Africa's entrepreneurs on the rise

Africa is booming with young entrepreneurs, but they don't always operate like their counterparts in the US.

Ismail Taxta/Reuters/File
A businesswoman fuels a car at a makeshift gas station along a street near the Bakara market in Mogadishu, Somalia. 'Africa is a continent of entrepreneurs,” says one business professor. 'You have no choice.'

The start-up world is getting a lot bigger: Silicon Valley now has serious competition from places like Singapore, Sao Paulo, and Tel Aviv.

Will its rivals soon include Lagos, Cape Town, or any number of fast-growing African cities?

Yes, says Benson Honig, a professor in the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “There’s a demographic time bomb in the aging Western world,” Honig says. “Where are the young people? Africa.”

RELATED: Think you know Africa? Take our geography quiz.

Africans already have the right business instincts. “Africa is a continent of entrepreneurs,” he says. “You have no choice. If you need a part, you can’t order it from somewhere else. It might take six months or a year to come. So you make it yourself.”

Honig’s remarks came at “Unleashing Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies,” a conference hosted last week at the Hult International Business School in Boston.

He believes such ingenuity can be tapped and shared across the world. “Micro-credit, cell phone banking. These are African innovations that are just starting to make an impact in Canada and the US.”

Honig is part of a movement in the business school world, a movement that sees local, on-the-ground entrepreneurship as the most effective way to help kick-start the economies of developing nations.

He was joined at the Hult conference by professors from business schools in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, Pakistan, Nigeria, and more. “We’re all optimists,” says Joanne Lawrence, who teaches corporate responsibility and social innovation at Hult. “We all see Africa rising.”

One reason why Africa is moving up: access to capital.

“Innovation requires capital, but historically people from outside the US have had limited access to funding,” says Mike Grandinetti, managing director at Southboro Capital and entrepreneurship professor at Hult. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, “the venture industry has turned on its head. We now have an extraordinary opportunity for new ventures around the world.”

But do companies in Accra, Ghana, or Abuja, Nigeria, need Western-style management techniques?

“It’s an open question,” acknowledges David Wheeler, Dean of the Plymouth University Business School in England, “whether what happens in a Western business school has any effect on what happens in South Sudan or Kenya or Tanzania.”

“You can’t just try to replicate what’s happening in one region,” agrees Grandinetti. “There’s so much localization required. Every region needs to be clear on what its strengths are.”

Henrietta Onwuegbuzie is on the faculty at the Lagos Business School in Nigeria. She says entrepreneurship is “intrinsic to African culture.” But she’s also worried about the cultural gap between the West and her home. Because of her Western education, she says, “I have begun to feel like a foreigner in my own country.” She stresses the importance of cooperating with African entrepreneurs and learning from them, rather than just mouthing Western management buzzwords.

“Some solutions are African,” argues Honig. “Some are ours. Some African solutions may even work here . . . we can’t say any longer: We’re doing it here, so you should be doing it there.”

One way business may differ for entrepreneurs in the developing economies of Africa: an expectation that they behave with social responsibility.

“The old Western model of divide and conquer and exploit is not acceptable anymore,” Honig says. “We have a responsibility in the globalized world. We’re no longer capable of saying, ‘We don’t care what happens over there.’ ”

Grandinetti points to the work of Jessica Matthews, an entrepreneur and Harvard graduate who has guest lectured to his students at Hult. Matthews, a Nigerian-American, helped found a start-up called Uncharted Play, which has developed the Soccket, a soccer ball that’s also a portable generator.

Grandinetti says that’s just one example of how young entrepreneurs can change lives in resource-poor communities around the world.

“We’re starting to see every corner of the earth embrace entrepreneurship,” he says. “Not just for profit, but for social good.”

This article originally appeared at Latitude News, an online news site that covers stories showing the links between American communities and the rest of the world.

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