Down a scratchy phone line from Nairobi, 21-year-old Joel Mwale says he has spent the past year seeking funds to take his online educational and mentorship platform to the next level. His frustration cuts through the static.
Mwale might have expected better. He won a degree of fame in his teens for setting up a rainwater filtration and bottling company – Skydrop Enterprises – which he sold to an Israeli firm to fund the development of the website gigavia. But he feels far from empowered by his expertise in technology – a sector sometimes hailed as the answer to Africa’s myriad problems.
“With the media profile I have, you would think it would be easy for me to find funding, but that’s not the reality,” he says. “How many other young people are out there, trying to come up with innovative solutions?” He finally got the investment two months ago, from a Kenya-based media group. He’ll work with his new partners to polish the product before an official launch early next year.
Mwale says outsiders are wary of investing in Kenya because of insecurity and threats from Islamic extremists in Somalia. He also criticises business leaders who have been successful but who see investment in tech as too much of a gamble.
Driven, ambitious and well-connected after a trip to Silicon Valley and a spell in the African Leadership Academy, Mwale is the kind of young entrepreneur described by one of the continent’s leading businessmen as the future of development.
In December, Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu, an outspoken advocate of “Africapitalism”, launched a $100m pan-African initiative to train, fund, mentor and empower the next generation of African entrepreneurs. Elumelu said entrepreneurship was “the cornerstone to African development” – a resounding endorsement of the homegrown private sector, and an implicit rebuke of traditional aid structures that have struggled to cope with crises in Africa and elsewhere in 2014.
The entrepreneurship programme will help to grow 10,000 startups and young businesses from across Africa over the next 10 years, targeting the creation of 1m jobs and $10bn in annual revenues.
“This programme brings together my own entrepreneurial experience and my fundamental belief that entrepreneurs – women and men across Africa – will lead Africa’s development and transform our future,” said Elumelu.
The fund was announced at the end of a particularly bleak year for Africa’s international image. After the optimism of “Africa rising”, which posited that consumer-driven growth bolstered by an expanding middle class would herald a new era, news was dominated by war and the spread of Ebola. In the top headline-grabbers – Central African Republic, South Sudan, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone – thousands of lives were lost and years of development undone.
But the reality of extreme poverty and need co-exists alongside initiative and innovation in the Africa’s 54 countries, as it does elsewhere in the world.
On 19 November, as the World Health Organisation told reporters in Geneva that the Ebola death toll had risen to 5,420, young entrepreneurs from across the continent met foreign leaders and business people from Africa, the US and beyond at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Morocco. The theme of the summit was harnessing the power of technology for innovation and entrepreneurship. Technology, delegates were told, was not just a catalyst for economic growth but also could address “the most critical issues of our time”.
In a keynote speech, the US vice-president, Joe Biden, asked what could be done to help “brilliant young minds” and enable entrepreneurship to take deeper root. “America’s experience, like many others, teaches us that fostering entrepreneurship is not just about crafting the right economic policy, or developing the best educated curricula. It’s about creating an entire climate in which innovation and ideas flourish,” he said.
This nod to the link between freedom and free enterprise resonates for Christian Ngan, Cameroonian founder of organic cosmetic group Madlyn Cazalis, one of Forbes’s 30 most promising entrepreneurs in Africa and a speaker at the GES. Ngan says Africa is moving ahead and people are no longer afraid to speak out. As with Elumelu’s thoughts on development, he thinks the solution must come from within.
“We first have to have a good image of ourselves, before asking other countries to have a good image of us. We have to be proud enough to believe in us … Young Africans are the promoters of their self-image to the world. We can talk with our own voice,” he said.
Elumelu argues that a vibrant, African-led private sector is the key to unlocking Africa’s economic and social potential. His programme aims to create an environment where entrepreneurs can get the support they need in the critical early days.
Mwale also attended the GES and felt energised by the attention paid to African entrepreneurs and the desire expressed by Biden and others to help. “The fact that people are thinking at that level means that the time is for us,” he says. “We have the opportunities to attract the kind of people who are going to be able to create companies like Google.”
He welcomes Elumelu’s initiative, but has a few concerns about the selection process, warning that high unemployment rates have led many young people to start businesses, not because of any particular passion but because they lack employment alternatives.
“Running a startup or business is not easy and [the Elumelu programme managers] need to make sure that the people they support are going to be there until the very end. Only real entrepreneurs are going to stay even when the business is shaky,” he says.
“Focusing on 10,000 entrepreneurs seems a little far-fetched to me … The reality is the more people they handle the less effective their investment is per startup. I would rather they narrow down that number to 100 or even 1,000 startups that address real challenges and pressing needs in Africa and support them till they are mature enough.”
Toyin Awesu, communications manager for the Elumelu fund, says the response had been amazing, and the first applicants would be selected in March. “The great thing about the programme is that it is very comprehensive. Ten thousand is a large number, but this is over 10 years. Each year we will accept 1,000 African entrepreneurs,” Awesu said. “So while it is indeed a huge task to fulfil, we are confident that as the programme continues our success stories will become our biggest advocates.”