Karim Sy

Ashoka Fellow
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Senegal
Fellow Since 2012
This description of Karim Sy's work was prepared when Karim Sy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012 .

Introduction

Inspired by the global open source movement and Africa’s traditional emphasis on interdependence, Karim Sy is providing an online and offline meeting space where young African entrepreneurs can collaborate—rather than compete—to create new businesses and help solve some of their countries toughest problems.

The New Idea

Karim is creating collaborative working spaces, called Jokkolabs, where budding entrepreneurs can come together to share their best ideas for new ventures with each other—and with a larger, virtual, open source community—breaking the assumption that success is most ensured when good ideas are cultivated in secret. Through a process of open exchange, or coworking, these entrepreneurs are able to source valuable input and resources from the Jokkolabs community and use that to quickly improve the quality of their individual ventures, and even come together to launch enhanced joint ventures.

The initial insight driving Karim’s collaborative innovation hubs is that bringing entrepreneurs together in a supportive community is crucial in a region that does not have a pronounced culture of entrepreneurship. In fact, entrepreneurs are often considered crazy for engaging in such risk taking, and are generally discouraged. But, perhaps more importantly, Karim also recognizes the opportunity to embed entrepreneurship within the region’s traditional values which emphasize interconnectivity, and as such, break down the idea of the isolated entrepreneur in order to create a new, more productive way of working. Indeed, Karim’s work is rooted in the African proverb: If you want to walk fast, you walk alone; if you want to walk far, you go together.

Karim has not only used this collaborative ethos to help propel the launch of dozens of entrepreneurial ventures to-date, but has been able to infuse it in the very nature of the ventures that are launched. Jokkolabs entrepreneurs, or Jokkoworkers, operate from a belief that the best businesses are those that help tackle one of society’s toughest problems. Whether a social venture or private venture, Jokkoworkers are always thinking about how their work can create new opportunities for others in society.

The Problem

Throughout West Africa, and many other parts of the continent, there is a low enterprising community, especially in the small and medium enterprise space which drives local economies in so many other parts of the world. In Senegal, for example, the private sector has less than 10,000 registered businesses, of which no more than 1,000 have a turnover of more than 1 million CFA (US$2,000). Furthermore, young people have little training, confidence, or examples of how to change this reality. Indeed, there is a general expectation that it is government’s responsibility to solve the employment problem, or that if one works hard enough, one can land a job at one of the few multinational corporations present in the county.

Karim is focused on changing this status quo, and propelling citizens into a mindset where they do not wait for the government to solve their problems—employment or otherwise. He is also cultivating a generation not to think as future employees, but as future CEOs. However, unlike other attempts that focus on improving one person’s clever idea in isolation, Karim is unleashing the collaborative effect.

The Strategy

Karim launched the first Jokkolab in Dakar in 2010 and immediately created a coworking manifesto to embody the spirit of this new way of working that emphasizes collaboration over competition in order to reshape the economy and society, more generally. As he recruited budding entrepreneurs to join Jokkolabs, he sat down with each of them to share the principles of the document and give them a chance to learn about and then decide if the principles resonated with them. In this way, the spirit of collaborative working is infused from the very beginning.

Those that are then accepted as Jokkoworkers, which is determined based on their possession of an entrepreneurial idea and track record, are then thrust into an environment that is the living manifestation of those principles. Instead of coming into the lab, sitting in a corner and receiving one-on-one consultation from experts in isolation, Jokkoworkers sit in an open plan space with no walls and engage in peer-to-peer dialogue and brainstorming about each other’s initiatives. This collaboration is extended to the local and international community, from which Karim recruits thinkers and doers from all fields to rub elbows with the Jokkoworkers and expand their thinking. These individuals are invited to be a part of the collaborative process by coming to speak, brainstorm, or team up with Jokkoworkers to develop key parts of their ventures for an hour or a month. Karim also connects Jokkoworkers with the online global open source movement—such as Mobile Monday, a platform that has seen over 45,000 participants engage from all over the world in an attempt to foster open innovation within the mobile sector and help that industry achieve benefits for everyone by spreading knowledge and encouraging people with good ideas to take action.

In sum, Jokkolabs facilitates a creation process that is truly collaborative, freely drawing on the ideas and insights of as many people as possible without worry that the free flow of ideas will remove the competitive advantage of the person who birthed the original idea.

Beyond the collaborative brainstorming process, Jokkoworkers are able to rent office space at Jokkolabs, share back end office needs, and even staff, as is beneficial. Some come to Jokkolabs at the start of their endeavor; others come seeking to get a boost—maybe in the form of a short-term partner in the online or offline community who can help them develop a key technology for a venture started earlier but which is currently stagnating.

