karanja, the idea resulted from the realisation that most brilliant ideas do not actualise due to lack of capital and supportive environments.

Dr Karanja said the initiative launched in October 2015 was designed to support upcoming businesses to ensure they contribute to the country’s economic growth and empower the communities in which they operate.

“Africa’s lion economies are among the world’s fastest growing but despite that impressive growth, these economies are not lifting the masses out of poverty," he told the Nation in an interview on January 8.

"It is important for governments, development partners and other stakeholders to understand how we can escape the trap of poverty and disease so that we can reverse the trend of more people than ever before falling into poverty."

Lishe Living Nutrition Clinics Director Sharon Olago

Lishe Living Nutrition Clinics Director Sharon Olago speaks to the Nation during an interview on January 8, 2021. 

Photo credit: Courtesy


Lishe Living Nutrition Clinics is another beneficiary. According to Director Sharon Olago, the firm provides medical nutrition therapy for over 40 nutrition-related diseases and conditions.

“We first heard about Villgro Africa during the Nairobi Innovation Week, where we were introducing our innovation to the public for the first time. Mr Moses Waweru, a senior programme manager with Villgro, walked by our stall and after we explained what we do, he invited us to learn more about Villgro. I am very happy that the organisation supported our vision by giving us a grant,” she says.

To qualify for the grant, which includes a one year enterprise incubation period overseen by Villgro, all start-ups had to show that they could help in testing, monitoring or managing areas of health care related to Covid-19.

According to Ms Olago, the firm’s medical nutrition business model neatly fit into Villgro’s requirements.

“We qualified because we had created an online nutrition group or clinic for people living with diabetes and high blood pressure, to ensure they continued to receive the necessary nutritional support even as they kept away from hospitals due to safety concerns brought about by the pandemic,” she said.

Lishe helps patients secure the best possible health outcomes by blending the medicine they take with the right combinations of foods.

“A patient getting prescriptions for any condition should also consult a nutritionist who will look at the test results and the medicine list before recommending foods. This will ensure the food works with the medicine to deliver the best results. Lishe does this for its clients,” says Ms Olago.

Due to the pandemic, Lishe Living has had to redesign its model.

“To provide better services, we are working with clients at their levels of comfort. They no longer have to come to our offices for consultations. We encourage them to keep a copy of test results from hospitals and share them through Whatsapp and other online platforms. We then advise them on the appropriate diets,” she says.


Among the partners who have supported Villgro’s Africa journey are the Lemelson and Argidius Foundations.

“We invest in local organisations such as Villgro to support the SME ecosystem. This is because we believe that innovation-driven, small and growing businesses can fill the gap by advancing and implementing solutions to health, agriculture and environment challenges,” said Lemelson Foundation’s Executive Director Carol Dahl.

“We value our partnership with Villgro because we are impressed with its ability to identify a successful range of compelling entrepreneurs to address some of the social and economic challenges as well as build an effective incubator for healthcare related businesses,” added Argidius Foundation’s Director Nicholas Collof.  


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