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Empowering the African entrepreneur: Key takeaways from ABH Summit 2023

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Over the past five years, the entrepreneurial spirit powered by the digital economy has blossomed in China and fiercely ignited across Africa. The fusion of digital technology with entrepreneurship has unlocked opportunities for young Africans to tackle societal challenges in education, healthcare and the economy. – Lijun Sun, Partner at Alibaba Partnership and Board member of The Jack Ma Foundation.

For two days last week, the 23rd and 24th of November, Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) hosted entrepreneurs, investors, industry experts, the media, and delegates from different countries at its 5th Anniversary Summit and Grand Finale. Themed AI: African Innovation, Insight, and Impact, the event was a culmination of an eight-month process to identify and support outstanding African entrepreneurs this year.

The summit on the first day consisted of talks and workshops carefully curated to nurture the growth and development of African entrepreneurs and professionals. It started with welcome speeches by Lijun Sun, Partner at Alibaba Partnership and Board member of The Jack Ma Foundation and Zahra Baitie-Boateng, Head of Programs and Partnerships at Africa’s Business Heroes.

Sun highlighted the impact of the digital economy on entrepreneurship in China and Africa over the past five years. He stated that African entrepreneurs have demonstrated resilience despite global challenges to deploy advanced technologies like AI, big data, and blockchain to address societal issues in education, healthcare, and the economy. Sun highlighted the transformative impact of these entrepreneurs, emphasising their role as Africa’s heroes. He also acknowledged ABH finalists across critical sectors, reflecting Africa’s dynamic entrepreneurial drive.

Lijun Sun at ABH Summit 2023

Baitie-Boateng’s speech celebrated ABH’s five-year journey toward fulfilling Jack Ma’s commitment to support 100 African entrepreneurs over 10 years. It called for a reflection on the community’s identity and purpose. “ … It’s a chance for us at ABH, alongside our community, all of you gathered here, to reflect on who we are and where we are going. We are a community of 50 inspiring Top 10 Heroes who are innovative, insightful, and impactful,” she said. The ABH community comprises 50 impactful Top 10 Heroes, representing all African regions, operating in 52 countries, and serving 38 million users. These 50 Heroes have collectively raised over $150 million in investment and created 123,000 jobs. Baitie-Boateng described these achievements as inspiration for ABH’s mission to strengthen the African entrepreneur ecosystem, encouraging further progress and ambitious dreams.

Zahra Baitie-Boateng at ABH Summit 2023

African Innovation

Post-welcome speeches, the first round of talks focused on African innovation. In mini TED Talk formats, speakers brought stories of African innovation to life, ranging from clean cooking solutions to scientific research. Mohamed Ali, CEO of PowerLock, talked about inventions and patents. Charlot Magayi, Founder of Mukuru Clean Stoves, talked about innovating beyond clean cooking. Omar Sakr, Chief Executive Officer of Nawah Scientific, talked about innovation for scientific research in Africa. And Natalie Jabangwe, Group Digital Executive Officer of Sanlam, gave a compelling presentation on why Africa should be at the forefront of innovation.

Jabangwe opened with a statistic that resonated with everyone in the room, “By 2050, one in four people on the planet will be African.” This demographic shift could make Africa a global player on par with India and China, with a projected population of 2.5 billion in 27 years.

She then addressed the often-debated question – does the size of a population correlate with prosperity? “When it comes to demography, size is everything,” she said. The challenges that accompany a growing population are opportunities for innovation. And Africa is a green field, a playing field where economic victories can be achieved.

Jabangwe also emphasized that Africa’s size equates to a massive addressable market. In the next 27 years, Africa’s population will represent 25 percent of the world – a customer base with undeniable buying power, despite the nominal dollar-a-day economy.

Next, she delved into the interconnected nature of the world, highlighting the exponential growth of technology in Africa; from the absence of cell phones 25 years ago to the current prevalence of devices and internet access. She stressed the importance of leveraging Africa’s youthful population, as half of the median age of 19 represents a significant portion. “Africa must join the global market but leverage its local economies,” she stated.

