Opinion | African Entrepreneurs Will Drive the Next Digital Revolution
A Somali girl attends a class at a makeshift school at the Badbaado camp for internally displaced persons in Mogadishu, Somalia. Since 2017, university students have volunteered to teach about 600 girls and boys under 16 at camps in Mogadishu. Credit… Mohamed Abdiwahab/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Turning Point: In October, Rwanda announced the release of the Mara Phone, the first smartphone made entirely in Africa.
The first time I set foot in Africa was in 2017. I was visiting Kenya and Rwanda in my roles as special adviser to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and as an advocate for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, promoting entrepreneurship as a path to economic growth.
I had read quite a bit about Africa and thought I had a sense of what I would encounter. Mostly, I expected to be out of my comfort zone — to feel a sense of being in a foreign place very unlike what I was used to.
To my great surprise, I could not have felt more at home.
Whenever I travel, meeting young people and entrepreneurs is my priority. Speaking with groups of African entrepreneurs, and hearing their stories and dreams, I saw myself 20 years ago, when I was just starting Alibaba.
In much of Africa today, I’ve found that entrepreneurship is not the exalted career path it is in the United States or even increasingly in China. The prudent thing for most Africans to do is to get a stable, salaried job in the banking, energy or mining sectors. Entrepreneurship is for the hustlers — those who can’t hold down a traditional job and have to get creative and scrappy to make a living.
And yet I believe that Africa’s future will be built by its entrepreneurs — by the hungry dreamers who view problems as opportunities. Looking into the eyes of the young people I met in 2017, I saw the future heroes of Africa. And I vowed that I would do my part to help them achieve their goals.
Africa is poised for radical change. The world is experiencing a digital revolution, which I believe has the potential to be not only the most transformative but also the most inclusive technological revolution we have ever seen. Today, anyone with a smartphone can get a loan and start a business. Mobile technology and the internet have put access to countless products and services in the palm of every person’s hand. The digital revolution has the potential to drive tremendous — and inclusive — economic prosperity for Africa. But we need digital entrepreneurs to create the companies that can make all this possible.
Skeptics might point to Africa’s infrastructure and say the continent isn’t ready for the digital era. In fact, Africa is perfectly positioned. Strong infrastructure is actually detrimental in this new world. When the current system works too well, there is resistance to change and too much legacy to overcome.
Fortunately, this wasn’t a problem in China when I founded Alibaba in 1999. We had a large population with low per capita income, and poor infrastructure in retail, logistics and banking. But in just two decades, China has gone from 8.8 million internet users to 850 million. Per capita income has risen from $800 to $9,000, and e-commerce sales have reached $1 trillion. The Alibaba ecosystem alone is responsible for creating more than 40 million jobs in China. Last year, revenue from e-commerce in China’s rural areas exceeded $97 billion, generating nearly seven million new job opportunities.
I believe Africa can do even better. Its lack of infrastructure is an advantage, just as it was in China. But the continent also has other ingredients for success. It has 1.3 billion people, 40 percent of whom are under the age of 16. Six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa. And smartphone adoption rates are growing rapidly.
For Africa to prosper, I believe it must adopt what I’m calling the four E’s. The first E stands for entrepreneurs. We need to support Africa’s existing business owners and inspire the next generation. Let’s show young Africans what entrepreneurs can do to transform society. I’m not talking about celebrating billionaires or big initial public offerings. I’m talking about start-ups that drive inclusive growth and solve social problems.
That’s why my foundation recently started the Africa Netpreneur Prize. For the inaugural competition this year, we conducted a continentwide search with our regional partners for the most impressive entrepreneurs in Africa. More than 10,000 applied, and the top 10 could pitch me and a group of judges during a televised event for a chance to win a monetary prize, as well as mentorship and training opportunities.
The top three winners, Temie Giwa-Tubosun, Christelle Kwizera and Dr. Omar Sakr, are among the world’s most promising innovators. Yes, we wanted to reward and support Africa’s fantastic entrepreneurs. But more important, we wanted them to become an inspiration for others.
The next two E’s — e-governments and education — are necessary to support entrepreneurs in that mission. Africa needs technically savvy governments to create the conditions necessary for a digital economy to grow. And Africa’s entrepreneurs need access to training and an education system built for the digital era.
I want to do my part as well. Which is why, in partnership with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Alibaba Business School created an e-commerce training program — the eFounders Fellowship — to provide young African entrepreneurs with the skills necessary to develop thriving e-businesses. Alibaba launched a similar training program for government officials and policymakers, to help them navigate a changing technology landscape. Alibaba Business School also took its Train the Trainers program to Rwanda last year, collaborating with the government to prepare educators to teach the next generation of Rwandan entrepreneurs. There are plans to take the program to other African countries in the future.
The final E, e-infrastructure, underpins all the others. Africa needs world-class internet services on which a new digital economy — data analytics, logistics and payments — can be built.
Since my first visit to Africa two years ago, I’ve jumped at every opportunity to explore more of this awe-inspiring continent and meet more of its entrepreneurs. It’s my goal to visit every country. Each time I go, I come away more convinced that Africa’s entrepreneurs will write the future of the continent.
The best way to help them is to support their growth and give them the tools I wish I had when I started my own entrepreneurial adventure. As my experience in China taught me, no entrepreneur can go it alone: There are important roles to play for government, educators, venture capitalists, industry associations and start-up incubators. If we all work together to support entrepreneurs, then Africa will become a hub of innovation and growth, the global leader we know it can be.
Originally published at https://www.nytimes.com on December 5, 2019.