[INTERVIEW] The Rise of Global African Entrepreneurs.
I have been watching a growing shift over many years in global business networks, which suggests a new regime is getting ready to exercise its power and influence in Africa and the globe in a visible and coordinated way. The new regime will change the very fabric of business, society, and politics. The networks of Global African entrepreneurs are about to emerge (if they haven’t already) as a core system for change and development in Africa.
Who are Global African entrepreneurs exactly? They are young Africans, who have formed strong identities unique to them but blended with their African heritage and global exposure and experience. They are a subset of the Global-African Youth consumer I described in “The Rise of the Global-African Youth Consumer.”
In particular, they see themselves as creators and architects of the future of Africa along all facets. While the term, “entrepreneur,” is most often associated with for-profit ventures, an entrepreneur is anyone who creates.
An example of Global African entrepreneurs in the political landscape was the Arab Spring, led by youth seeking a voice in their futures and forcing change. I noted in “Redefining Business in the New Africa” early this year that this movement was also representative of a new paradigm in governance in which informal networks would gain more influence over governance at all levels of society in Africa. However, this is not just an African paradigm, but a global paradigm. Thought leaders who participated in surveys for the “Outlook on the Global Agenda 2012” by the World Economic Forum recently concluded this as a major global issue, or influence.
This is the context in which Global African entrepreneurs are rapidly gaining prominence, power, and influence. While there were Global African entrepreneurs like Wael Ghonim in the Arab Spring, this movement represented a spontaneous emergence. The group of Global African entrepreneurs, however, is more strategic and organized as a whole.
In the paper, “The ‘New’ Generation of African Entrepreneurs,” Barbara McDade and Anita Spring of the University of Florida describe the group, for which I have coined the name “Global African entrepreneurs,” as “business globalists who organized a system of business enterprise networks consisting of national, regional, and Pan-African organizations.” They describe Global African entrepreneurs in more detail by saying:
Some defining characteristics of these entrepreneurs are interactive social and business relationships, use of modern management methods and information technology, trust among fellow members, transparent business practices, advocacy on behalf of the private sector, and commitment to increasing intra-African commerce. Their mission is to improve the climate for private sector business in Africa and to promote regional economic integration. They pursue cross-national commercial ventures, maintain official observer status at established regional economic organizations, sign memoranda of understanding with multilateral agencies, establish venture capital funds, and help to change government policies.
The entrepreneurs who participated in the McDade and Spring study were members of the Enterprise Network, a pan-African organization with regional organizations like the Southern Africa Enterprise Network (SAEN). In the study, network members demonstrated a marked difference in mindset towards Africa compared to traditional African entrepreneurs:
Compared to network members, other African entrepreneurs interviewed seem to be just as hard-working and committed to success, but they express more pessimism (or certainly less optimism). They anguish over business constraints such as the poverty in their countries, poor infrastructure, political and/or regulatory instability, inadequately trained work-force, effects of HIV/AIDS on employees, and corruption, among other things. They say that they feel powerless to change these conditions. Network members, by contrast, express an attitude of empowerment and confidence in their ability to help to improve these conditions. They do not discount the problems they face. Rather, they have challenged and changed these conditions.
Network members have a global business outlook while maintaining an inward focus that interprets Africa’s economic crises (of the past) not as hopeless, but as fertile ground for business opportunities. They view the role of business on a broad scale: the ability to address the unmet demands for goods and services throughout the continent.
I was recently speaking with an African professor who was amazed at how his younger brother had gone to school, worked, and started companies successfully in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Canada, and now Ghana. He noted that his brother was at ease in many cultures and able to navigate business even with large institutions. In essence, this young man is confident, and competent, and able to create his own path successfully.
McDade and Spring point out that Global African entrepreneurs, as a group, are virtually invisible to academics, which I believe is also the case with many other spheres of society. However, there are many examples now of successful individual Global African entrepreneurs – Eleni Gabri –Madhin of the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange, Ashifi Gogo of Sproxil, Ory Okolloh of Ushahidi, and Funke Opeke of MainOne Cable. In fact, Global African entrepreneurs are no longer the exception to the rule in business circles but are part of the “new” rule.
While this group might be invisible to many elements of society, it is by no means insignificant – quite the opposite in fact. Global African entrepreneurs belong to many different, influential networks like the Frontier 1000 of the Initiative for Global Development, World Economic Forum, and Desmond Tutu Fellows. In addition to leading disruptive companies, some have strategic positions in international organizations like the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the International Finance Corporation. Many of them possess significant networks through their alma maters like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, and Yale. Many have worked for global consulting firms, such as Deloitte & Touche, PriceWaterhouseCooper (PwC), Accenture, KPMG, and Ernst & Young, and multinational companies.
But there is more to Global African entrepreneurs than just being a socioeconomic or general business group. They are a movement. They advocate, work together, strategize, and organize while leveraging their strengths and networks. They expect to affect change.
In a not so obvious way, they are changing the rules of development in Africa. They are influencing how both business and government drive private sector growth on the continent and helping to demonstrate the potential of trade and business over aid and charity to develop the continent in the long term.
Indeed, it could be that they are one of the influences that is changing mindsets of people, who traditionally give to non-profits for a good cause, to invest in market-based development solutions thereby shifting the huge aid and charity dollars given each year to Africa to capital, or investment. If so, funds for non-profits without sustainable economic and impact models will dry up and instantly alter the domination of aid and charity in Africa to trade, business, and investment which is already well underway. In any case, this push to business, trade, and investment is already having a serious impact on non-profit portfolios (it’s not just the economic crisis) even though many will not admit to it.
In terms of the business environment, Global African entrepreneurs represent the future. They are suited for the relationship-orientation (versus transaction-orientation) business models that will dominate the “new” economy.
In “Emerging Paradigms in International Entrepreneurship,” Leo-Paul Dana, Hamid Etemad, and Richard Wright indicate that small firms today are finding more success with interdependence and relationships. Firms are giving up independence to “share power and control and cooperate voluntarily to maximize efficiency and profits.”
This is the changing landscape in a multi-polar world. Dana, Etemad, and Wright provide some characteristics of the multipolar network economy (a transformation of the ancient bazaar economy):
Focuses on relationship marketing
Prices are negotiated
Former competitors cooperate for mutual gain
Decision-making influenced by relationships with members of network
Brand loyalty is influenced by preferential treatment (based on relationships)
Power and control is decentralized
While many others are still operating in old paradigms, Global African entrepreneurs are already adept at what is called “symbiotic management.” Symbiotic management is “a collaborative effort by multiple parties, each of which benefits from the joint effort, such that added value is created,” according to Dana, Etemad, and Wright.
For businesses and investors looking for good strategic partners that can connect them to both Africa and the global marketplace, Global African entrepreneurs fit the bill. At the very least, they can share successful ways to navigate business opportunities in Africa.
Featured image is Funke Opeke, CEO of MainOne. Picture provided by Initiative for Global Development.
By Lauri Elliott.
This article was originally posted on Sustainable Development Africa Platform