Harnessing The Power Of Africa’s Youth

This article is inspired by the keynote speech which I presented at the International CEO’s Summit (ICES), Brussels 10th and 11th July 2019.

Organized by the Founder, M’Hamed Cherif of Invest in Africa Now, the International CEO’s Economic Summit (ICES) brought together thought leaders and executives to reflect on the opportunities, challenges, and solutions for the economic development of Africa through international collaborations and partnerships.

I began my presentation with a story about The Lion King, the 2019 movie which was released on 19th July and I saw as a prescreening for BAFTA members on my return to London on 15th July. The Lion King—both the movie and the stage production—is set in the animal kingdom of the African Savannah. The franchise is owned by Disney and over the past 20 years, the stage production alone hasgenerated over $8.1 billion for Disney making it the highest grossing entertainment property in history. The first The Lion King movie, released in 1994, generated $1 billion and is the 35th highest grossing film of all time and the 7th highest grossing animation film in the world. Theremake was released on the July 19th, 2019 and to date it has generated over $1.3 billion worldwide and over $500,000 in the US.

Another more recent film set in Africa is Black Panther. The movie was released in 2018 and is an American superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. It tells thestory of a fight to protect a rare mineral called vibranium, in a fictitious country called Wakanda—a technologically advanced civilization in Africa. The film grossed$1.3 billion, making it the 11th highest grossing film of all time.

The two stories are set in Africa one celebrating its wildlife and the other its minerals. The question on my mind is, “how many stories do we know which celebrate the human capital of Africa?

Films like The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a Netflix original, written, directed by and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor in his feature directorial debut are rare. It isbased on the memoir The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer from Mali.  It tells thestory of boy who saves his village from the drought by building a windmill to power an electric water pump using parts from his Father’s bicycle, which leads to a successful crop being sown. The film was shown at the Sundance film festival and released on Netflix on 1 March 2019.

Throughout my stay in Africafor five years as the CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, I met thousands of youngWilliam Kamkwambas’ across the 54 African countries and saw how these young African entrepreneurs, Africa’s most precious resource, are transforming Africa.

Travelling across the continent, I met Africa’s exceptional talent, pursuing incredible dreams, re-imagining history, entrepreneurial pursuits and humanitarian work.  Today more than ever before, there is an opportunity to engage with Africa’s growing start-ups, the drivers of innovation.

In Africa, entrepreneurs are at the epicenter of innovation and industrialization acting as irreplaceable agents of change and sustainable growth. The African Economic Outlook 2017 revealed that approximately 20% of new African entrepreneurs start their businesses with the introduction of a new product or service.

Over the last five years, the entrepreneurship ecosystem across the continent has been more potent than ever with total startup funding raised to a record $725.6 million across 458 deals in 2018 (as reported by WeeTracker). This is a 300% leap in the total funding amount and over 127% increase in the number of deals as compared to 2017.

Behind these amazing statistics, there are real people working tirelessly across the continent who are creating jobs, generating revenue and effecting sustainable change and development in their respective communities. Their stories are as compelling as their products and services. Let me share a few stories of the entrepreneurs who benefitted from the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme and have gone on to achieve remarkable success:

Abiodun Adereni founded HelpMum, a social enterprise based in Ibadan, Nigeria. HelpMum provides clean birth kits to ensure pregnant women are given the best possible care during delivery, no matter the location. HelpMum aims to impact 100,000 pregnant women directly with their clean birth kits, and to economically empower 2,000 community health workers and traditional birth attendants. This new social enterprise was the winner of $250,000 at the Google Impact Challenge 2018.

In 2014, with no home of his own and partially deaf in one ear, all Joel Cherophad was a little farm and a dream to become one of Uganda’s biggest farmers and farm owners. Today, Joel Cherop is pushing the boundaries of agriculture using irrigation technologies through the Atari River Integrated Irrigation Initiative Limited (ARII). Through his One Acre Model, he is teaching thousands of young farmers who are making a difference in farming in his country.

Young Momaar Taal spent his youth kicking mangoes and oranges around in his village in The Gambia. In 2015, he saw the potential of turning these fruits into a business and founded Tropingo Foods. Today, Tropingo Foods is one of the largest privately-owned food processing producers and exporters in the country, with a mission to establish Gambia as a regional hub to supply the world with quality food products. Momaar’s success with Tropingo Foods has earned him a spot as one of Forbes Africa’s 30 under 30 most promising Entrepreneurs in Africa.

An avid aviator, Ndubuisi Eze founded Amin Integrated Services and is leading the pack of entrepreneurs embracing and providing technology for farmers using drones for crop planting, water spraying, aerial imaging, weather forecasting and soil sensing; making it possible to manage crop growth in real time. They have now progressed to the production their own drones, thus creating jobs in the drone manufacturing business.

Similarly, Edmond Nonie of Track Your Build Africa Group from Sierra Leone has developed technology to enable mapping and building construction to be monitored remotely from anywhere in the world. In 2017, they deployed the same technology to support the humanitarian organizations dealing with the devastating floods and mudslides in and around Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown. They have now added crisis mapping via drone technology, surveillance of crisis or danger zones for use in risk assessment, search and rescue and post-crisis analysis to their business operations.