Marc André Leroux, for example, launched NENA, a company which makes books and other texts for legal and business professionals available in digital form in 2008. He joined Jokkolabs as part of its initial class in 2010, wanting to take his business to the next level, but not quite sure how to do so. After sitting around the table with the Google Tech User Group (GTUG), a worldwide meetup group for people who are interested in Google’s developer technology, and whose Senegal branch Karim nurtures in Jokkolabs, Marc recognized the opportunity to partner with the Google Group to adapt the pdf files of the books he was digitizing to create versions that are also accessible on tablets and mobile devices. NENA now has twenty-four books available at the Amazon Kindle store.

In addition, after participating in the conversations about the problems currently plaguing society—which Karim regularly infuses into Jokkolabs—Marc has decided that he can play a role in creating the capacity for African editors, in particular, to distribute their products, and has begun to focus on this. Similarly, Laurent Liautaud, another Jokkoworker, has decided to focus on creating an eCommerce service whose mission is to help members of the Senegalese diaspora better support their families back home. Diasporans can sign up to have a series of groceries delivered to the home of their families and no longer worry about whether the funds originally intended to help end up misused. Laurent is currently being helped in building out his platform by fellow Jokkoworkers, André Ndiaye and Massamba Gaye, two recent graphic design graduates who were mentored by Jokkolabs staff and members into rejecting the idea of looking for a job, and instead opt into launching their own graphic design company, Biz’art. At a loss in the informal business environment that is Senegal, the duo got a big boost by having access to the networks of other Jokkoworkers that have extended into France, which provides a lot of outsourced work for Biz’art, and Germany, whose GIZ is counted as a client for the recent startup.

To further emphasize the importance of channeling all of this creative, collaborative, entrepreneurial energy for the better of society, Karim models it in the structure of his own enterprise. While he charges a fee for membership in Jokkolabs, it is low so that access is based on the strength of an applicant’s idea, not the size of their wallet. He also includes every staff person in the ownership of the business, including the cleaning lady and the secretary. Jokkolabs also launches its own initiatives in response to timely social issues and encourages Jokkoworkers to bring their collaborative energies to bear on that issue for a period of time. For example, during the recent contentious presidential election in Senegal, it was Jokkolabs that set up the IT backbone which allowed local COs to monitor the election in real-time. Similar collaborative, open source initiatives are currently being cultivated to address health and agricultural challenges.

To date, Jokkolabs has welcomed over fifty Jokkoworkers, who have gone on to launch various ventures, twenty-two of which are still being cultivated within the coworking space.

In order to spread this message of collaborative entrepreneurship Jokkolabs hosts seminars at its facility that are open to the public, as well as trainings for young people who have not yet come up with an idea for a venture. The same is done on university campuses around Senegal. The message has already resonated with various leaders in the private sector, including Google, which currently participates as a collaborator with Jokkoworkers through its GTUG. Google is currently expanding this partnership to help Jokkolabs expand its facility in Dakar, as well as, bring further sophistication to Jokkolabs collaborative platform, which would allow even more Senegalese entrepreneurs to participate who live outside of Dakar.

With a strong model now present in Dakar, Karim is looking to employ a franchise model to spread similar Jokkolabs around West Africa—all rooted in the coworking manifesto—and has identified potential partners in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. He is also about to break ground on a Jokkolabs in France to further tear down walls between Africa and the West and allow for the maximum exchange of ideas.

The Person

Karim was born in France to a Lebanese Christian mother and a Muslim father from Mali. He spent most of his youth traveling the world as his father’s job as a civil servant in the United Nations took him across West Africa. Remembering the conversations with his dad about the inefficiencies prevailing the UN system due to the siloing of efforts, Karim was surprised to see the same thing was true to a certain degree in his endeavors in the private sector in Montreal, where he went to university and began his private, entrepreneurial career. Combining this realization with exposure to the global open source movement, Karim began to believe there was a new, better way to do business.

Karim returned to Mali shortly after having a family and began wondering how he could best contribute to creating a country which he would want his children to live in—one that was headed in the right direction. He knew getting rich and paying taxes was not going to be the answer for turning the country around. Everything he had seen told him it was time to return to the traditional African value which emphasizes that everyone is interconnected—what South African’s call Ubuntu—and what the open source movement was doing without necessarily naming it as such.

With these thoughts in mind, Karim decided to focus on creating a new economic engine composed of collaboration and community, in contrast to the silos and secrecy of the 19th and 20th century economy. After several years of thinking, Karim officially l aunched Jokkolabs in 2010 in Dakar. The word Jokko is a Wolof term, a native language of Senegal, born from the association with the word Joxho meaning “give them” and Jotko meaning “join them.” It is used to describe concepts of communication, exchange, sharing and the integration of a community.