The entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa is thriving, but it can be complex and challenging to navigate. Despite an abundance of brilliant business ideas, entrepreneurs often face obstacles such as infrastructure challenges, regulatory barriers, limited access to funding, and a lack of quality education and training, in addition to cultural factors. Innovative solutions and collaboration among entrepreneurs, investors, governments and other stakeholders are often necessary to overcome these issues.

In 2019, the Jack Ma Foundation established the first Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) Prize Competition, a charitable initiative which annually identifies, trains and supports outstanding African entrepreneurs with a US$1.5  million grant. Over a 10-year period, the program will recognize 100 African entrepreneurs and provide grant funding, training programs and other support for the broad African entrepreneurial ecosystem. Jack Ma, the Founder of Alibaba Group and the Jack Ma Foundation, created the prize after he made his first trip to Africa in 2017 and was inspired by the energy and entrepreneurial potential of the young people he met.

Now in its fifth year, ABH has evolved beyond a competition to become a platform that includes a TV show and a community of entrepreneurs, investors and mentors. The program has become increasingly localized, inclusive, and Pan-African. By partnering and leveraging the strengths of like-minded organizations, ABH is contributing to the development of a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem on the continent.

In this interview, Zahra Baitie-Boateng, Head of Partnerships and Programs, Africa’s Business Heroes, discusses the program’s commitment to inclusivity, gender parity and representation from underrepresented countries. Boateng also speaks about the role of partnerships and community in ABH’s success and in building a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Ventures Africa (VA): In your own words, what is Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) about?

Zahra Baitie-Boateng (ZB): ABH is a platform to identify, support and showcase African entrepreneurial talent to the world and to ensure they are provided with the resources to grow and scale their business. We believe it is more than a competition. We believe we are the largest, most inclusive pitch competition in Africa. Beyond that, we produce a TV show, and we have a community of entrepreneurs, investors and mentors to ensure it is an end-to-end experience for our entrepreneurs to partake in and help them scale their businesses.

VA: Now in its 5th year, how has ABH evolved since its inception?

ZB: I would say it has evolved in a few ways. One is we have since expanded our reach. When we first started in 2019, we were able to recruit applications from 50 African countries. Since then, every year, we have ensured that we are truly Pan-African and live up to that motto. Now we have applications from all 54 African countries every year since 2020, and we are very proud of that.

We have also driven home our inclusivity point by being bilingual. We have expanded our reach to Francophone countries. Entrepreneurs can apply in either English or French. Since 2019, we have piloted various models to ensure that the ABH Prize competition has several touchpoints with our entrepreneurs and can continue to give them value. One of these initiatives is called the Local Connect Leads initiative, where we have our past heroes act essentially as brand ambassadors and community officers in various markets. They help to host events, coffee chats and discussions with other ABH finalists in their community to help provide a system of support and also help create awareness around ABH in their communities. For example, this year, we have hosted information sessions in over 10 African markets to help us engage with entrepreneurs in real and meaningful ways.

VA: Inclusivity is a core value of ABH. And you have talked about it a bit. Can you talk about how it has come to play over the years?

ZB: As you mentioned, inclusivity is a key tenet of ABH. Beyond language, we are sector-agnostic. That is one way we aim to be inclusive. Secondly, we know funding for female company founders remains low, despite Africa having one of the highest rates of female-led businesses. So we aim to be inclusive by encouraging female entrepreneurs to apply. We have seen the result of that pan out over the years. Over the last five years, four out of the five first-prize winners have been female. This is not because we say we have to pick a female but because we have been able to attract and support female entrepreneurs throughout the application process. So 50% of our top ten has been female. That is something we are proud of. It also helps when female entrepreneurs see that our past grand prize winner was female. It makes them feel this is truly an inclusive competition, encouraging them to apply.

