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How Entrepreneurship is Transforming Africa

By Peter Bamkole

"No country can achieve its full potential unless it draws on the talents of all its people" — Barack Obama at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, 2015. 

African countries are progressively realizing that entrepreneurship is the key to reducing youth unemployment and including young people in economic activities. Innovation and creativity are riding on the wings of mobile devices and the Internet, disrupting the status quo. Governments, multilateral agencies, and donors are creating enabling environments to foster entrepreneurship throughout the continent.

Although some African countries already had interventions aimed at encouraging young people to start and run their own businesses rather than seek white collar jobs, the Arab Spring was a wake-up call for African governments to do more. In Nigeria, for example, the federal government started a national business planning competition over a three-year period, supported by the World Bank and the U.K. Department for International Development, in which aspiring and emerging entrepreneurs compete for grants of up to 10 million naira ($50,000) to start or expand a business. This energized the entire country and renewed young people’s focus with respect to venturing. The model is currently being studied for possible replication in Senegal.  

One of the most important roles that entrepreneurship plays in the transformation of Africa is in job creation. Young people who have graduated from school can pursue a career in entrepreneurship no matter what their field of study. Even while in school, some students engage in ventures that not only provide them income, but employ other students. An example is Kenya’s Trushar Khetia, a 28-year-old serial entrepreneur who within three years of graduating from university has created multi-million dollar businesses in the advertising and retail industries.

While Kenya has led and transformed the use of mobile money, in Nigeria mobile phones are being used for music and film distribution. Michael Akindele, a 30-year-old Nigerian, is a director and co-founder of SOLO Phone, which brings digital content to mobile users in Africa. Technopreneurs are building apps that are solving “African problems” every day. Other successful examples include Wakanow, an online travel booking company, and Kaymu, for online retail shopping. By entering new markets and inventing new ways of doing business, entrepreneurs are creating wealth.

As the world goes digital, more opportunities are sprouting up for creative and graphic designers, website designers, bloggers, and social media marketers. Instead of using regular forms of advertising, organizations now tend to make use of new media, which helps them reach a wider and more targeted audience. This directly increases the income of new media players and strengthens the economy.

Gary Cohen, Chairman of IBM Africa writes that four core technology trends are serving as key transformation enablers in Africa: cloud, mobile, big data, and social. In his words, “These disruptive technology trends are enabling the kind of change that many would have thought impossible ten years ago, yet today, they are combining to positively impact the lives of Africans both socially and commercially. This transformation isn’t being led by the traditional industry players – the telecoms, the banks, the retailers. Instead, a new set of business models is exploding across sub-Saharan Africa that are crafted by entrepreneurs tackling specific market breakdowns and friction head-on. They are pulling together a variety of actors — private and public sector, large and small — around specific consumer needs, and forming a ‘needs based ecosystem’ to capture value that has previously been constrained, if not impossible to realize.”

In the recently concluded general elections in Nigeria, young entrepreneurs dominated the scene. With 67 million active Internet users in Nigeria, they created animated videos for the election campaigns. As political parties battled for youth votes, these young entrepreneurs provided content that appealed to their peers and distributed it across various digital and social media channels. Now, they have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, a perfect example of President Obama’s statement that “entrepreneurship allows people to shape their own destinies.”

Through offering new goods and services in unique ways, entrepreneurship creates a break from tradition and indirectly supports freedom by reducing people's dependence on obsolete systems and technologies. Overall, this results in an improved quality of life, greater morale, and greater economic freedom. 

In short, entrepreneurship helps create jobs, promote innovation and creativity, provide youth access into economic activities, and improve the overall quality of life. It is the gateway to a brighter future for Africa. Governments across Africa should therefore be strategic about entrepreneurship by embedding it in school curriculums and vocational training, and promoting it as a lifestyle. Entrepreneurs should be celebrated and provided with incentives to enhance the natural gravitation towards venturing. 

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Peter Bamkole is the director of the Enterprise Development Centre at Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos, Nigeria.  

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Nairobi]

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