A start-up ecosystem for the Pacific: Learnings from the APEC entrepreneurial bootcamp

| July 20, 2018

What is a Start Up? Why a Start Up? These were the questions running through my mind as I travelled to Melbourne from Port Moresby to attend the DFAT/ APEC Study Centre sponsored RMIT Activator Start Up Incubator Bootcamp.

If you thought that last line was a mouthful that’s good, because it is a clear indication of how a good number of important organisations are collaborating to develop this business sectors potential. This sector is evidently heating up, and my trip down here was also evidence of this. Even in Melbourne I was told at RMIT that nearly 10 incubators alone were established just last year, which is an encouraging sign.

I don’t know if there is a Websters Dictionary definition of ‘Start Up’, but to me it is a solution to a problem. Start Ups, especially for us in Papua New Guinea, are the perfect strategies for tackling most of the issues and problems facing development.

It is about taking an idea around solving an important problem, and if the idea withstands the filtering process of Lean Start Up models, friends, family, Angel Investors and Seed Investors then it just might have the viability of being able to scale to an appropriate size quickly to address the problem it set out to solve.

Start Ups, loosely speaking, are unlike your general SMEs and they are very different to Medium to Large businesses because fundamentally in the beginning they have no clear business model to generate revenue. That is, there has never been a business model like this before or never before in a particular industry.

This lack of business model requires a specific approach to assessing and harnessing the best available resources a founder has internally and externally to establish a business model. The RMIT Activator and other such type incubators provide this role.

So, in fact what (as far as I know), DFAT, RMIT, NRI, Pacific Connect, Kumul Game Changers and PNG ICT Cluster are doing in PNG is harnessing the ideas of a handful of people from PNG and giving them the resources to find a business model. These collaborations are what creates a Start Up ecosystem.

For PNG to truly tackle some of its big development issues, it will be crucial that a Start Up ecosystem exists, which brings me to those popular comments about why we can’t have a Silicon Valley in this part of the world. The fact is, there will always be only one Silicon Valley and we shouldn’t try or even want to be exactly the same as Silicon Valley because we have our own unique environment to navigate in terms of creating our own ecosystem.

To give you an example of our unique position in the world, we are a developing country that has a relatively small enough population for coordination to be easy, yet also large enough to provide a useful market size for generating sufficient potential revenue.

In areas such as blockchain technology, many of the purported solutions the blockchain can provide will only be truly feasible in a developing country such as ours and not a developed nation where trust in business has been structurally commercialised quite sufficiently.

So as someone with two Start Ups in my bilum, it has been an interesting and highly informative journey personally as I try to develop my Start Ups. It has also further cemented in my mind how the Start Up ecosystem we need to build must not only be in our own country but on a regional level to harness the best resources to achieve our goals.

The trip to RMIT was a great example of this, specifically for me, the Fashion & Textile school. Their research into cutting edge technologies such as 3D Printing and Nanotechnology, among many other technologies, made me day dream of perhaps villages or regional towns in PNG producing their own gardening tools without having to go buy them in shops that are many kilometres away.

Another day dream was maybe weather proof, wearable technology for new born babies to decrease our alarming infant mortality rates. Such is the potential that I am truly grateful to DFAT and the team at RMIT for showing us around the various schools and possible resources. Even better we were able to participate in their 2 Day Boot Camp and we have left with a larger network that we can draw on for our future projects.

These steps in my entrepreneurial journey are small, but it is a huge leap forward for the opportunities now becoming available for PNG and the South Pacific region. In September I will be taking another small step forward with the help of Pacific Connect.

After a first gathering in Port Moresby earlier this year, we will be meeting up again in Sydney but this time with a wider network of other Start Ups across the Pacific. My aim right now will be to have as much traction as possible in my Start Ups in PNG so as to contribute meaningfully in Sydney by way of sharing, comparing and listening and asking.

My only other hope now is that more Papua New Guineans can join us on this journey in this Start Up space. Maybe finally we can move beyond waiting for help, but rather helping each other to develop PNG.

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Emmanuel Narokobi

Emmanuel Narokobi is the Managing Director of Masalai Communications. He has been running his digital media services company for 16 years and is now involved in developing two start-ups – one in vegetable logistics and one in using blockchain for financial inclusion.