In Benin Republic, Vital Sounouvou is promoting trade across Africa with his FinTech start-up, Exportunity, a virtual market that is now directly supported by a leading African banking institution, UBA.

Okocha Nkem is one of the many phenomenal women entrepreneurs transforming lives through Mamamoni, a Fintech social enterprise dedicated to empowering women in rural and underdeveloped areas with free vocational skills, financial skills and micro-loans. Since 2013, they have impacted and empowered over 4000 women in several rural/urban slum communities and given out over 100 micro-loans.

These are just a few of the thousands of stories spotlighting young African entrepreneurial leaders who have chosen to leverage their skills, networks, and education to address the needs of their communities. Their admirable willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to unlock Africa’s potential, an unapologetic choice to face challenges and a sanguine attitude that sees every challenge as an opportunity is the engine that is fueling the economic growth of Africa.

I want to share a touching quote from the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo when he delivered keynote address at the TEF Entrepreneurship Forum in October 2017.  He said, “Our future is not determined by history or the past unless we allow it. The history of Africa does not determine its future, the days you live in are much greater and better than the past. Dreams pursued with singlemindedness are more powerful than facts. Courage and persistence can triumph even over experience, no matter whose experience. Hope and imagination are more potent than history because your history is not necessarily your destiny, indeed your history must not be your destiny”.

Indeed, for young Africa, their history must not be their destiny. By 2050, the continent will have the largest number of young people making up nearly twice the young population of South Asia and Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Oceania. These young African innovators are the drivers of Africa’s 21st century breakthrough.

Sustained GDP growth, an emerging middle class, the increasing urban consumer base and the projected demographic dividend of 1.7 billion by 2030 and 2.5 billion by 2050 are the opportunities these young African entrepreneurs are seizing across the 54 African countries. They are leveraging technology for new business opportunities. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, will account for 50% of the 1.6 billion mobile internet users projected to get online by 2025.

As Tony O. Elumelu, Founder of The Tony Elumelu Foundation, told the audience at the Japan Africa Business Forum, “investing in these entrepreneurs is akin to investing in Silicon Valley start-ups; they have the same levels of passion, intellect, skills and capacity to transform your capital into wealth”.

Given the history of the under development across the continent, there are also key challenges to business innovation and SME growth in Africa.  Access to finance for SMEs, investment in talent development, mentoring, intra-Africa market access, infrastructure, policy and regulation are just a few of the obstacles that early stage SMEs and businesses face across the continent.

The respective roles of the African governments and the African private sector are critical for stimulating and supporting African entrepreneurship. Governments must review their procurement practices because this is an important and well understood mechanism for helping local SMEs to innovate and grow. Contracts are just as important as startup finance. In developed markets, a percentage of government contracts are mandated for local SMEs and mechanisms are put in place to reduce the cost of entry. Policy makers across African governments must advocate policies in favor of SMEs.

While international empirical experience proves that supporting growth entrepreneurship can generate up to 100 times more jobs than supporting microenterprises and subsistence enterprises, national strategies for entrepreneurship in Africa have generally focused on securing financing for subsistence micro-entrepreneurship and have historically neglected growth entrepreneurship. This needs to change as we see an increase in dynamic and high growth enterprises across the continent.

Governments should invest in Support Structureswhichplay a vital role in the development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. These support structures include:  

  • Pre-incubators are the support structures that target people who have a business idea and intend to create a company but who haven’t taken action yet.
  • Incubators and Startup Studios help the founder of a company evolve and advance to be a real entrepreneur in action.
  • Business Nurseries, Accelerators and Business Hotels help business that are up and running to address the needs of their maturing startups.
  • Collaborative Spaces (Innovation Spaces, Co-working Spaces, Fab Labs, etc.) are accessible to everyone at any point in the life cycle of their project or company.

The role of the growing African private sector working in partnership with government is fundamentally important for Africans to develop Africa for Africans. The private sector can invest in specialized support structures such as:

  • Fintech Development
  • Promoting Green Startup Development
  • Encouraging Social Entrepreneurship
  • Stimulating Agriculture and Agribusiness Entrepreneurship
  • Promoting Women’s Entrepreneurship
  • Sponsor incubators housed in universities and public research institutions

In July 2018, President Macron, came to Lagos and shared his views on why we need more Africans to succeed in Africa and more Europeans to have a positive view about Africa”.  Addressing a gathering of over 2000 entrepreneurs at the event organized by the Tony Elumelu Foundation, he charged the audience “Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t have accomplished all he has done today if he were in Nigeria.  Your nationality is not part of your ability to succeed, build your own Mark Zuckerberg in Nigeria”.  

African governments, African corporates and businesses must do more to provide Africans with economic access and opportunities.

Circling back to my analogy using The Lion King which has generated billions of dollars for Disney; while Africa’s natural resources are important, it is the ingenuity, creativity and innovation of its human capital which must be harnessed and unleashed for the economic transformation of this beautiful continent that I have come to love. This can only be achieved through investment in the African youth.

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