Beyond that, we also know that several countries, like Djibouti and Somalia, are underrepresented in competitions. We aim to be inclusive by encouraging entrepreneurs from these markets to apply. Last year for the first time, we had a Somalian in our top 20. In 2021, we had an entrepreneur from Eritrea in our top 10. Over the years, we have seen more representation from some of these smaller countries, especially last year, 2022. We’ve seen an increase in some cases by over 300%. We are quite deliberate; we don’t just want to target larger markets like Nigeria and South Africa. We also want to ensure that we are inclusive in representation across the continent.

Zahra Baitie-Boateng, Head of Partnerships and Programs, Africa’s Business Heroes

VA: How does ABH contribute to developing a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem on the continent?

ZB: We do this by focusing our energy on a few key areas. Although there are several challenges to be addressed throughout the entrepreneurial value chain, we believe no single player should be responsible for handling them all. We don’t think we should be doing it all. So, we try to build a sustainable ecosystem by partnering with other entities and leveraging their strengths. This involves ABH supporting and amplifying the work of our partner organizations. And similarly, we seek their support to amplify ours. By creating forward and backward linkages, we help ensure the ecosystem is robust, with strong connections and mutual support, rather than remaining isolated silos. We are deliberate in our partnership approach and engage with like-minded organizations.

VA: Speaking of partnerships, what role do partnerships and community play in the success of ABH? And how do you cultivate and maintain these partnerships?

ZB: Great question. They play a pivotal role. We would not have been able to achieve our successes to date without our partners. We are a very small team. Our partners help to amplify our work. For example, concerning outreach to entrepreneurs, several partners help to build our pipeline and create awareness about ABH in their networks and ensure they help attract high-potential entrepreneurs. That is the critical way we engage and benefit from partnerships. We try to maintain our partners by involving them in the entire journey or lifespan of ABH. So, from the applications to the selection process to the grand finale, we try to ensure we have multiple touchpoints with our partners. For example, our partners have the opportunity to attend the grand finale that we host. They host workshops for our heroes. We also inform our community of opportunities such as training programs that our partners may be hosting. In some cases, we sponsor or subsidize to ensure members of our community can benefit from programs led by our partners. That way, we ensure there are mutual benefits on both sides of the table.

VA: What are three major challenges African entrepreneurs face, and how is ABH addressing them?

ZB: I would say number one is access to funds. Two will be access to markets, and three, a support system. With access to funds, we know that many entrepreneurs struggle to find sustainable financing. Yes, over the last few years, there has been an increase in venture capital coming into Africa, but sometimes the fund sizes are too large. There is a gap for entrepreneurs who are looking for relatively smaller amounts, perhaps under a million dollars, that are still pivotal for their growth and will take them beyond bootstrapping.

One of the ways ABH is addressing this is through our prize competition. When we give out grants, ranging from a hundred thousand to 300,000 dollars, we try and fill in this gap for 10 entrepreneurs from the continent that we believe are very promising, deserving, and will benefit significantly from these funds.

Number two is access to the markets. We have seen many entrepreneurs interested in expanding their business beyond their local or national markets and going Pan-African. But making that transition is often fraught with challenges as they navigate trade regulations and other issues. One of the ways we address this is through our community.

For example, we have seen that through ABH, our heroes connect and gain access to different markets. They get insights on how to operate in other markets. They can facilitate their expansion into other markets more easily. We have seen this play out in several ways. Many of our heroes have gone on to launch in several markets with the support and insight of fellow heroes.

An example would be one of our finalists in Egypt who is looking to expand into sub-Saharan Africa with the help of a partner who was also a finalist in ABH. This is one way we foster relationships through networking and various physical events we hold. Last year, we held a gathering in Kigali for all our past heroes to facilitate such connections and equip them with better skills for navigating various markets.

And this goes beyond Africa. We have hosted training or sharing sessions where heroes who have successfully launched products globally give talks and share their best practices to help others learn how to access markets more efficiently and expand their geographic footprint.

The last thing is the support system. We know that entrepreneurship can be a lonely and tough journey. At ABH, we ensure that we provide a support system in different ways. One is through mentorship, where we connect past judges to heroes to provide them with guidance. We also have the community lead program I mentioned earlier where we have these local chapters so our heroes can engage with like-minded entrepreneurs and get support. We host a gathering that provides a focal point for the heroes to share some of their struggles, brainstorm, talk about challenges they are facing, and learn how to navigate them. And we, the team, remain accessible to our heroes at all times to support them as they navigate the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

VA: You talked about a hero expanding into the Sub-Saharan African market through a partnership with another hero. What are some ABH success stories you are most proud of?

