African Entrepreneurs

DESCRIPTIONQuestion Box operators Lydia and Phiona.

The problems facing developing countries, in Africa and elsewhere, are overwhelming in their magnitude and complexity. From HIV/AIDS to widespread corruption and poverty, obstacles to economic development are occupying some of the world’s brightest minds. The three individuals profiled below are tackling Africa’s most trenchant problems in vastly different ways but with a common goal: to create a new development paradigm for the continent.

The Entrepreneur

Few development experts would deny that, at some point, developing countries need to transition away from a reliance on foreign aid toward an economy supported by a sustainable business sector. People start to disagree, however, on how to make that happen.

Magatte Wade, a Senegalese entrepreneur and founder of beverage company Adina for Life, has jumped into the debate with a focused vision for Africa’s future. Disdainful of foreign aid, skeptical of the viability of the technology industry in Africa in the near term, and placing no faith in the ability of microfinance to transform lives on a large scale, Wade is focused on good, old-fashioned manufacturing with a pro-environment, pro-human-rights twist.

Born in Senegal and educated in France, Wade decamped to the United States after school and ended up in Silicon Valley, the ultimate destination for the motivated entrepreneur. On a 2003 trip home, she was disappointed to find that the traditional hibiscus drink of her childhood had been usurped by Western soft drinks. Determined to “criticize by creating,” Wade returned home, lined up a prestigious mentor and co-founder, Odwalla founder Greg Steltenpohl, and set to work.

The company she founded, Adina for Life, relied on hibiscus from women’s co-ops in Senegal for the company’s first beverage products. Six years later, Adina for Life sells its beverages in Whole Foods and other stores around the country. Those hibiscus-growing co-ops in Senegal now take orders years in advance.

Wade acknowledges that African manufacturers will be unable to compete with countries like China and India on cost, but she believes the continent can transform itself into the producer of the world’s high-end, organic, socially responsible brands. In a recent op-ed for The Huffington Post, Wade described her target market as the, “cultural creative demographic in the U.S.”

Wade, meanwhile, is founding a new company, a lifestyle brand which will premiere with a line of fashion accessories and personal care products. She wants the company to grow into Africa’s first truly global brand and serve as an example to both the West and other African entrepreneurs.

The company is just one part of Wade’s “comprehensive plan for Africa,” an anti-aid alternative to the Jeffrey Sachs vision. Her plan centers around advocating for business-friendly legal systems, mentoring and encouraging young entrepreneurs, and spreading her vision for green manufacturing. “If we’re going to be building factories, let’s not build ones that are going to be harmful to the environment,” she says. “If we have to use wood, let’s use bamboo because it’s more sustainable. If we’re going to be cutting trees, let’s plant new ones in their place.”

One thing that definitely doesn’t figure into her plan is foreign aid. She believes Africans can do it on their own. “At the end of the day, we’re not going to build anything on aid,” she says fiercely. “Aid has never built anything.”

The Venture Capitalist

DESCRIPTIONJon Gosier

When Jon Gosier told me that his roots lay in the music industry, I had to laugh. It’s an unlikely background for the founder of a technology incubator based in Kampala, Uganda.

Yet Gosier says that his transition from the music industry to the tech industry was a long time coming. He worked for Tyler Perry, the Atlanta-based mogul whose plays, musicals, films, and television shows targeted at African-Americans have launched him onto Forbes‘s list of the 15 highest-paid men in Hollywood. While Gosier’s colleagues were struggling to protect the industry from tech upstarts like Napster, he was cultivating a secret passion for innovative technology.

Eventually, he says, he sided with the enemy and decided to leave the industry.

When Gosier’s girlfriend was offered a job in Kampala, he left the U.S. with her, eager for a change. His early efforts to educate himself about the tech industry in Uganda revealed a striking trend. While Kampala’s Makerere University produces 900 computer science graduates every year, only 5 to 10 perecent of them manage to find jobs in the field. The young people Gosier spoke to told him that lack of capital and support hindered the development of a tech industry in the country.

