• Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Our grant has translated into tangible results, with over 123,000 direct and indirect jobs – Zahra Baitie


Africa’s entrepreneurial landscape continues to witness significant investments aimed at empowering founders to address unique challenges within their communities with locally sourced solutions. The Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) initiative, founded by the Jack Ma Foundation, stands out as a beacon of support within this landscape, providing emerging business leaders with a platform and resources to showcase their innovations and drive economic growth across Africa. In this interview, Zahra Baitie-Boateng, managing director of the Africa’s Business Heroes Programme, shares with OBINNA EMELIKE the motivations behind the Jack Ma Foundation’s interest in uplifting African entrepreneurs, the impact of the ABH programme over the past five years, opportunities and challenges faced by entrepreneurs participating in the competition, as well as ABH’s mission, accomplishments, future outlook and how entrepreneurship can drive positive change across Africa. Excerpts:

What is Jack Ma Foundation’s interest in supporting African entrepreneurs and fostering broader opportunities for continental development?

Our interest in uplifting African entrepreneurs and supporting their development stems from a recognition of the immense potential within Africa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. It all began when Jack Ma visited Africa in July 2017 as a special adviser to UNCTAD. Inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit he encountered and noticing similar hurdles faced in China, Mr. Ma decided to create the Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) prize competition with a goal to support and spotlight African entrepreneurs who are building inclusive business models that drive development and economic opportunities across the continent. By supporting African entrepreneurs, ABH aims to inspire million others to pursue entrepreneurship and catalyze economic development, creating job opportunities and enabling sustainable growth across the continent.

Can you measure the impact on Africa for the five years the competition has held?

The impact of ABH over the past five years is profound and multifaceted. To date, nearly 100,000 entrepreneurs have participated in the ABH Prize Competition. Through the competition, recipients have been awarded $7 million in prize money. Our grant has translated into tangible results, with over 123,000 direct and indirect jobs created by our finalists, demonstrating ABH’s role in addressing unemployment and promoting economic prosperity across Africa. Our support has also facilitated business growth with several of our Heroes using the grant to expand their businesses to new countries and to expand their service/product lines.

Moreover, ABH has been instrumental in promoting women entrepreneurship. Female participants comprise 30 percent of the applicant pool and have been awarded 47 percent of the prize money to date with several of our grand prize winners being female.

Beyond these achievements, ABH has nurtured a vibrant community of African entrepreneurs through initiatives like ‘local hubs,’ fostering collaboration, knowledge-sharing and collective growth. By offering networking and resources, ABH drives economic impact and nurtures a supportive ecosystem for entrepreneurial success.

Through publicity and spotlighting our Heroes’ success stories, ABH also inspires aspiring entrepreneurs across Africa, fulfilling our mission to empower the continent’s entrepreneurial landscape. So, looking back on the past five years, our impact signifies a hopeful trajectory towards a more inclusive, innovative and prosperous Africa.

What is the central focus of the information sessions organised recently in cities across Africa?

What sets us apart here at ABH is our commitment to creating a dynamic platform for engagement and empowerment among entrepreneurs continent-wide. The implementation of our info-sessions across cities like Lagos, Nigeria; Cape Town, South Africa; Accra, Ghana; Nairobi, Kenya; Lusaka, Zambia, Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Cairo, Egypt among others lies at the heart of this outreach strategy.

We have held these sessions in collaboration with local entrepreneur organisations and ABH community members. These events have offered pivotal opportunities for attendees to glean insights, network and streamline their path towards entrepreneurial success, while also learning about the ABH initiative. With former ABH finalists, partners and representatives as speakers, attendees had the opportunity to learn from successful entrepreneurs and discover strategies for business growth. The recent session in Ikoyi, Lagos, held on April 18, 2024, showcased significant turnout. Attendees received guidance on navigating the ABH Prize Competition application process and formulating strategies for enhancing their chance of success in and beyond the competition.

What are ABH judges looking for in successful applications?

At ABH, we are all about championing African entrepreneurs who are making a difference and driving inclusive economies across the continent. We strive to make our selection process inclusive and diverse, giving entrepreneurs from all 54 African countries a fair shot, regardless of age, industry or gender.

To maintain fairness and transparency, we have established strict criteria that applicants must meet. They include: The company must be legally registered with a government-issued business license; the business must demonstrate a revenue history spanning three years; showcasing its sustainability and growth trajectory and the applicants must be African nationals or of African descent, either founders or co-founders, emphasizing our commitment to entrepreneurs deeply connected to Africa.

Our judges focus on several key aspects. Firstly, they look for entrepreneurs who not only excel in business but also exhibit inspiring leadership and a clear vision aligned with ABH. Secondly, they assess whether the business effectively addresses a significant problem or need, offering a standout solution. Thirdly, they examine market traction, seeking evidence of real customers and proven demand. They also prioritize sustainable, scalable revenue models for financial sustainability. Strong teamwork is crucial, so they will usually evaluate the roles, strengths and collaboration within the team. Lastly, our judges consider external feedback, using references and customer testimonials to gauge the applicant’s character and impact.

