An African Spring


By Cari Guittard. The opinions expressed are her own.

Africa’s abundance — from diamonds and coffee to cacao, rare minerals, natural gas and oil — is well known, though laced with images of corruption, genocide, and famine. Fifty-four nations comprise the African continent and yet how many of us can name more than a dozen of those countries and begin to differentiate their strengths commercially?

Many around the world see Africa as a monolith and through the prism of media and film which paint a decidedly negative picture. Google images of Rwanda show stark photos of starving orphaned children, mass slaughter and extreme deprivation. Which is why at a recent meeting with senior staff at the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) I was shocked to hear them extol the virtues of Rwanda. Rwanda was being held up as an example of an African nation leading the way in encouraging entrepreneurship and forging unique global partnerships. They even encouraged me to think of Rwanda as a travel and tourism destination. The “renaissance” in Rwanda is being seen across the continent and clearly a new narrative for Africa is beginning to emerge.

It is noteworthy that this month’s Harvard Business Review profiles Africa as a major growth opportunity, citing a McKinsey study from last year with the following:

  • Over the past decade, Africa’s real GDP grew by an average of 4.7% a year — twice the pace of its growth in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • The prospects for consumer-facing companies are bright. Africans spent $860 billion on goods and services in 2008.
  • The greatest opportunities are in retailing, telecommunications, banking, infrastructure-related industries, resource-related businesses, and all along the agricultural value chain.
  • According to UN data, Africa offers a higher return on investment than any other emerging market.

The more I interact with people on the continent the more I am amazed at how candid they are about what they need to succeed in business globally. I felt an incredible energy and urgency in every conversation and an entrepreneurial fever unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. To see if I’d happened upon a broader trend in the making, I reached out to Kevin Langley, Global Chairman Elect of the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO), the largest network of entrepreneurs globally with over 8,000 members. Langley, who is on his way to Nigeria later this month for EO’s Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards (GSEA), said, “A sea change is underway. There is an emergence of an attitudinal change of how people think about entrepreneurship and how it affects the quality of life in Africa. In the past, the focus has been on attracting investment and now there is a conversational shift on how to engage leading entrepreneurs who can be the catalyst to create sustainable economic opportunities in the form of local jobs and products and services in the new global economy, thereby creating a lasting effect.”

Jack Leslie and the team at USADF, a federal agency which leads the way in supporting small scale entrepreneurs and creating lasting impact for marginalized communities in Africa, tempered my enthusiasm by sharing some of the major challenges facing small scale African entrepreneurs from access to capital, globalization of markets and production to lack of infrastructure, and limited skills in financial and business management. They further emphasized that addressing these challenges required the employment of innovative solutions that combine financing, training and capacity building, and access to markets. These solutions take time, but they are taking root and their impact will be felt for generations.

There is ample evidence across the continent of a social entrepreneurship trend where entrepreneurial principles are being leveraged to create sustainable social change. One such effort is Shea Yeleen, local shea butter suppliers in Ghana who are supported by the USADF and various other partnerships and cooperatives. I met with Shea Yeleen’s founder, Rahama Wright, and was amazed by her passion, determination and entrepreneurial spirit. The former Peace Corps volunteer and first generation Ghanaian-American is wise beyond her years and an inspirational entrepreneurial powerhouse.

Shea Yeleen ensures that the profits from their products go back to the female-owned cooperatives that are cultivating and developing the products as well as invests in training and capacity building on the ground in Ghana. As more and more consumers are looking for natural, socially conscious, sustainably sourced products the demand for social enterprises like Shea Yeleen, where entire communities can benefit, will continue to grow.

Africa has tremendous promise. Investing in the continent requires an investment in the people who are bringing goods and services to market. Supporting, nurturing and encouraging entrepreneurs on the ground may be one of the best investments to ensure long-term sustainable economic growth in Africa for generations to come. 

Cari E. Guittard, a senior associate with Global Strategic Partners, is an adjunct faculty member for Corporate Diplomacy & Geopolitics with the USC Annenberg MPD program and USF MBA program.

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