A Personal Perspective on Entrepreneurship and Intrapreneurship in Africa

The first time I heard of Africa was probably my mother saying “clean your plate, there are children starving in Ethiopia” … at the dinner time (when I wouldn’t eat my vegetables on numerous occasions). The infamous famine was over 30 years ago now (remember Bob Geldof and Live Aid).  I don’t remember us studying Africa in school but I suppose we did … and until recently; many of my personal perceptions of the continent were out-of-date – probably too similar to that of most insulated Americans, which were very different from today’s reality.

It turns out, that Africa is on the rise.  According to the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2020 Africa’s nominal GDP is expected to reach US $2.6 Trillion (eclipsing Canada $2.19 Trillion and close to India’s $2.9 Trillion). 54 cities in Africa (more than Europe) have over 1 million people each.  400 million Africans live in cities (India has 340M).  Smartphone users are expected to increase from 67 million to 360 million by 2025.

Growth prospects for Africa remain positive and the region’s GDP growth is projected to rise.  African households in the middle income group are projected to rise to 128 million in 10 years.  The continent has more than 500 million people of working age (15-64). By 2040, that number is projected to exceed 1.1 billion … or more than in China or India.

I met some remarkable people this week who happen to come from Africa.  About this time last year, I became aware of an organization called The Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) through my employer (IBM) … who sponsors this organization in part.  IBM is one of a handful of companies who are actively involved with YALI.  The United States’ commitment to Africa is long-standing and deep.  The United States has invested in development partnerships with Africans to foster sustained economic growth as well as improved quality of life issues.

Selected from roughly 50,000 applications, the class of 2015 YALI Mandela Washington Fellows represents the promise of an emerging generation of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.  Mandela Washington Fellows have proven track records of leadership and demonstrate a strong commitment to contributing their skills and talents to strengthening and serving their communities.

The current class of Fellows represents all 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and included equal numbers of men and women.  Many of them operate their own businesses.  Nearly all Fellows were the first in their families to visit the United States.  They are in the US for six plus jam-packed weeks of education and experiences.

I was asked to teach an all day course on entrepreneurship at the University of Notre Dame – one of the hosting campuses.

Even with a lifetime of both entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial experiences to draw upon, I was a little uncertain how to approach the class.  As I read the biographies of the Fellows, it was obvious that many in this group of people had a very different lifetime of experiences than I did.  I could only imagine the motivation they had to draw upon.  I was actually a little concerned that I might not be able to relate to them and the class might not go well.

Once the class started, all of these fears were washed away.  It turns out that the language of entrepreneurship is universal.  Defining a market, creating competitive differentiation or figuring out a SWOT Analysis is universal … regardless of where you come from, what you have done in your past or whether you eat your vegetables.

Hopefully the information I presented will help them succeed with their various endeavors.  I felt as if I connected with many of the students and in some cases, created relationships that will stand the test of time.  One student even gave me a personal momento he brought from his country. This small gesture touched me.

I am proud to be associated with YALI. The prospects for companies who choose to do business in Africa looks bright.  Most importantly, the future for this group of people is brightest of all.

As a side note … President Obama is scheduled to speak the upcoming 6th Global Entrepreneurship Summit being held in Nairobi.  President Obama elevated entrepreneurship to the forefront of the United States’ engagement agenda during a historic speech in Cairo in 2009. The GES has expanded each year, subsequently hosted by the governments of Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Morocco.  This is the 6th annual gathering of entrepreneurs at all stages of business development, business leaders, mentors, and high-level government officials.

Leave me your thoughts and comments.