Entrepreneurship: The Future of Africa

Many people have asked me how I made the monumental leap from working in film to working for a foundation. And in Africa no less. It is easy to understand the incredulity. On the one hand, film, the industry in which I have invested most of my professional life, one where I have led productions and won awards is depicted as glamourous, and Africa is often portrayed, inaccurately I may add, as a helpless and hopeless continent. However, my move was triggered by a story, a compelling one with a charismatic lead, a dynamic cast of characters and a movement too important to ignore.

It all began in 2014. I read a white paper on Africapitalism, written by Tony Elumelu, the successful banker, serial investor, economist and founder of The Tony Elumelu Foundation.His paper was a revelation; a self-made man proposing an economic philosophy that was rooted in the realities and modalities of Africa. Key tenets of his economic philosophy instantly resonated with me: the idea of institutionalizing luck, democratizing opportunity and creating a generation of self-starting business leaders. It closely aligned with my own Indian worldview and helped me to understand his vision for Africa and Africapitalism.

I saw so many correlations between the situation and possibilities presented in Africa, and those of my own country, India. I grew up in rural Punjab, and moved to England at 10 years old. Even after moving continents, I would frequently visit my homeland and for many decades, economic growth in India was steady and incremental, but nothing stark. Then, sometime in the early 2000s, I returned to India, and it was as though I had entered in the eye of a storm that was creating an unprecedented economic boom. India’s advancement came quickly, and all at once. By liberalising its economy in 1991, the then Finance Minister Mr Manmohan Singh had unleashed India’s private sector, which in just two decades, would become the engine room for its rapid growth.  Since then, India has grown steadily, even in times of global economic downturn, driven by home grown entrepreneurial class.  It was clear that the liberation of the private sector had had an enormous effect on India’s continuing growth story, the parallels were apparent and it was a pleasure to finally meet the man behind the vision.

Tony Elumelu’ s steadfast belief is that we must build an enabling environment for Africa’s entrepreneurs if the continent is to thrive. He says this as an African entrepreneur himself. Throughout his career, Tony Elumelu found that opportunities are given, but must also be seized. Along his journey there were people who believed in him and supported him. Many said it was luck that made him successful, which made him want to find a way to institutionalise luck. So, that others, young people can take control of their own destiny. Working alongside an individual such as him, and for a cause as great as this, has been a real privilege, made even more credible because it is rooted in a real person’s success and skill. One cannot deny his ability to cut through the issues at hand and get to the nub of the matter; that Africa needs home-grown solutions for its problems, that it is Africans who need to address the exaggerated claims and counter the negative stories surrounding the continent and finally, that a new economic philosophy rooted in the circumstances and realities of Africa must be developed.

Africapitalism, the economic philosophy he developed, places the private sector centre stage as the catalyst for socio-economic development, wealth creation and regional stability. This is not to exonerate government and institutions from the important role they must play in creating an enabling environment for business to flourish. But the key engine room begins within the private sector, from the large multinational conglomerates that are household names, to the SMEs that are making meaningful economic contributions in their industry sectors. Long term investments that create a lasting benefit for communities are critical, but so too is bringing the vitality, creative and commercial approach of the private sector to problem solving that will garner the best results for some of Africa’s most intractable development problems. Stability comes with prosperity, as too does increases in tax revenues, improved standards of living, and healthier and happier citizens.

Africa is rightly identified by economists globally as capitalism’s final frontier; a place where domestic and foreign capital can reap enormous dividends. With a labour force that is young, optimistic and keen to work, the sky is the limit. Positing the people of Africa as being central to creating wealth, finding solutions to their own problems and having autonomy in the globalised community, appealed to my own passion as a filmmaker, in the importance of people owning their voice, sharing their stories and directing their futures. Furthermore, I was drawn to how Tony Elumelu infused Africapitalist principles in The Tony Elumelu Foundation, and its flagship initiative, The TEF Entrepreneurship Programme. The notion of a new philanthropy where you were equipping individuals to be masters of their own destiny was particularly potent. It proved that Africapitalism in all its manifestations considered social wealth not as a ‘nice-to-have’ but critical to activities, in the words of the founder ‘doing good while doing well’ was essential.As an idea,Africapitalism is arguably an imaginative articulation of a possible face of capitalism in Africa, which could be extended to other parts of the world.

The narrative needs to change but we also must recognise that whilst the indigenous political leaders succeeded with political liberation, Africa is yet to experience economic independence in the true sense of it. Tony Elumelu believes it is essential to engage in a more thorough and open debate about Africa’s economies, how to make them more resilient and move away from the short term feel good narrative with comforting headlines. He argues that: “to help Africa grow sustainably, we must better understand its challenges and address them in a fundamental and holistic manner. Suffice to say that to do otherwise would be to shy away from dealing with some critical issues”. His thoughts to this matter mirror my own views and further consolidated my decision to move to Africa to support him with operationalising his vision.

