KNUST Entrepreneurial Journeys: Foster Awintiti
I am Foster Awintiti Akugri, a Ghanaian born to two loving parents who both hail from the Upper East Region of Ghana but migrated to southern Ghana, settling in Ashaiman, a municipality in the Greater Accra Region. I was born in Taifa, a suburb of Ashaiman and moved in 2001 to a different neighbourhood called Lebanon, also a suburb of Ashaiman. It was then a new site. Few buildings, one major road. Life was quiet there — you couldn’t believe it was Ashaiman.
One of the biggest things my parents kept drumming into our heads was this — “It doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters most is how you influence where you get to. The decisions you make today lead you where you get to tomorrow.”
Those were the first few sentences from my interview with Foster Awintiti Akugri, the youngest participant at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Foster Awintiti is known throughout the innovation circles in Ghana as an influencer. Founder of the Hacklab Foundation, Foster’s impact on preparing individual Ghanaian youth with digital skills for the future of work is in the thousands. As manager of the Stanbic Incubator, Foster’s leadership has helped shape startups and SMEs in the hundreds.
I decided to interview Foster for two reasons. One, he grew up in the slums — I find that inspirational. Two, very few people understand Ghana’s budding innovation ecosystem like he does.
How was life in the slums?
Life in the slums could be whatever you wanted it to be. I guess my parents knew that, so they created a culture at home for the kind of life they wanted us to have. They kept us highly motivated with the possibilities that we could become great and got us deeply rooted in the principles of Christianity.
I started listening to Emmanuel Dei-Tumi when I was 13 years old. He was such an inspirational speaker. Back when podcasts were not a thing, I would listen to motivational cassettes. We had quite a number, and I was always fidgeting with the tapes.
At 15, I tried to write a book, “The Necessity for Planning”. That was largely influenced by the books I was reading, and how they were impacting me. I had dreams to become a medical doctor but realised I had a stronger passion for physics and mathematics than biology. Interactions with mentors made me find a reason to pursue entrepreneurship.
An offer to study Business Administration at the University of Ghana and another to study Computer Science at KNUST were the two admission options I had to choose from. A lecturer advised me to pursue Computer Science, and that I could build on my business skills later. I picked up that piece of advice and went to KNUST.
Tell us about your time in KNUST.
I had a cousin who had already completed university when I was getting started. He advised me to actively participate in as many beneficial extracurricular activities as I could. My first semester found me aggressively attending entrepreneurship seminars. I discovered mFriday, and relished our moments at the Vodafone Cafe spent discussing innovation. I had my first hackathon experience, thanks to a friend, Nutakor Eldad who invited me.
The core leaders of the mFriday group graduated, and there wasn’t any succession plan, so the program died. I tried along with some friends to restart mFriday, but it just didn’t work out. I had an idea for something new, and pitched that to DreamOval Limited, a software company in Ghana, most known for their FinTech platform, Slydepay. They loved the idea and invited me to their office. I was introduced to Keren Akoh who became my mentor in designing and running Hacklab in its first and second year.
It was a tough journey in the beginning. So hard finding people who wanted to take it as something they were fully committed to. But it paid off over time. It’s incredible that we are able to mobilize close to 300 volunteers at-a-go for our events these days.
The university was for me a ground for experimentation and exploration. The more I experimented, the more I discovered myself. I had an interior decor business to keep me earning some money while I was in school. I was also the Programs Director for the Students Representative Council (SRC) and later, Clerk of Parliament for the SRC. All those leadership roles and entrepreneurial experiences built in me value that has gone beyond my certificate.
How did you grow the Hacklab Foundation to what it is now?
The success of the Foundation does not rest solely on my shoulders. The core team has been phenomenal. I would love it if you could interview them as well. The partner organizations we have had on the journey have also been significant contributors to our growth, most especially Stanbic Bank, our first sponsor and Vodafone Ghana who still partner with us.