The infrastructure gap, which some might perceive as a hindrance, she sees as a canvas for innovation, “The answer for this continent is sitting in this very room and nowhere else,” she said, encouraging the audience to recognize the potential within.

In closing, Jabangwe painted a vibrant picture of Africa’s potential; Afro Beats artists were streamed more than 13 billion times on Spotify in 2022, surpassing the global population. The message was clear – Africa’s creative industries have the potential to generate significant revenue, possibly creating billionaires and contributing to the economic development of the continent.

African Insight

In podcast-style conversations, speakers including Broadcast Journalist Naa Ashorkor; Nuseir Yassin, Founder & CEO, NAS Company; Actress and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Nomzamo Mbatha; Multimedia Content Creator, Just Ivy Africa, Moulaye Taboure, CEO, ANKA; Tesh Mbaabu, CEO, MarketForce; Christelle Kwizera, MD, Water Access Rwanda; Chebet Lesan, CEO, BrightGreen Renewable Energy; and Global Moderator, Georgie Ndirangu, shared insights they have gathered on their entrepreneurship journey ranging from the future of content in Africa to shaping Africa’s green future.

Naa Ashorkor, Nuseir Yassin, and Nomzamo Mbatha, each with their unique perspective on the future of African content, engaged in a passionate conversation about the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. Yassin, known for his popular Nas Daily platform, kicked off the discussion by posing a crucial question, “What is the problem with content in Africa?”

Nuseir Yassin

Mbatha, a seasoned actress and storyteller, responded thoughtfully, “The problem lies in narrative control. We need to be aggressive and intentional about who we are and what stories we tell. Hollywood and Bollywood succeed because they are clear about their identity. We need to be the same with African content – proud, intentional, and clear about the richness of our stories.” She also stated the need for Africans to be equal contenders in various industries rather than having their talent poached by the rest of the world.

Nomzamo Mbatha

Ashorkor, a television journalist and social media content creator added her perspective, “We need to tell authentic stories about Africa, our people, culture, and achievements. It’s easy to be swayed by Western narratives, but we must insist on originality and authenticity,” she said.

Yassin highlighted the unprecedented opportunity platforms like TikTok and Facebook provide for Africans to tell their stories to the world. He challenged the status quo, asking, “What’s holding us back?” 

Mbatha addressed the issue of Western influence shaping African narratives and emphasized the need for financial support to create high-quality productions that can compete with the best in the world. 

The conversation took an intriguing turn as Yassin proposed two approaches for content production – investing $2 million in high-premium African content or empowering a thousand TikTokers to create content about Africa. Ashorkor suggested a balanced approach, “I think we can do a bit of both. Most young people around the world consume TikTok. The more African content we put on TikTok, the more people we will reach globally.”

Naa Ashorkor, Nuseir Yassin, and Nomzamo Mbatha at ABH Summit 2023

Yassin shared his experience with Nas Daily, stressing the potential of social media influencers and creators in spreading the African story. He proposed a bold idea – starting to tell the story of Africa with zero dollars. Mbatha agreed but stressed the need to educate Africa’s private sector about the commercial potential of content creation.

African Impact

In a debate format, Chibuzo Opara, CEO of DrugStoc, and Hasan Haider, Founder and Managing Partner of Plus Ventures, discussed the divergence of perspectives in entrepreneurship. The debate centred around whether entrepreneurs and investors should share the same goals. Additionally, Bogolo Kenewendo, Special Advisor & Africa Director at Climate Champions, and Fred Swaniker, Founder and CEO of Sand Technologies, participated in a debate exploring the strategic dilemma faced by African entrepreneurs: whether to prioritize global expansion or focus on building for local take-over. These lively discourses shed light on key considerations in shaping the future of African entrepreneurship.

