During the nineteen years of my life, I have read about and observed a lot in the African entrepreneurship space. Not from an air-conditioned VC office in Silicon Valley, but from the rowdy streets of the suburban city of Aba to the booming metropolitan town of Lagos (both in Nigeria). I have also gotten the privilege to observe the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the tiny African island of Mauritius — during my current study at the African Leadership College — which boasts of having one of the most vibrant entrepreneurship spaces across the continent. While most of my observations echo gongs of hope for the future of Africa, there are a few which have piqued my concern. Let’s talk about the latter.
Over the past couple of years, there has been a rhetoric about Africa which has pervaded many corridors across the globe; from academia to business and, of course, the rowdy corridors of politics. This rhetoric is the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. While a significant part of this narrative greatly depends on the booming African population, it would be reprehensible to diminish the role of the rapidly growing African economies in validating the Africa Rising narrative. Within this growth, however, lies what Fred Swaniker calls a “ticking time bomb.” By 2035, there will be a billion Africans who will need jobs. We need to create jobs now, millions of them, and fast too! Entrepreneurship seems to be the answer. But are we paying enough attention to how we go about this ambitious venture? How can we best position ourselves to create these jobs that we need without losing our Africanness? In short, how best can we go about doing entrepreneurship in Africa?
Develop Global Talent
As a continent, one key thing that we lack is the supply of employable talent. Did you know that only 7% of African youth make it into college? Out of which, just about 40% get jobs? Could it be that there are only enough employment opportunities to cater for 3% Africa’s youth? Or could it be that only 3% of Africa’s youth have employable talent? As the world rapidly becomes a global village, the need for global talent cannot be overemphasized. By ‘talent,’ I am referring to the people who possess the hard and soft skills to not only build — or work in — great businesses, but also have the flexibility to innovate within them. It is pertinent to note that talent transcends the degrees that we slap on the certificates of our young people as they graduate from the different levels of education; it includes more subtle skills such as critical thinking, project management, complex problem solving, emotional intelligence, which we don’t teach in schools. However, where else can serve as a cradle for the development of such talent if not the schools themselves?
Secondly, by ‘global’ I advocate for the replacement of nationalistic views of problem-solving with a global one. While African problems are many, a global perspective will allow entrepreneurs to not only create solutions to African problems but also to global challenges. If Google’s mission was to “organize the information of the United States of America,” I doubt it would be as successful as it is today. Thus, a generation of globally-conscious entrepreneurs armed with world-class talent will give Africa the power to develop its entrepreneurship space to inconceivable degrees while meeting the needs of its rapidly growing domestic markets alongside the global market at large.
Build Entrepreneurship Clusters & Ecosystems
Why is it even important to build entrepreneurship ecosystems? The most obvious advantage is the increased ease of attracting investment. But let’s take a deeper look at it using the example of Yabacon Valley, the aggregate tech startup ecosystem in Lagos, Nigeria. Tech startups had been popping up across various regions in Lagos around the early 2000s. Not until much later did tech startups begin to converge in the area of Yaba within Lagos. However, not until 2010 when Bosun Tijani and Femi Longe set up the Co-Creation Hub (CCHub) in Yaba were the foundations laid for what we have come to know as Yabacon Valley. CCHub brought developers, designers, coders, and business savvy individuals in their droves to the region as they worked together to build tech solutions to some of the socioeconomic problems in the area. This then resulted in the ballooning of tech startups throughout Yaba which saw the birth of companies such as Hotels.ng, Konga, Printivo, and most recently, Andela. Andela’s success in raising up to $24 million from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative in 2016, followed by Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to Yabacon Valley further validated the viability of Yabacon Valley. Today, Yabacon Valley is hailed as the prime tech ecosystem in Africa and is creating hundreds of jobs for young Nigerians every year.
