__The US-Africa Business Forum.
A few days ago, I had the honor of speaking at the 2nd US-Africa Business Forum, a gathering of CEOs from Africa and the USA, African heads of state and government, and top American government officials, including President Obama.
My panel, chaired by US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, was called: “High tech growth: How innovation and technology are driving African economic growth.”
“If there’s a lesson to be learned, it is this,” I said: “When young people have ideas, the first and most important thing is to listen to them, and to take them seriously.”
I shared a story many of you have heard before: Twenty-five years ago, I was like many young African entrepreneurs, with a great idea. To get it launched, we went around saying: “We can give people mobile phones!”
You have to bear in mind, at the time, 75% of the people in Africa had never even heard a telephone ring. (Today, 75% of us have a telephone, and sometimes more than one!) So it’s been a great revolution, but those of us who drove that revolution could have been spared a lot of anguish if our governments had been able to see that what we were trying to do was a good thing.
Great new innovation and entrepreneurship didn’t end with the introduction of mobile phones. And it doesn’t all have to come from the United States.
__If we’re proactive in supporting the rise of entrepreneurship, and foster the ecosystem of support that entrepreneurs need, even in Africa, we’ll see our own versions of Google and Facebook.
China, and now India, have begun to put in place similar support mechanisms for their young entrepreneurs, and the results have been quite spectacular. African countries where this is starting, like Kenya, are showing some interesting results already. We need more to do this!
In the panel discussion, I shared lessons learned from my business experiences, and also a few from your FB comments over the years:
# Listen to young people who come to you with what sound to be “crazy” ideas.
# Regulators must not seek to control but seek to encourage. In many African countries, the regulators are not playing a role that could foster the emergence of the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.
# The architecture of helping young entrepreneurs FUND their ideas is a problem… We have very few African countries able to do this in an institutional way.
Earlier on, during the Forum, I’d had a conversation with Dr Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, to say we need to do more to help young people get access to startup funding. It’s difficult for them worldwide, and acutely so in Africa. It’s even more difficult for women entrepreneurs.
When Dr Adesina was working at AGRA (on whose board I sat and now chair), we were part of a team that developed a program to help fund smallholder farmers in places like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania. We developed an innovative structure to eliminate the need for security when banks extend loans to young people and women. We discussed ways to expand such schemes to the new generation of entrepreneurs who have only ideas as their primary “assets.” I cannot say we’ve found a solution yet, but we’re talking!
Some good news we heard at the Forum is that two-thirds of sub-Saharan African economies are growing faster than the global average, and three African countries are among the world’s top 10 fastest growing economies! Do you know which ones they are?
One of the Forum co-sponsors, American businessman and philanthropist, Michael Bloomberg, spoke confidently of Africa’s “limitless opportunities!” I would say “Wow!” but we already know this, don’t we?
In closing, I’ll share just one important comment made by President Obama in his remarks:
“Business should begin with a handshake, not a shakedown.”
By now, most of you know that respect for the rule of law should be sacrosanct. Not just to build investor confidence, but to the whole sense of hope in society. I’ve said it before, and I want to say again – just say no to corruption. If you think something might be wrong to do, it probably is. Don’t risk it.
# Trusted partnerships
# Education and skills training
# Visionary government support mechanisms
# A reduction in red-tape
# Access to startup funding for young entrepreneurs…
All are keys to Africa’s future growth and prosperity. Much also depends on respect for the rule of law, and an institutional framework that protects everyone, equally and fairly – from bottom to top.
Together… yes, we can. And with vision and faith, we shall.
U.S. Commerce Secretary, Penny Pritzker; Founder and Chairman of Econet Wireless Group, Strive Masiyiwa; Chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical, Andrew Liveris; and Co-Founder and CEO of Andela, Jeremy Johnson.