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Africa’s Transformative Innovation and Entrepreneurship

In continuation of the Talent for Africa Virtual Forum, GBSN and Ecobank Academy welcomed three phenomenal panelists to discuss “Transformative innovation and Entrepreneurship” — certainly hot topics on the Continent right now!  As a reminder, the purpose is collaboration between sectors such non-profit, academic, and government as absolutely necessary to achieve Agenda 2063 and ultimately serve Africa’s wants and needs. Therefore, that space between these sectors holds immense potential for innovative solutions. GBSN’s Senior Advisor and former South African radio host, Rob Vember, welcomed Darius Teter, Executive Director of the Stanford Seed Program at the Stanford School of Business, Anna Ekeledo, Executive Director of AfriLabs, and Michael Moscherosch, Director of the Johnson and Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge.

Our rich conversation began with an overarching question from Rob to the panelists whether or not entrepreneurship in Africa is a nature or nurture situation. Can we create a skill set from scratch or must it happen naturally? What is more important: the skills or the mindset? With Anna’s psychology background, she responded that nurture is equipping the entrepreneur with the right skills and processes from the very beginning to the launch. However, practical experience suggests that natural drive and business acumen is critical. From his educational background, Darius agreed and emphasized that there is a reason why angel investors are attracted to the personality of the business owner: “Are you hungry, curious, bold, do you take risks? Those are the traits entrepreneurs need naturally.” Michael concluded this first question by noting that without nature, you have nothing at all. That spirit to innovate is what sparks the need for nurture and the respective tools and support system.

At this point, Rob reminded the audience that Africa has a plethora of entrepreneurs, but there is generally a lack of support system. This is due to a lot of entrepreneurs being born of necessity rather than innovation. Do we endeavor to separate innovators with potential from entrepreneurs out of necessity? From Anna’s perspective, they shouldn’t be divided. The saying “innovation is modern necessity” is summary enough. For example, necessity from the Covid-19 pandemic has determined a pivot in healthcare innovation and needs. “Some businesses scale from problems and some start from original ideas.”  

In agreement, Darius also stated how business schools in the past have only readied students for the corporate world. Stanford is now trying to be different by offering entrepreneurs the practical tools they need, whether it is  innovation or necessity. Michael then offered his opinion that Africa cannot afford to exclude any type of innovation. “Even if the idea is small or unconventional, the business man or woman may have the next great idea.”

It was followed by the question:, Hhow can we create an all-inclusive support structure? Is there a need to involve  multiple stakeholders to succeed?  

Michael sees  Africa moving in the right direction. Some governments have, indeed, figured out that innovation is a driver for the economy. Kigali in Rwanda, for instance, is working on creating an environment and matching infrastructure to foster these new ideas. In addition, we can’t forget about innovation hubs! Anna took her cue to provide examples of how AfriLabs is working with several investors to help their own entrepreneurs. One of their current projects matches potential funders at the Africa Business Angels Network with relative ideas and interests. Additionally,Darius reminded us about one of the central challenges to African entrepreneurship and that is the difference in political leadership in different countries. Some countries are far more easier to support new innovations, like Rwanda, while others offer a great many challenges.

Finally, Rob invited the panelists to share their thoughts on social entrepreneurship. Is this a motivating factor for modern day innovators? Anna shared that there are absolutely individuals who are looking to solve sustainable challenges and other social issues, but there are also those business people who are solely seeking profit. In his program at Johnson and Johnson, Michael responded that they are in fact looking for those ideas that provide meaningful and impactful solutions. In doing so, more quality people are chosen and what he has found is that the graduates of the program found more value in the mentorship and expertise than even the money that is offered upon completion. “Though we want the businesses to be financially stable, trust is also important,” says Michael, “we need to build long-lasting relationships.” Darius couldn’t agree more in that we need to break the double standard and additionally include the emphasis on business ethics. Pure networking and mentorship should foster this philosophy.

In their concluding remarks, Anna wanted to remind everyone that Africans share a multi stakeholder ecosystem of entrepreneurship and innovation, while Michael noted that investors are out there, but the teaching of grant writing and finding this funding is crucial. Darius added that academia is trying to break this cycle and provide these efficient and accurate learning tools.

The Talent for Africa Virtual Forum will continue with its third session on Wednesday, February 17th with a discussion on “The Future Workforce – Learning and Development in the 4th Industrial Revolution”. Please invite your friends, colleagues, and network. We look forward to seeing you there!