Entrepreneurship clusters like Yabacon Valley not only create jobs, but they also contribute to growing the economy of the region they are located in. Such clustered ecosystems are also a great driver of innovation. There’s just something that about having your competitor is right across the street that forces you to strive to outdo yourself continuously. Also, the ability of ecosystems to attract the crème-de-la-crème in the region together to creatively solve problems makes it much more attractive to multinational companies who may be interested in engaging in some form of FDI such as setting up an office in the region to hire top-talent locals within such fast-paced innovation clusters. While building co-working spaces and incubation hubs make entrepreneurship ecosystems more glamorous, building more of those will not directly translate into an emergence of tech startups. However, such spaces within an entrepreneurial ecosystem will allow for more collaboration and smoother outsourcing of talent among the embryonic businesses. Ecosystems have the power to inspire and sustain an entrepreneurial drive in African communities. We should become more intentional about building them.
Africanize Entrepreneurship in Africa
For the past decade, entrepreneurship has been treated as a priority by several African governments, institutions and the likes. This hype has been picked up and developed by elite incubators like Y-Combinator which shape African startups (among others) from their embryonic stage up until a full-fledged minimum viable product is up and running. Top-tier private equity firms like Omidyar Network which invest in scalable startups. Angel investment programs like the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme which invests in, mentors and trains entrepreneurs as they build their companies. Entrepreneurship on the continent seems like it is on the right path, right? I don’t think so. Save for indigenous organizations like the Tony Elumelu Foundation and others which invest in African startups, the race for start-up capital typically heads towards the West. Due to lack of adequate funding on the continent, African entrepreneurs are forced to run off to venture capital firms in the United States to search for money to start up/grow their businesses. Some African entrepreneurs are even compelled to set up their HQ outside of the continent and operate remotely in Africa due to the harsh business conditions on the continent. But why is this so? How can we fix this? How can we Africanize entrepreneurship in Africa? Let us start having these conversations.
Did you know that there are twenty-five (25) African billionaires who have a combined wealth of $81.37 billion and a median wealth of $1.99 billion? Imagine what would happen if these billionaires gave away just 1% of their money to support entrepreneurship in Africa. We would have $813.7 million to invest in our homegrown startups. Tony Elumelu, who gave away $100 million of his wealth to invest in African startups isn’t even one of Africa’s billionaires. So why aren’t our billionaires pulling their weights to grow the continent outside of their pockets? But this is not just about the billionaires. In our spheres of life, we all know one or more people who are trying to start a business or currently running one they started. We see that they need investment or donations, but we hesitate to reach into our pockets and give as much as we can afford to. Why? As we continue to speak about creating African solutions to African problems, let us learn to put our money where our mouth is.
Collectivism has been one of Africa’s core values from time immemorial. With the rude intrusion of technology and the creeping normalcy of capitalism-driven individualism, the African entrepreneurial space is tending towards a rat race towards the finish line of financial prosperity. Organizations like SheLeadsAfrica, the African Leadership Network, the Harambe Entrepreneurs’ Alliance, etc. understand the concept of building a community of entrepreneurs who are ‘united in the struggle.’ Such communities not only create spaces for collective growth of the entrepreneurs themselves but also creates a space for potential business deals and other opportunities. Collectivism in capitalism should be one of the modus operandi of entrepreneurship in Africa.
While Africa is on an ever-steady path towards socio-economic development, we still have ground to cover in going about it in ways which will allow for sustainability. However, we should be on our way to sustaining entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs in Africa if we:
- Develop global talent to creatively solve some of the continent’s and the world’s toughest problems through their businesses;
- Create clusters of firms and startups to accelerate competitive innovation across industries while allowing room for inter-business collaboration;
- Create favourable business conditions to support the continent’s entrepreneurs;
- Dip into our pockets and invest into the idea, the prototype, the MVP of African entrepreneurs who are creating opportunities out of the continent’s problems; and
- Build communities and networks of African entrepreneurs and changemakers to enhance inter- and intra-sector collaboration.