In debating the future trajectory of African businesses, Swaniker, a seasoned businessman, took the floor, asserting his belief in the necessity of going global for significant success. “If you want to be big, if you want to build a billion-dollar business, there’s no way you’re going to do that in Africa,” he declared. His rationale rested on the relatively small market size in Africa, constituting only three percent of the world’s GDP.

Fred Swaniker

Kenewendo, however, challenged this perspective, urging for a redefinition of what “local” meant. “When we say local, we’re not saying stay in gaps; stay in Botswana, stay in Rwanda. We’re saying be in the continent,” she clarified. She argued that many successful businesses had started on the continent and that a strong focus on the local market was essential for growth.

But could a business truly thrive with a primary focus on the local market? Kenewendo explained that it’s not the only way, but certainly one of the best ways. She cited the double-digit economic growth in Africa and Asia Minor, which is higher than anywhere else. She pointed to the mass exodus from Silicon Valley and the increasing interest of global companies in the African market as evidence of the continent’s growth potential.

Bogolo Kenewendo

Swaniker countered what he described as “vanity metrics,” dismissing the growth figures as mere feel-good numbers. Drawing on the insights of Don Valentine, founder of Sequoia Capital, a leading venture capital firm, who analyzed 50 years of investing and found that overwhelmingly, it was the market that led to massive returns, he reiterated the need for a large market over a small one, even if it meant going global.

Swaniker continued his argument, stating that African entrepreneurs should put aside their pride and idealism and focus on what works in the world. He cited Nigerian musicians Davido, Wizkid, and Burner Boy, who produce in Africa and sell globally, making millions of dollars. According to him, African entrepreneurs could do the same by creating innovative products and selling them to the rest of the world.

Kenewendo challenged Swaniker’s perspective, citing real-world examples of companies thriving in the African market and attracting significant investments. She highlighted the growth rates in e-commerce and payment systems, showcasing Africa’s potential for innovation and economic expansion. “When it comes to e-commerce, we have a 25 percent year-on-year growth rate which is 75 percent higher than the average growth rate. If we’re looking at payment systems, we are seeing a much faster-growing market (here) than anywhere else in the world,” she said. But Swaniker remained steadfast in his belief that exporting to global markets was the key to creating wealth.

Raising Capital

In a workshop-style discussion titled Raising Capital: Tested Strategies from Investors and Entrepreneurs, participants delved into the crucial aspect of securing external funding for business expansion. The session featured insights from venture capitalists, ecosystem builders, and seasoned entrepreneurs who shared their tested strategies for successfully raising capital.

The contributors included Benjamin Bonnel, CEO of Expand in Africa; Hany Soliman, Regional Head at PayTabs; Moulaye Taboure, CEO of ANKA; Sherif Nessim, Founder of Jedar Capital; Tamim El Zein, Partner at Seedstars; and moderated by Kome Oruade, Global Program Manager at Acumen Angels.

“To scale, entrepreneurs usually rely on external sources of funding. Funding is one of the most critical skills that entrepreneurs need,” Oruade began. “Technical skills can be learned, bought, or hired, but what you need to survive as an entrepreneur is your ability to fundraise, the networks you have, salesmanship, and startup capital.”

El Zein, Partner at Seedstars, took the stage for a presentation, “Today, we will focus on how to maximize your ability to raise funds, understanding investment readiness, and designing a proper investment strategy.” He delved into various funding stages from early investments by family and friends to institutional players and venture capitalists. And emphasized the power-law game of VC investing, where returns were crucial, and founders needed to understand the risks to attract investment.

The presentation transitioned to investment readiness, with El Zein challenging the audience, “Do you think it’s a natural process, luck, or requires conscious work?” The answer was clear – conscious work and preparation were key. He outlined the seven areas of the investor readiness framework, using CB Insights’ survey on startup failures to highlight the critical dimensions.

The team is important. “What is the founding team? It is a matter of size and also a matter of skills,” El Zein explained. “Investors look for alignment between your sweat equity and financial investment. Advisors, board members, and mentors help fill skill gaps.”