Gosier devised a bold plan to address the gap. Using his personal savings as startup capital, he launched a sort of technology incubator called Appfrica Labs, which provides budding entrepreneurs with investment capital, a stable salary, a structured workplace, and the kind of training and mentorship that western entrepreneurs take for granted. Gosier hopes the innovators currently sitting down the hall from him will all have departed within a year to run their own tech startups. Less than six months into the venture, Gosier secured his first round of funding from a venture capital firm seeking exposure to Africa.

Appfrica’s Kampala office is a little outside the clattering, clanging city center within a quiet walled compound. When I visited in June, Appfrica’s engineers — universally young and Ugandan — were hard at work on a number of projects.

At the front of the room, two phone operators busily answered ringing phones for QuestionBox, a pilot project with The Grameen Foundation. The service acts as a Google for rural Africans, providing information to those without Internet access. People can call in with questions or relay them to the staffers QuestionBox dispatches to rural villages.

Each operator currently handles 100 to 200 questions per day. I watched the operators answer the phones, jot notes while listening, and politely respond, “Unfortunately I don’t have an answer for you right now but let me call you back within 15 minutes.”

Across the room, Felix Kitaka, a 19-year-old Kampala native, was working on status.ug, an application which allows Ugandans to interact with social networks (i.e. Facebook) by mobile phone, a real boon in connectivity-challenged East Africa. The application has already attracted the interest of UNICEF, who hopes to use it to involve youth in its programs. Kitaka recently secured Series A venture capital funding, a promising start to Gosier’s venture.

Elsewhere in the room, engineers worked on a volunteer software translation project, Appfrica’s blog, a texting service which notifies users when their power has gone off, and a database of African tech companies.

The engineers of Appfrica all commented on the low expectations which have discouraged Ugandan tech entrepreneurs in the past. Jerry Opolot, an engineer who has been at the company for only a few months, told me, “Clients in Uganda don’t trust Ugandan companies.”

When I asked Gosier about the prejudices Appfrica faces, he agreed that most local companies use foreign-owned tech companies for their needs, but he believes that Appfrica can change the status quo. “Once a company does it well, it will change.”

Appfrica is young, but Gosier isn’t the only one who believes in its future. In addition to The Grameen Foundation, Appfrica has been contracted by a Ugandan shipping company, an African investor network, and a news portal developed by a New York Times reporter, among others.

The HIV Warrior

The walls of the bedraggled, recently-flooded headquarters of Meeting Point in Kitgum Province, Northern Uganda, are adorned with the kinds of posters you see in the offices of social workers and high-school guidance counselors, but with a distinct twist. One poster shows a handsome, dashing man on a motorbike with his wife or girlfriend and reads, “Responsible men go together with their partners for HIV tests.” Another encourages HIV patients to use bed nets and take their antiretroviral (ARV) drug regimens.

DESCRIPTIONKetty Opoka at Meeting Point.

In 1990, when Meeting Point was founded as Kitgum’s first HIV/AIDS organization, there were no such posters. The disease was still poorly understood and carried a heavy stigma. Many of Meeting Point’s early clients were either dumped on members’ doorsteps by frightened families or found through whispered rumors. Meeting Point would admonish family members: “This is still your daughter — your daughter that you have lived with.”

Ketty Opoka, who co-founded and now runs Meeting Point, was a teacher and mother of six when HIV/AIDS began claiming families in Uganda. She spent the early years of the epidemic taking patients into her home and adopting the disease’s orphans.

Meeting Point was established primarily as a hospice organization. Posters on the wall list the organization’s most important statistics — clients enrolled, clients deceased, and clients alive. In 1990, Meeting Point had 4 male and 12 female clients, all of whom died.

The numbers in recent years are much rosier and reflect both the organization’s evolving mission and the vast improvements in HIV/AIDS treatments. Meeting Point now works on ARV regime compliance, runs community dialogues and classes on prevention, distributes HIV/AIDS health kits, and provides funding to the family members of HIV orphans, allowing children to stay with relatives without sapping scarce resources.