ZB: We are proud of all our trailblazing Heroes. But I will talk about two today. First is Omar Sakr of Nawah Scientific, Egypt. He was in our 2019 cohort and is the person looking at expanding into Sub-Saharan Africa. Since participation, he has inaugurated a new medical research facility in Egypt, leveraging the grant funds, and thus becoming the biggest private multi-disciplinarian research hub in the MENA region. He raised a million dollars in investment shortly after the prize, after which his business growth tripled. These are very tangible ways he grew. Beyond that, it is beautiful to see his connections with the rest of the continent developing primarily due to ABH’s influence. I think this is a true testament to the effectiveness of ABH in not only bringing entrepreneurs together but also fostering a broader Pan-African entrepreneurial movement which has yielded tangible benefits. For Omar, exposure from the show allowed him to raise investments and close some deals. He leveraged the funds to expand the facilities he and his team work out of.

The second example would be Ethel Mupambwa of MoneyMart, Zimbabwe. She was a grassroots entrepreneur who gained significant publicity, thanks to ABH. Her story has been published in the Wall Street Journal and featured in several publications. That kind of exposure has done amazing things for her business. She leveraged the grant fund to expand her business to 23 branches across Zimbabwe. MoneyMart Finance has also improved its technology. The company launched an app, and its loan book increased over 100 times to over 1.5 million dollars. It has been amazing to see her growth. She has gone from being an entrepreneur who would describe herself as very grassroots and hyper-localized to having so much international exposure and reaping significant benefits.

VA: As a program, what challenges do you often have to deal with, and how do you tackle them?

ZB: There are a couple. One is that we receive about 20,000 applications every year. These are entrepreneurs from a wide array of abilities and maturity. So, how do we keep up with such a wide array of entrepreneurs?

Another challenge is dealing with a multifaceted continent with several languages and cultures. How do we ensure that we are local and relevant to all these different markets? We are currently only accessible in English and French. Ideally, we should be accessible in Portuguese, Arabic, and even Swahili. But we are not yet able to support all these languages. So that is also a challenge, catering to the diversity of the African continent.

We cater to a diverse range of entrepreneurs through various methods, one of which involves providing feedback to all applicants on their entries. It enables them to strengthen their value proposition, uniquely to their business, regardless of whether they make it to the next stage. We also make them part of our community. So, they get access to various training programs that we run. The hope is that this will help strengthen their business and business argument. We also make available opportunities that our partners have – such as training opportunities and access to conferences. We try to ensure that there is hopefully something for everyone once they participate in the process.

Regarding language, it is a work in progress. Our primary focus at present is to improve our services for francophone applicants to ensure equal opportunities for their application and success. Meanwhile, we are also exploring the possibility of expanding into other languages like Portuguese and Arabic.

VA: What does it take to succeed in the competition?

ZB: It takes a clear understanding of your value proposition and its uniqueness. Entrepreneurs must be able to identify the problem they are solving, propose an appropriate solution, and assess the relevance of their solution. I think having that clear understanding is critical. It allows the judges to differentiate between applicants and evaluate the value created by their business. Having that understanding as an entrepreneur and being able to articulate it, either in the written application or in the interview at Round Two or the semi-finale where you do your pitch, is critical. It is a differentiating factor.

You also have to remain consistent with what you are saying and have a storyline that makes judges understand your value proposition. Additionally, your presentation should highlight your current impact and potential future impact.

Preparation is also crucial. This includes dedicating ample time to answer the written application questions thoughtfully rather than waiting till the last minute. It also involves preparing and rehearsing your pitch for the second round and semi-finals. Going over it with colleagues and mentors and getting their feedback makes a big difference. These efforts can significantly increase your chances of standing out from the competition.

Apply for the competition.

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