We found that people become more innovative when there is a competition that comes with a reward. That is the basis for the Hackathons we organize. We also designed the hackathons to ensure that the minds that get active throughout the 72 hours meet a real-world need. With that, we partner with corporate institutions that have needs our participants can solve over a weekend.
Through all these, the Hacklab Foundation has become a place for acquiring talent. With the various programs we have under the foundation, we provide training for young talents to become more valuable to industry. Some work experience is equally necessary, so we provide internship opportunities for those who don’t have any work experience.
Providing these experiences consistently has enabled us to grow over the years. We noticed the essence of exposure and introduced industry visits as part of our programs. We get students to visit companies and get first-hand exposure on how to transfer school knowledge to industry.
It can be long and difficult to change the university structure, so we are using extracurricular activities as our strategy to drive systemic change. We have also noticed that a lot of the challenges faced by university students could be solved if the solutions were introduced at an earlier age, so we have Hacklab Junior, a division of the Foundation dedicated to introducing children to basic programming skills. Our main focus is to solve the problem of a lack of digital skills in Africa.
How did you get to participate in the World Economic Forum? How was the experience?
The World Economic Forum functions like a group of countries. They serve as a mutual body, focusing on the common good of people. For them to run efficiently, they designed the organization around the foundations of human societies — communities. One of the communities is the Global Shapers. There are about 7,000 Global Shapers, responsible for driving change within their communities.
I was introduced to the program by George Appiah, CEO of Kumasi Hive. He insisted that I join. I applied and got accepted to become a part of the community. I became curator for the Kumasi Hub after one year and this presented me another opportunity to lead — this time, a group of highly accomplished youngsters. It is one of the greatest transformational experiences for me in leadership — leading a group of leaders
50 Global Shapers are selected each year to represent the youth constituent at the Forum’s Annual Gathering organized in a small Swiss village, Davos. The gathering is considered one of the most powerful events after the UN General Assembly. I had the privilege of being selected to be part of that ‘Davos 50’ in 2018.
It was a very transformative experience. In actual fact, a life-changing opportunity. I was in the same space with people like Jack Ma, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Donald Trump too- all these big decision-makers. The event grounds was a highly secured one and so these personalities didn’t need bodyguards around them. You could easily approach them and speak to them with minimum barriers.
I learnt a lot about diplomacy, negotiation, and how to handle political conversations around sensitive subjects. Till today, it still feels like a deja vu. Many opportunities have come my way after that experience. I currently serve on company boards, contributing in many different ways.
I had the opportunity to collaborate with IBM to design an upskilling program for tech novices and newbies. This has been successfully rolled out in Ghana and some other countries. I supported the Open Africa project which had a team travelling by road to document the challenges people face travelling by road across Africa. This project contributed its findings to the AU to aid the design of Visa Free Africa Programme.
How can Ghanaian universities be better spaces for cultivating innovation?
This is a matter of prioritization. The way universities market themselves is changing. Education is somewhat becoming free. Educational institutions need to innovate. One way is to strengthen alumni networks. Universities can leverage on publicly addressing the works of alumni to build ecosystems that challenge present students to be more innovative.
Our universities also need to be deliberate about highlighting the successes of students even while they are in school. If they build their social media presence, the digital footprints they set today would pave ways for opportunities tomorrow, both for the student and the school.
The frameworks of our universities need to be carved out with user-centred design in mind. There should be programs that enable students to work in public universities even while they are students. We need to get students interested in journalism to tell stories about their schools. This creates experiences and opportunities for students. There should be a deliberate effort to ensure there is student representation in every decision in the schools.
It is really important we look carefully at our universities. Unlike transitions from primary and secondary levels of education that just move a student from one school to another, graduation from a tertiary institution is a transition into the world of work and life in all its variations.
What are your final words?
The biggest things for me are consistency and giving God the credit. Wisdom is basically the application of knowledge. We should always seek wisdom while we acquire knowledge, never forgetting that people play significant roles in our successes.