AUSTIN, TEXAS - Brenda Katwesigye traveled thousands of kilometers from Uganda in eastern Africa to Austin, Texas with a vision. She wants to find help for Wazi Vision, the startup that she founded in 2016 to make eyeglasses more affordable. Katwesigye's company, named for the Swahili word that means "clear," says Wazi Vision makes the frames from recycled plastic and that they cost 80 percent less than what is currently on the market.
"We need people that are here that can sell them in their stores. We need people with online e-commerce platforms that can help with logistics and everything," she said.
Katwesigye hopes to find these partners at South by Southwest (SXSW), the music and film festival and tech conference held in Austin in the spring every year. Her home away from home at the event is Africa House, a venue where Africans can meet members of the diaspora in the United States and other Africans from Africa.
"It's quite incredible. We’ve traveled all the way from Africa to meet Africa here and to meet people that we otherwise would never have had a chance to meet back home." Katwesigye added, "I’ve met some really meaningful contacts that I plan on following up on."
Her trip would not be possible without the help of the United States African Development Foundation (USADF), which funded her travel.
"It’s a global environment. These are people here again, who are artisans and who are tech entrepreneurs and who are people who are really social change makers in the U.S. who want to meet African counterparts," said C.D. Glin, president of USADF.
U.S.-born Bunmi Akinyemiju grew up in Nigeria, went to college in the U.S. and returned to Nigeria to become managing director and chief executive officer of Lagos-based Venture Garden Group, a payment and data analytics company.
"We look for new technologies. We look for new startups, so while we look for startups, that allows us to actually make investments in those startups that can collaborate with our parent company," said Akinyemiju.
USADF and two other organizations have joined forces to sponsor the first Africa House at SXSW this year. The other two are U.S. public relations firm Insider, which works with emerging market entrepreneurs, and Temple Management Company, a talent and events management agency based in Lagos, Nigeria.
"Really to be able to showcase Africans and their social enterprises to the community at South by Southwest was something we felt like was a must do this year," said Glin.
Azariah Mengistu is making a premium handcrafted leather sneaker in Ethiopia, in part to change Africa's image abroad.
"We want everyone to challenge global perceptions of what people thought when they saw Africa. So we want people to engage with the product, something physical that was made with the best quality at the best standards with the best materials. We wanted it all to be done in Africa."
For Nigerian musician 9ice, Africa House is a venue "to network. It is to make more fans."
Glin says that while this is the first Africa House at South by Southwest - it won’t be the last.