The organization’s philosophy has also evolved along with science. “In the past, if you had HIV/AIDS, you thought you had to die,” Opoka told me. “Now you can help other people. It’s gone from a philosophy of ‘give me; help me’ to helping others.” Former clients now provide counseling to new patients on their ARV regimes, encouraging people to stick out the difficult early phase.

When floods struck Meeting Point’s headquarters in 2007, the organization’s new philosophy, as well as its home-grown community roots, was on full display. Told that it needed to move to higher ground or risk further flooding, Meeting Point secured a plot of land from the local Catholic Church. Opoka asked her clients to help clear the land.

So many volunteers showed up that Meeting Point’s staff had to implement a rotating shift schedule for the land clearing. The local hospital’s doctors told Opoka that while the land was being cleared, Meeting Point clients showed up early for their ARV regimes, toting hoes and shovels and begging doctors to wait on them first so they could head to Meeting Point for their shifts.

Opoka showed me the site for the new building. It’s better-positioned, right in the middle of Kitgum and within sight of the church. Meeting Point is still searching for the funds for the project but, in a hopeful gesture, the foundation has been laid. As she explained the role her clients and the community will play in the construction process, Opoka gestured toward the new foundation and reassured me, “It’s solid.”


Science Minded

great idea- start with education. Once they understand their rich past, they can move foreward with greater ease.

Once we in the west come off "our high horse" perhaps investing in Africa will seem like a good one long term.

kinshuk

amazing stories. hope all these ventures succeed. the fact that they themselves believe that Africa has to grow without aid, is itself a success. their success will spread this feeling over a broader base

vikram

Fascinating post!

A day when we will be Men
Awaits our embrace in this Dark Night

john

Investing in Africa is a great move.

Joe Smith

We've known for a long time what the preconditions are for economic development: (1) physical security (no one will accumulate capital if it will only result in their being murdered) (2) the rule of law (property rights are enforceable and corruption is at a minimum) (3) the right to trade more or less freely.

These pre-conditions of economic development have not changed in thousands of years.

Logan

I'm posting this as a challenge and opportunity for independent African Entrepreneurs.

My son is in Tanzania and Kenya now teaching jump rope to school children and young people. While his main focus is the sport of jump rope itself, he also hopes to collaborate in the design of jump ropes from sisal, a member of the agave plant family.

In pursuing this project, he wants to work with agricultural coops or microenterprise producers, rather than turning to large rope manufacturers.

Does anyone know of any agricultural college teachers or others who could direct him to people who would like to undertake such a design and manufacturing project? Please keep in mind that he doesn't want to set up a manufacturing facility--he only wants to help others with the design for the jump rope that they could then produce for children and young adults in East Africa.

My son will be in Tanzania and Kenya until August, 2010. He tentatively plans to teach in Uganda and other East African countries the following school year.

I should add that his focus is teaching jump rope, and he has a vast area to cover. Teaching jump rope will continue to be his main undertaking; but, hopefully, he can find time to pursue this jump rope design project as he goes.

You can read more about "One World One Rope" below:

http://www.oneworldonerope.org/

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Dai Hao

I think that all three of these profiles and some of the comments are indicative of the problems and not of solutions. All three profiles show individuals who are in some way dependent on the West. A French educated entrepreneur, a Ugandan who would probably be just as comfortable in Atlanta as Kampala, and an AIDS worker who is just as dependent on foreigners for support as anyone else.

The first post claims that the first step is that they need to understand "their rich past" and then it will be smooth sailing. Way to simplify a complex problem. I think much of the issues come down to us (the West) not understanding "their rich history." Much of it involved invasions and subjugation by guess who?

You want to help start a business in an African country? Why not ask someone who lives there what they need and what is stopping them? Then invest like you would in the US or UK.

One of the first steps to starting a business in much of the Continent is moving away. Typically you are expected to help your family and extended family. This can sometimes mean hundreds of people who want something free or on credit. So many of the business owners in Liberia may be from Nigeria or Ghana. Far enough away from pesky relatives. People who come to the US and are successful here don't have some special gift, they just have an ocean between them and someone looking for a handout.