What factors contribute to Nigerians’ consistent success in the competition, and what lessons can be drawn from their achievements?

Nigerian entrepreneurs’ consistent success in the ABH program can be attributed to the country’s dynamic and thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, characterised by a culture of innovation, resilience and ambition that nurtures visionary leaders.

Since 2019, Nigeria has held the distinction of having the highest number of beneficiaries in the ABH program, with nine out of fifty finalists ranking among the top 10 winners from 2019 to 2023. To date, these remarkable individuals have secured over US$1,345,000 (equivalent to over 2.1 billion Nigerian Naira) in grants through ABH, reflecting the innovation and drive of Nigeria’s business community.

Their success serves as inspiration and validation for aspiring entrepreneurs across the country and sets an example for how ABH enables the scaling of ventures, implementation of cutting-edge technologies and forging of strategic partnerships. Notable beneficiaries include: Dr. Ikpeme Neto, CEO and founder of Wellahealth Technologies (ABH 2023 1st prize winner), who won US$300,000; Ikenna Nzewi, co-founder and CEO of Releaf Marketplace Nigeria (ABH 2021 2nd prize winner), who won US$250,000; Chidi Nwaogu, co-founder and CEO of Publiseer (ABH 2021 top 10 finalist), who won US$100,000; Oghenetega Iortim, founder of Gricd (ABH 2021 top 10 finalist), who won $100,000; Oluwasoga Oni, CEO & co-founder of Mdaas Global (ABH 2020 2nd prize winner), who won US$250,000 and Temie Giwa-Tubosun, founder and CEO of LifeBank (ABH 2019 1st prize winner), who won US$250,000.

Others are: Ayodeji Arikawe, co-founder of Thrive Agric (ABH 2019 top 10 finalist), who won US$55,000; Chibuzo Opara, co-founder of DrugStoc (ABH 2019 top 10 finalist), who won US$55,000 and Tosan Joseph M, founder of Black Swan Tech Ltd (ABH 2019 top 10 finalist), who won US$55,000.

Through continued collaboration and support, we are excited to further harness and amplify the potential of Nigerian entrepreneurs in the years to come.

Do you think Nigerian entrepreneurs are going to do well in the 2024 edition?

If the performances of Nigerian entrepreneurs in previous years are any indication, we are very likely to see strong Nigerian entrepreneurs among our finalists. Nonetheless, across Africa there is a wealth of innovative talent waiting to be discovered and so it will be competitive, and the ABH 2024 edition is poised to showcase this diversity.

With five successful editions, what is going to make the 2024 edition unique?

In addition to the information session we have hosted across Africa, we have also introduced online “Office Hours” held weekly to provide personalized assistance via video calls to aid applicants in completing their submissions effectively.

We are also hosting a series of online webinars to enhance applicant preparation, delving into critical aspects of the application process and offering expert guidance on effective business presentations. These sessions aim to not only improve competition performance but also equip entrepreneurs with skills for real-world stakeholder engagements.

In addition to these new initiatives, this year’s Semi-Finale competition will be held in a new and soon to be announced location. Building on the success of the 2023 grand finale where we brought Africa’s largest augmented reality stage to Rwanda, we will also host an even larger and more dynamic finale.

Rwanda certainly served as a commendable host. How has the country benefited from hosting the ABH 2023?

Organising the 2023 ABH Finale & Summit in Rwanda was an acknowledgment of the country’s vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem and state-of-the art event facilities and services. I believe the event has further bolstered Rwanda’s reputation as an innovation hub in Africa and contributed to the growth and development of its startup sector. We also directly employed and upskilled hundreds of Rwandans, invested in cutting-edge technology and attracted a diverse audience with nationals from over 40 countries. Our strong post-event marketing also put a positive spotlight on Rwanda.

Could you provide an overview of the application entries received thus far for the 2024 ABH, including details on the procedures and the current stage of the competition?

Thus far, we have witnessed a diverse range of innovative ideas and entrepreneurial ventures pouring in from across the continent, with all 54 African countries currently represented. This represents a significant milestone and ongoing validation of ABH’s influence and impact across the continent. Even so, we have extended the application deadline to June 9, 2024 to accommodate more applicants who may have started late or are only becoming aware of the opportunity now. This extension aims to ensure that no aspiring entrepreneur is left behind.

As for the procedures, applicants go through a rigorous evaluation process, including thorough assessments of their business proposals, scalability and potential impact. The competition is poised to enter its next phase, where selected candidates will advance to receive invaluable resources such as training, mentorship and networking opportunities.