Africa

How Jack Ma sees a thriving future of entrepreneurship in Africa

Jihan Abass, founder and CEO of Griffin Insurance prepares with her colleagues a release of their flagship digital-only car insurance company, in Nairobi, Kenya January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Jackson Njehia - RC2GME95MA77

Image: REUTERS/Jackson Njehia

James da Costa
Co-Founder, Mandala Group
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Africa

  • With a growing youth population, Africa is at the forefront of the digital economy.
  • Jack Ma created the Africa Netpreneur Prize and the Alibaba eFounders initiative to identify and support 100 African entrepreneurs.

And currently, the continent is home to six out of the ten of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

This size and pace of growth is unprecedented and will bring with it equally unique challenges and opportunities for Africa. While there will be an even greater strain on already limited resources, there will also be an immense supply of potentially entrepreneurial youth to help solve problems facing the continent.

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In Africa, a lack of formal infrastructure means a smartphone is often the best gateway to access everyday services or finance or start a business. This has forced the continent to be innovative in order to survive – and in fact has propelled the continent to the forefront of the new digital economy, leapfrogging over the rest of world with solutions such as MPESA and Andela. Today, Africa has 16% of the world's population and just 2% of the world's doctors, yet this under supply has created a market for new health tech companies aiming to plug the gap, from Silicon Valley (Zipline) to Rwanda (Babyl).

Alibaba’s efforts to double down on Africa and its youth is another strong response to the continent’s promising prospects. This is why the Jack Ma Foundation created the Africa Netpreneur Prize and the Alibaba eFounders initiative. Over the next ten years, the Foundation will identify and support 100 African entrepreneurs with mentorship, training, and a total of $10 million in investment.

Alibaba isn’t the only company waking up to the opportunities in Africa. Google recently opened a new AI lab in Ghana and in 2019, Microsoft launched its Africa Development Centre (ADC) in Kenya and Nigeria.

Africa is the youngest continent in the world (2017)
Africa is the youngest continent in the world – and its youth population is growing. Image: The Atlas/UN

The eFounders

The eFounders programme was created in 2017 by Ma in partnership with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UCTAD). The aim is to nurture talent, with the goal of empowering 1,000 entrepreneurs from developing countries in five years – with at least half from Africa.

According to Ma, the next wave of major startups will come in the form of platform businesses out of Africa in sectors including e-commerce, logistics, fintech, big data and tourism. There is already strong evidence to suggest Ma is again on the money. Jumia, Africa’s answer to Amazon, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2019, and just last October, Rwanda released the first smartphone, the Mara Phone, produced entirely in Africa and from African parts.

Ma made an early connection between the challenges and opportunities he once witnessed in China, when Alibaba was just getting started, to the current challenges in Africa. Alibaba Vice President and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader Brian Wong explains “what we’ve proven in China is that e-commerce is accessible even to people in rural areas…About 6.8m jobs have been created. That’s significant.”

Ma says of the eFounders programme, “Together with UNCTAD, we want to empower Africa's young entrepreneurs to not only succeed in their own ventures, but to return home and demonstrate to others how to build inclusive business models for the digital era.”

The initiative supports African eFounders to travel to Hangzhou to participate in a 101-level crash course in platform business building. The eFounders gain invaluable exposure to the cutting edge of Alibaba’s technology stack and business model innovations, as well as challenging the notion that Silicon Valley is the only place to learn entrepreneurship.

To date, 119 entrepreneurs from 18 African countries have participated in Alibaba’s eFounder Fellowship program. These include:

  • Jessica Anuna, Founder and CEO of Klasha (Nigeria), a shopping platform for millennials in Africa with fast shipping and payments for stylish and affordable items in local currencies. She was named one of Forbes’ 20 “New Wealth Creators on the African Continent.”
  • Francis Nkurunungi, Cofounder and COO of Xente Tech (Uganda), an e-commerce platform and a financial products provider for African consumers and businesses.
  • Mesh Alloys, Founder of Sendy (Kenya), an app linking delivery drivers with customers. Sendy just raised an additional $2 million in 2019 for international expansion.

The eFounders programme has also had strong success in Asia with official backing from the government of Malaysia. One eFounder start-up was already acquired by Jio, India’s largest telecom.

Netpreneur Prize

In tandem with the eFounder programme, the Ma Foundation launched the Netpreneur Prize, an annual $1 million prize to search for the most impressive African founders. In its first year, it had 10,000 applicants from all corners of the continent, with an notable network of ecosystem partners such as Kenyan startup incubator NaiLab. The eventual winner was LifeBank, a medical distribution company helping health workers find and obtain critical medical products using data and technology. The company estimates they have already saved over 5,300 lives in Nigeria.

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Takeaways for other leading organisations

Jack Ma’s significant interest and commitment in Africa highlights the scale of potential the content holds in tapping into youth and entrepreneurship to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) over the next decade.

Other organizations wishing to follow in the footsteps of the Ma Foundation should consider three key lessons:

  • China provides a useful framework for Africa for going from zero to one rapidly, and for using e-commerce as a model for development. This is due to having experienced similar issues, primarily with infrastructure challenges in rural areas and with needing to support a massive population.
  • Creating immersive and supportive experiences is essential to empowering the next wave of youth entrepreneurs. By bringing global eFounders to Hangzhou, Alibaba provides the opportunity for entrepreneurs to design and take away their own lessons – empowering the entrepreneurs to decide for themselves what will be useful in their unique contexts
  • Prizes and fellowships provide a strong framework for corporates to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
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Related topics:
AfricaEntrepreneurshipSustainable Development
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