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JeanCarloCMS

Amazing, truly. It warms my heart as I'm sure it would anybody's to read these stories which possess an 'underdog-movie feel' to them. Africa as a continent is seen as the pit of the world when it comes to economics and it seems that the only way to climb out of that metaphorical pit and begin the upwards construction of their economy is by the works of role-models like those mentioned here.
The main setback for any given economy in the world has to be the corruption that lies within their very government. The abolishment of this corruption per se may be out of the question in the immediate future, but it is steps like those taken by these entrepreneurs which will begin to open new possibilities for the African continent. They seek humbly and sincerely the well being of the African economy without the intervention of foreign aid. This concept and idea, if blown up to a larger scale, could enlighten the African people to how foreign aid might be an obstruction to the breakthrough of independent economic prosperity.
The examples demonstrated in this article are merely 3 in a continent that holds over a billion people. The examples shown here might seem insignificant, as a needle in a haystack, when weighted to the immense population and profound corruption found in the continent. The examples shown here though, as the same haystack concealing a needle, but one that's on fire, are unquestionably the initiatives that have to be taken in order to begin tearing corruption from its root, and get the African economic wheel rolling.

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Javier

@Joe

That's right. African countries are behind in all three preconditions. Institutions need a long period of paceful existance to have enough strenght. It's esaier to focus on free trade than in developing the necessary civil infrastructure. That's why corruption and crime end up dominating the society.

Joe Smith

Javier

I think that what is important is that potential entrepreneurs believe that the institutions will remain in place. Institutions do not have to be in place for very long for that to start to happen.

Jon Gosier

@Dai Hoo

I'm one of the entrepreneurs profiled. First a few corrections to your comments. 1) I'm not Ugandan I'm American and living in Uganda. 2) You failed to catch some basic points from the article. I'm doing just what you suggest, "You want to help start a business in an African country? Why not ask someone who lives there what they need and what is stopping them? Then invest like you would in the US or UK."

That's what my company does, we invest in African startups because there is a lack of investment here. One of the biggest problems we face here is people seem to assume they understand all of Africa's problems without looking at how Africans are attempting to solve them on their own. Likewise, It seems you had a preconceived notion before you even wrote your comment.

MartinieCMS

The "progress" and baby-steps taken by these African entrepreneurs (pioneers really, considering the status of their societies) are methods in which the African economy can develop itself. However, even though many Africans start to make their own businesses and thrive in some cases, the political and social instability of African countries (of most, not all) can do away with all progress made by bright and ambitious individuals. In many cities and towns, shops that progress and expand are deliberately destroyed. In other countries, rebellions and civil conflicts take over and ramp local towns to provide space for troops and establish a battlefield. In addition to the social and military instability, politicians and government officials in Africa are no Mother Teresas'. According to Forbes, Somalia and Republic of Congo are in the top 3 most corrupted countries in the world and 23 other African countries are in the top 50 most corrupted.

African countries cannot and will not thrive economically until most selfishness is taken out of the different market and political systems. One, many organizations that go to Africa and invest on big projects like dams or road systems, are doing so to increase government development large sums, which means the way these types of infrastructure are built have no regard to the effects of the community and aren't built half as well as they could be. (foreign institutions aren't particularly searching to aid but make money) Two, governments in African countries make it impossible for sole-propriety businesses to grow because once they expand, government officials or the police force will require payments and bribes for transactions or permission to stay in business.

All I can say about these African entrepreneurs is that they have chosen a path of difficulty searching economic improvement for themselves and their family and what anybody could wish them is the best of luck.

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Andrea Bohnstedt

Lovely stories, but this is not really an article about African entrepreneurs.

Magatte's company - yes, and I love what I've read about and from her. She rocks.

But as much as Ketty Opoka's organisation sounds admirable, it seems to be a non-profit (which doesn't undermine her achievements at all, but it's just not a good example for an article about African entrepreneurs).

