In 2019, the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Philanthropy introduced the Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) Prize Competition, to identify and spotlight African entrepreneurs who are making a positive impact on the continent. Now in its fifth year, the competition has recognised and impacted over 50 African entrepreneurs, providing them with grant funding, training, and other forms of support to help scale their businesses across Africa. It’s a platform to showcase the potential of the African entrepreneurial community and celebrate their remarkable achievements.
In September 2023, ABH announced this year’s top 10 finalists following an intense round of semi-finale business pitches and assessments held in Kigali, Rwanda. These entrepreneurs will compete for their share of the final prize of $1.5 million in grant funding at the competition’s Grand Finale scheduled for November 24.
More than just a contest, ABH has become a platform that empowers and connects some of the most innovative and impactful entrepreneurs in Africa – thanks to a network of brilliant mentors, judges, and partners behind the scenes. These professionals train, ask hard questions, and provide opportunities and much-needed publicity for the participants. They share in ABH’s vision and mission for Africa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
A vital part of the ABH competition is the team working to ensure each edition is a success. They are responsible for managing and promoting the competition, as well as providing guidance and resources to the applicants and finalists. For example, this year, the team hosted information sessions in over 10 African markets to help them engage with entrepreneurs in real and meaningful ways. “We believe it is more than a competition,” Zahra Baitie-Boateng, Head of Partnerships and Programs of Africa’s Business Heroes, told Ventures Africa. “We believe we are the largest, most inclusive pitch competition in Africa. Beyond that, we produce the ABH show, and we have a community of entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors to ensure it is an end-to-end experience for our entrepreneurs to partake in and scale their businesses.”
Maintaining community support for entrepreneurs is vital to the ABH team. They established a community-led program with local chapters so the heroes can engage with like-minded entrepreneurs and consistently get support. The program hosts gatherings with a focal point for the heroes to share some of their struggles, brainstorm ideas, and learn how to navigate challenges. “… the team remains accessible to our heroes at all times to support them as they navigate the ups and downs of entrepreneurship,” said Baitie-Boateng. “We know that entrepreneurship can be a lonely and tough journey. At ABH, we ensure that we provide a support system in different ways.”
At the center of this support system are the judges. Typically, the panel of judges comprises business leaders, investors, celebrities, and past competition winners. They come from diverse backgrounds, with a range of experiences and perspectives, but all share a common passion for entrepreneurship and a commitment to Africa. Their primary role is to assess the competition’s applicants and choose the finalists. However, the judges do more than just evaluate the applicants; they also offer personalized feedback, mentorship, and training to the participants. “The level of support from ABH for applicants goes way beyond the prize money. Once you’re an ABH family member, you get priceless exposure to a global network of advisors, investors, and media,” said Rafeh Saleh, a three-time judge at the ABH competition.
Rafeh Saleh is the Founding Partner of Cubit Ventures, a North Africa-focused Venture Capital fund. Saleh is an experienced executive, entrepreneur, and management consultant who has led one of the largest consulting firms in Egypt and advised numerous companies of all sizes on growth, turnaround, and business restructuring strategies. The two main qualities Judge Saleh looks out for in a participant are resourcefulness and resilience. “Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “We look for founders who have an unshakable belief in their mission and who can build an amazing team aligned with that mission. Successful entrepreneurs learn how to balance meticulous execution without losing sight of medium to long-term strategy.”
Beyond aligning these entrepreneurs with their mission, the competition seeks to sustain and amplify their positive impact. “Founders must pay special attention to unit economics, and capital efficiency, and strive towards scaling the business to maximize impact across a broader segment,” Saleh said. He often advises his mentees never to obsess over product or solution, but to focus on the problem being solved and continuously listen to customers. “Great products and services reflect the voice of customers not that of founders, consultants, investors, or mentors,” he said. According to a report by CB Insights, the primary reason for startup failure is “no market need”, accounting for 42% of failed cases.
A key tenet of ABH has always been to connect entrepreneurs with global opportunities and networks and it is reflected in every major part of their program. “We don’t think we should be doing it all. So, we try to build a sustainable ecosystem by collaborating with other entities and leveraging their strengths,” said Baitie-Boateng. These partners help to amplify the work ABH does. For example, concerning outreach to entrepreneurs, several partners help to build the organisation’s pipeline by creating awareness about ABH in their networks. “By creating forward and backward linkages, we help ensure the ecosystem is robust, with strong connections and mutual support, rather than remaining isolated silos. We are deliberate in our partnership approach and engage with like-minded organizations,” she added.
RiseUp is one of such like-minded organizations, which has been part of the ABH network for five years. It is a North African organization connecting startups with relevant resources through a vast number of programs, activities, and events throughout the year across different countries. A key belief of the company is that great ideas, great entrepreneurs, and great startups exist everywhere around the continent and that the missing link to a prosperous Africa is connecting its startup ecosystem to the relevant resources it needs. “This is why our partnership with Africa’s Business Heroes for 5 years and counting is one that we cherish and celebrate every year,” said Farida ElSharkawy, Anchor partner, RiseUp’s outreach and programs coordinator.
Over the years, the northern region has shown incredible potential for growth and innovation. The competition has had various outstanding finalists from the region. Through their work with ABH, Riseup has experienced the positive impact that the competition has on the startup scene in North Africa. “We have seen first-hand the many benefits that the competition can bring to North African startups,” said ElSharkawy. “The winners of the competition have gone on to achieve remarkable success, not just in terms of financial growth, but also in terms of the impact they are having on their communities and the region as a whole,” she added.
ABH continues to provide exposure to its winners through various media platforms years after the competition has ended. This exposure helps to keep the winners in the public eye. African business hero, Ethel Mupambwa of MoneyMart, Zimbabwe is a testament to this. She was a grassroots entrepreneur who gained significant publicity, thanks to ABH. Her story has been published in the Wall Street Journal and featured in several publications. “That kind of exposure has done amazing things for her business,” said Baitie-Boateng. This year, the foundation is launching the ABH Entrepreneurship Journalism Excellence Award, to recognize and honour journalists who tirelessly cover entrepreneurship stories and raise awareness of some of the brightest business minds across the continent.
Entrepreneurship is critical to Africa’s transformation. It can create jobs, reduce poverty, and foster innovation. This aligns with the vision of the ABH Prize Competition. For all stakeholders engaged in the ABH competition, endorsing this vision is pivotal for the enduring prosperity of startups. “We are proud to be an anchor partner for Africa’s Business Heroes and we are excited to continue supporting the competition and its winners in the future. We are certain that with this continued partnership, we are headed towards a prosperous and better connected Africa within the upcoming decade,” said RiseUp’s Outreach and programs coordinator, ElSharkawy.
Africa’s Business Heroes is inviting entrepreneurs, investors, and other business enthusiasts across Africa to be part of the 2023 ABH Summit and Grand Finale happening on the 23-24 November in Kigali, Rwanda. Register here to attend the 2023 ABH Grand Finale.