Then, he moved on to product-market fit, stressing the importance of solving a real problem in a sizable market. He touched on positioning, competitive environment, and building barriers to entry. Technology and operations, revenue and growth, tracking KPIs, managing cash, and fundraising strategy followed in meticulous detail.

“When reaching out to VCs, build a relationship early,” El Zein advised. “Don’t wait until you need the money. Anticipate, show progress, and stand out. Ask yourself why, when, how much, who, and how when raising funds.” His guidance on the ‘why’ highlighted that investors fund objectives, not capital shortages. He stressed the importance of timing, the right amount of capital, targeting the right investors, and having a clear process.

El Zein concluded his presentation with a reminder that fundraising is a process, and entrepreneurs need to be organized and persistent. He shared insights from Docsend, emphasizing the need for a powerful pitch deck that grabs attention and makes a lasting impression.

Powerful Networks

In another workshop, seasoned professionals, including Dr. Anino Emuwa, Managing Partner at Avandis Consulting; Buntu Majaja, CEO of SA Innovation Summit; Flavien Kouatcha, Chief Farming Officer at Save Our Agriculture; Malik Shaffy Lizinde, Country Manager for Africa Management Institute; Yussouf Ntwali, CEO of BAG Innovation; and Iris Irumva, Founder & CEO, Lead Access, share invaluable insights on the significance of powerful networks, the reason for them, and how to build them. 

Irimvu, the moderator, posed a crucial question to the panel: “How do you build a network based on deep trust?” Dr. Anino, a seasoned professional, kicked off with a profound understanding of the essence of genuine connections. “Networks are about what value you have to give someone else,” she said. Rather than transactional interactions, Dr. Anino advocated for a mindset of adding value to others. “When you add to people and give them value…it pays back,” she assured.

Her advice extended beyond the immediate gains, highlighting the time investment required to nurture relationships. “If you build your network properly after a while, you don’t need to build a network because people understand you,” she said. Trust, she suggested, is a byproduct of consistently adding value over time.

Irimvu, impressed by Dr. Anino’s insights, turned to Mbatha, eager to hear about practical experiences in building deep connections. Mbatha’s perspective on networking went beyond the conventional exchange of business cards. “Networking is not just about having a business card and throwing that business card in someone’s chest when you haven’t even had a connection,” she said.

For Mbatha, building a network involves creating a spark within the first few seconds of meeting someone. She stressed the importance of understanding the algorithm of connections – finding common ground, respecting time, and respecting individuals. Drawing from her own experiences, Mbatha highlighted the significance of reliability. “You can be the most famous person or the most accomplished person. But if you don’t respect time if you don’t respect people, and if you don’t respect the event itself, nobody wants to be connected to that,” she said.

Irimvu probed further, asking for an anecdote about a connection that blossomed into something beautiful. Mbatha’s response delved into the nuanced aspects of networking. “I think, for me, it’s a plethora of things,” she began. Rather than a defining moment, Mbatha attributed her success in various sectors to authenticity, respect, and understanding what interests others.

Dr. Anino followed with an essential point, advising thorough research before approaching someone new. She urged individuals to invest time in understanding the person they wish to connect with, engaging them on their terms, and demonstrating how their endeavours can add value to what the person does.

In conclusion, the speakers echoed a shared sentiment: networking is not a one-time event but a continuous process of building relationships based on trust and mutual value.

About Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH)

The Africa’s Business Heroes Prize Competition is a philanthropic initiative sponsored by the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Philanthropy. It aims to support, inspire, and enable the next generation of African entrepreneurs who are building a brighter future for the continent, by offering grant funding, training programs, and support to develop the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Every year, for 10 years, the ABH Prize Competition and Show features 10 entrepreneur finalists as they pitch their businesses to win a share of US$1.5 million in grant money.

To date, ABH has nurtured a remarkable cohort of 50 business heroes, comprising talented men and women from various regions of the continent. These trailblazers are tackling some of Africa’s most pressing challenges, leveraging their ingenuity and resilience to drive social and economic change.

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