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Book Review: Africa’s young entrepreneurs defy the odds

Book Review: Africa’s young entrepreneurs defy the odds

Sangu Delle’s book tells the story of individuals who are taking charge of their destinies and succeeding on their own terms. Review by Stephen Williams.

While the economic opportunities afforded by a growing Africa are multiplying, young entrepreneurs are too often greeted by formidable barriers to success.

From a banking sector sceptical towards young and unproven enterprises to infrastructure shortfalls and heavy-handed government regulation, the best instincts of the continent’s exciting young tech leaders are often stymied by a turgid business environment, as a cursory reading of the low rankings of African economies in the World Bank’s annual Doing Business report shows.

2014 research from the Center for Global Development found that businesses in sub-Saharan Africa are, on average, up to 24% smaller than comparable businesses in other parts of the world, as well as far less productive and competitive. When small firms in Africa do manage to grow into larger enterprises, they do not see expected gains in productivity and rarely grow to the size of their international competitors.

Yet where there is economic growth there is hope, and Making Futures: Young Entrepreneurs in a Dynamic Africa, from healthcare entrepreneur Sangu Delle, tells the stories of 18 young entrepreneurs from across the continent who are facing down challenges, taking charge of their destinies and succeeding on their own terms.

The author, who has been named a TED fellow, a Tutu fellow and one of Forbes’ 30 Most Promising Entrepreneurs in Africa, is well placed to explore the motivations, frustrations and aspirations of his youthful peers in the digital space. His research is impressive, stretching to 45 African countries and interviews with over 600 entrepreneurs and business leaders. The book is organised into four parts: The Aspiring Moguls; The Sociopreneurs; The Creatives; and The Techies. 

The young entrepreneurs are active in a wide variety of fields, from healthcare, to energy, pharma, microfinance, film and TV, fashion, advertising and agribusiness. They include Eric Muthomi in Kenya, who has built a successful business creating multipurpose flour from waste bananas and Saran Kaban Jones in Liberia, who is working on innovative water solutions.

Impressive achievement

Perhaps most impressive is Farida Bedwei. Born in 1979 in Lagos and diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which affected her body and muscle movements, she proved to be a rapid learner. 

The family moved around the world with her father, a UN employee, before settling in Ghana, and Bedwei was home-schooled by her mother until the age of 12. Because her handwriting was not legible she learned to use a typewriter at an early age. Then, as computers became cheaper and more accessible, she moved on to using a basic device to do her course work and write letters.

“If it hadn’t been for my disability, I wouldn’t be in tech because I wouldn’t have had to use the computer,” she tells the author. Her interest was piqued, and she took the decision to leave high school and become one of the youngest students on a year-long computer course.

It was there that she discovered her passion for programming, and following graduation she decided to focus on a career in software development. After three years with developer Soft she left to study Java programming and web-enabled technology, later developing artificial intelligence-driven social recommendation algorithms at Rancard Solutions. Yet Bedwei had outstanding ideas of her own and was eager to find a business partner to make them a reality. 

Farida Bedwei, one of Delle’s protagonists.

In partnership with Derrick Dankyi, she formed G-Life Financial Services, adopting software that originated in Kenya to build a cloud-based banking solution named g-Kudi. Bedwei and Dankyi later co-founded Logiciel Ghana, which offers g-Kudi to microfinance firms to run their banking operations. It was the first such firm to offer cloud services in the microfinance sector, which is an important source of funding for citizens across the continent in the absence of formal banking networks. They adopted a subscription model where clients pay a lump sum for installation followed by monthly subscription payments. Around 250 microfinance institutions have bought the software. 

Sheer determination

Bedwei’s inspirational story of overcoming physical disability to create an exciting and viable business anchors this book of similarly awe-inspiring case studies. Delle deftly reveals the sheer determination of the continent’s young business leaders when faced with the kind of adversity which would derail entrepreneurs elsewhere.

“From an early age, my mother always told me to remove the words ‘I can’t’ from my vocabulary and replace them with ‘I’ll try’,” says Bedwei.

Indeed, the quality that links all Delle’s case studies is their tenacity. The challenges that the entrepreneurs faced in launching and growing their enterprises are daunting, but their determination to see their visions become reality, against all the odds, is extraordinary and even moving. The volume acts as a useful handbook to those considering launching their own enterprises on a continent that all too often prizes age and experience over youthful vigour.

Success is not assured

However, while the case studies offer compelling reasons for optimism, the challenges faced by the young act as a cautionary tale for policymakers of how bad government policy, low-growth environments, limited digital infrastructure and constrained funding can damage even the most exciting of business prospects.

While the percentage of people using the internet in Africa has increased dramatically from just 2.1% in 2005, it still reached only 24.4% in 2018, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Meanwhile, penetration levels of fixed broadband remain low at approximately 7% of households on the continent, while mobile broadband has demonstrated a notable decline in growth and a plateauing of the penetration rate, according to consultancy Africa Analysis.

If the continent is to fulfil its potential as a hub of youthful activity and entrepreneurship, these are figures which policymakers will need to focus on dramatically increasing.

As Delle writes: “[The entrepreneurs] present case studies of opportunity that should draw the attention of policymakers, government officials, scholars, investors and budding entrepreneurs.”

Without the urgent attention of the former, the success of Africa’s inspirational young entrepreneurs is by no means assured – even given their superhuman levels of endurance. If these inspiring case studies are to become more than a flash in the pan, policymakers must act now.

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