I've found Jon Gosier lovely on all our virtual (Facebook) interactions, but again he's not an example that I would have chosen for an article about African entrepreneurs - he's American, I still haven't figured out whether QuestionBox has an actual business model, and some of this other clients are from the non-profit world, which so often happens around here: non-profits doing business with non-profits.

I think it'd be hugely important to highlight that there is plain-vanilla, regular, old-school business going on in Africa. Pin-striped suits, board rooms, corporates and so on. It's really not that difficult to find African entrepreneurs, even if you don't want to cover the well-known high-profile cases - Nigeria's Dangote, South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, Kenya's Eddie Njoroge,Sudan's Mo Ibrahim and so on. They are a lot more representative to business in Africa. It's not all NGOs and foundations and 'social entrepreneurs' (whatever that exactly is).

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joe

Magatte Wade's insistence that aid has never built anything is ignorant and offensive. The Marshall Plan was an aid package to Europe following WWII. I'm sure that didn't build anything, right? Japan similarly benefitted from aid from the U.S. as did all of the so-called Asian tigers that have made significant progress out of poverty. Aid to Africa has built plenty. This vehement objection to aid just makes Ms. Wade look like an ignorant ideologue.

Why aid has not been as effective in Africa is hugely debatable. In my opinion, it's linked to the colonialist legacy that destroyed institutions in Africa and instituted outside control of governance and administration. To the extent that aid has propped up that system, it has probably done more harm than good. But without aid, I'm curious to know what would have helped African countries avoid famine and disease? Aid has helped, and done more for Africa than Ms. Wade's bissap drink ever will. Curious to know why the Times did not do much digging on the prices the women are getting for their hibiscus flowers, by the way.

And another way to look at Ms. Wade's success: Go away to the U.S., find some rich friends and come back and make money off of poorly paid Africans. The elite in Africa, of which she is a member, are quite complicit in keeping the status quo in many of its countries. How many deals have you made with the Senegalese government?

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Ed

Would lilke to thank Jon Gosier for clarifying things for everyone.
I'm from Togo, West Africa. I have lived in the U.S. and several other countries for years now. My first comment to everyone is that unless you have lived anywhere in Africa, please do not pretend to know what is going on in Africa. Let's not patronize.
If you do want to help go to Africa and ask what they need and listen to their ideas (nothing free of course). Something that works in the U.S. will not always work in Africa. Let me reiterate, if you want to help Africa or Africans please listen to their needs first.
Another way to help (more of a long-term investment) is to provide someone with education. I would suggest an education outside of Africa. Some Africans simply need to see the possibilities that are out there.
I personally plan to go back and start something in Africa. I'm 24, I don't have the financial funds to start anything but I plan to accumulate the funds on my own.
If you have any questions please let me know. If you have any suggestions, I'm open for those any day.

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Thierry

The fact Jon had to submit correction about his nationality on this article is unfortunate as the journalist is quite lazy and questionable in her approach. Why not profile Limbe Labs in Cameroon too? They are "African Entrepreneurs" as well, but white British. Stop assuming nationality on color and research your articles.

Angela

Great article. Can't wait to read more articles that showcase what people with great ideas and passion can do in their home towns.

Gabriel

Hi there,

Good to hear from fellow entrepreneurs.

How to do safe trade with all African countries?

There are so many fraudsters out there.

Any suggestions?

Mike Schinkel

@Thierry - read the article; it says Jon worked in Atlanta and that when his girlfriend got a job in Uganda he chose to leave the USA. The author did her job in writing, maybe others should do a better job of reading?

Anyway, I met Jon Gosier back in 2007 just before he left Atlanta as I was starting an web entrepreneur meetup group. I've since followed his progress and think Jon is an amazing individual who apparently has accomplished a lot. My kudos are to him for his approach and I wish him and the region surrounding Kampala, Uganda great success in 2010 and beyond!

sello

i am not suprised because its forth for the freeing,the time for success and progress of all african entreprenuers is here,but the road is only open for those who dont fear