African Entrepreneurship Summit: a breath of fresh air for start-ups
Winners of the Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship from left to right: Muhammad Jah, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, QuantumNet Group, Gambia; Mitchell Elegbe, founder and CEO, Interswitch Limited, Nigeria; Dr Manu Chandaria, CEO of Kenya-based Comcraft and his wife Aruna; ; Erick Rajaonary, CEO of Guanomad, Madagascar, and Evans Wadongo, Founder and Executive Director, Sustainable Development for All, Kenya.
For most of us, the thought of a business conference brings to mind the words boring, bow-tie, and even bewildering, with all the MBA jargon doing the rounds. But the African Entrepreneurship Summit broke out of the boring business mould and brought a practical, hands-down approach towards enabling entrepreneurs to broach their ideas to potential investors, arranging meaningful conversations between budding start-ups to explore synergies between their businesses and finally, by recognizing those African brands that are making a splash, through the Africa Awards for Entrepreneurs (AAE).
And how could the conference be boring, set up as it was against the background of brilliant blue beaches at the Long Beach Hotel, and the One and Only resort, both premier properties at the ruggedly beautiful East Coast stretch of Belle Mare, Mauritius. For those of the 300-odd delegates from 48 countries who thought things could just not get any better, the climax of the conference brought them to an even more breath-taking venue – the awards ceremony was held against the stunning backdrop of the Balaclava ruins, a monument as impressive as the Roman colosseum, that saw history being made on the island nation, yet again.
Organized by the African Leadership Network (ALN) and sponsored by the Omidyar Network, the awards are the culmination of a year of hard work by the judges, who sifted through over 1,000 nominations submitted by African business leaders in an interesting, interactive video format. The awards are given under 5 categories – lifetime achievement award, transformational business, outstanding mature business, outstanding small and growing business and outstanding social entrepreneur– to organizations with turnover ranging from $150,000 to over $50 million. The prize money of $200,000 is entirely sponsored by the Omidyar Network, an impact investment firm set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam to support and fund business projects with social relevance. Since being set up by the African Leadership Network in 2007, AAE has attracted more than 7,000 applications from African businesses and awarded prizes of over $1.5 million to 30 leading companies.
Coming to the awards ceremony, it was kicked off in style, and with dollops of humour, by BBC World News anchor Komla Dumor. Next on the podium was Malik Fal, managing director, Omidyar Network, Africa who called it a ‘homecoming’ as he had bagged his very first job as an operations manager in Mauritius with Pepsi-Cola International. Next, Fred Swaniker (founder and CEO of the African Leadership Academy, and co-founder, ALN) spoke of his awe-inspiring experience of having corresponded real-time over a series of promptly exchanged emails with the Vice Prime Minister of Mauritius, Xavier Luc-Duval. The VPM and minister of Finance and Economic Development took to the stage next as the guest of honor for the evening, and took the opportunity to invite ALN yet again to Mauritius next year, to spark an entrepreneurial spirit in the island nation and lead it to a rediscovery of its destiny in the African economy. He declared that if Africa were to be made borderless, then, even if African nations were to trade only among each other, there was no stopping the continent from becoming an economic powerhouse.
Taking up the thread of a borderless Africa, Dumor invited to the stage the recipient of the lifetime achievement award, Dr Manu Chandaria – CEO of the Kenya-based multi-billion dollar conglomerate Comcraft— whose Pan-African organization has made the dream of trade across African nations come true. A true visionary who raised his family business to unheard of heights, Chandaria took to the stage with his charming wife Aruna and challenged the next generation of entrepreneurs to meet their commitments on time, or, as he put it, ‘do yesterday what is slated for tomorrow’.
In his wake, the awards for outstanding social entrepreneur, outstanding small and growing business, outstanding mature business and transformational business were given out. The first ever recipient of the outstanding social entrepreneur award, a newly created category, was Evans Wadongo, Founder and Executive Director, Sustainable Development for All. His Kenya-based enterprise covers the design, production and distribution of Solar Powered Lanterns dubbed “MwangaBora” (or, the good light) to poor rural households without electricity. The outstanding small and growing business award went to Erick Rajaonary, CEO of Guanomad which uses bat droppings found in Madagascar’s caves to produce and supply natural fertilizers and organic manures for use in organic agriculture. The next award went to Muhammad Jah, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, QuantumNet Group. Gambia’s first and largest Internet Service Provider (ISP), the group provides cellular phone services, dial-up internet access through the telephone system, high-speed WiFi, and also manages several internet cafes. The final recipient of the evening’s awards was Mitchell Elegbe, founder and CEO, Interswitch Limited, Nigeria, who was recognized under the transformational business category. An integrated payment and transaction processing company that provides technology integration, advisory services, transaction processing, and payment infrastructure to government, banks and corporate organizations, Interswitch also gives back to society under its ‘Switch a Future’ initiative.
A beautiful, star-studded evening with more stars walking beside us than above us, the inspirational entrepreneurial summit ended with Dumor throwing open the nominations for next year and requesting start-ups across Africa to take this forum as a platform to shine, connect and rewrite Africa’s destiny.