TEF, the foundation that I have the privilege of serving as CEO has chosen to focus on creating a dynamic entrepreneurial class across the continent. The choice of focus is deliberate and motivated by the fact that entrepreneurship is the catalyst for Africa’s growth. “Young entrepreneurs and those they inspire are the lifeblood of Africa’s rise” Stated Mr. Elumelu in The Economist(“The World in 2015: The Rise of Africapitalism”)

And I could not agree more as entrepreneurs are essential to Africa’s development – many of them are already running home-grown businesses based on deep insights into local consumer demand. They also spot unique gaps in the market for specific products and services, tap into strong local networks, and often create innovative and disruptive solutions to complex challenges. The TEF Entrepreneurship Programme is harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of the entrepreneurs with a structured and results driven approach to improving the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We begin with a bottom-up approach, backing startups with business ideas which can transform Africa. We are developing entrepreneurs who are committed to home-grown solutions, that consider the real-life challenges and opportunities of the continent.

The model of entrepreneurialism as developed and taught on the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme is one that empowers individual Africans, and harnesses the power of innovation, personal initiative, hard work, and market-driven ingenuity to address previously intractable problems and change the continent forever.

When the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme commenced, many were astonished by the audacity of its aims and objectives. Indeed the founder and myself found ourselves oftentimes in high-level meetings with experts stating that the aims and objectives were not only fanciful but impossible. Now entering our third cycle, the programme couldn’t be more robust.

In 2014 the founder launched the ground-breaking TEF Entrepreneurship Programme, representing a 10-year $100million commitment by the Foundation to support entrepreneurs across Africa through training, funding, and mentorship and providing networking opportunities. The programme’s goal is to identify and help grow an initial 10,000 start-ups and young businesses from across Africa over the next 10 years, targeting the creation of jobs and additional revenue on the continent.  Our milestones outlined below, speak for themselves

TEEP 2015 Milestones:

  • We received 20,000 applications and selected 1000 entrepreneurs from 51 African countries, commenced 9-month training and business development programme in March 2015
  • July, all 1000 entrepreneurs gathered in Lagos for a Bootcamp for further skills development, mentoring and networking.
  • September and October, 1000 business plans vetted and all received the first stage seed capital funding of $5,000, a total of $5 million invested in start-ups across Africa.
  • TEF Entrepreneur Meetups across Africa with Founder, Tony Elumelu, to introduce the TEF entrepreneurs to their political leaders at the highest levels of government, to bring these entrepreneurs and their challenges to the attention of policymakers who can effect changes that will improve the enabling environment, for not just TEF entrepreneurs but for all entrepreneurs in the respective countries. TEF Meetups have been held in Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal, Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, Cameroon, Benin Republic and Congo as well with TEF Entrepreneurs in Lagos, Calabar and Kaduna.
  •  Facilitated TEF entrepreneurs with setting up Alumni Country Chapters and Networks across the 51 African countries.
  •  Signed MOU with Cote d’Ivoire Minister for Entrepreneurship to replicate TEF Entrepreneurship Programme.
  • Produced original research data, analysis and reports to support advocacy agenda to improve the ecosystem for African entrepreneurs. Our Unleashing Africa’s Entrepreneurs: Improving the Enabling Environment for Start-ups report has been widely shared with policy makers across Africa.
  • TEF is the founding member of SPARK, launched by President Obama in May 2015 at the White House to promote global entrepreneurship. Presented TEF at MassChallenge UK launch Feb; Global Entrepreneurship Congress Milan, March; Oxford University African Business Conference, Cambridge African Entrepreneurship Conference; to name a few.

And highlights have continued into 2016 too including:

TEF 2016 Milestones:

  • For the 2016 2nd round of TEF Entrepreneurship Programme we received 45,000 applications and selected 1000, from 53 countries.
  • Expanded the one day Bootcamp to two days TEF Entrepreneurship Forum, a high-level event that brought together entrepreneurs, business leaders, Sitting and Former Heads of State, academics and members of civil society to chart the further development of Africa’s entrepreneurial class
  • The Founder led a successful outing for TEF at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland and the World Economic Forum, Africa in Kigali, Rwanda
  •  The Foundation has signed several strategic partnerships including: an MOU between TEF and the Nigerian Ministry for Information and Culture to invigorate the Nigerian Creative Industries; ECOWAS; International Trade Centre; Africa Development Bank, Microsoft to name but a few.
  • The Foundation has appointed a TEF Alumni Engagement Manager and TEF Capital Manager

To return to my original question of why a foundation, why Africa and why now? In a nut-shell it is creating an entrepreneurial class and changing the narrative. A roadmap for not only wealth creation and development, but one which will transform both a generation and a continent. Over the course of my career I have always ensured that I twin my passions with my talents. I am passionate about Africa and about the thousands of entrepreneurs I have met on the continent since I began my journey in April 2014. I feel that my work now is the best utilization of my skills and experience and I entreat anyone reading this who may have an adverse opinion of this great continent, to reconsider: the paradigm has shifted, the script has changed and the ending promises to be positive.

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