Photograph — ABH

“To build a big business in Africa, you have to do two things; you either have to be pan-African or you have to go global…” – Fred Swaniker, ABH Judge.

Since the inception of the Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) competition in 2019, the Jack Ma Foundation has achieved significant success in discovering, funding, and supporting impactful African businesses. Every year, thousands of impact-driven entrepreneurs and disruptors apply for a share of the $1.5 million grant money. However, only 10 entrepreneurs successfully navigate a rigorous selection process to secure this coveted grant. This achievement owes much to the dedicated efforts of seasoned judges like Fred Swaniker, who have volunteered their expertise to nurture Africa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

This year, the ABH prize competition attracted a staggering 27,000 applicants. Of these, only 20 entrepreneurs advanced to the semi-finals, where they had the opportunity to demonstrate the viability and profitability of their business models before a panel of four discerning judges. The pitch sessions were intense, with judges posing challenging questions to the prepared and determined entrepreneurs.

The panel of judges comprised notable figures: Fred Swaniker, a serial entrepreneur and Founder of The Room, a global tech community connecting top tech talent to impactful opportunities; Hasan Haider, a businessman and Founder/Managing Partner of Plus Venture Capital (+VC), dedicated to investing in the most promising tech and tech-enabled founders in the MENA region and MENA diaspora; Rene Parker, a social impact entrepreneur with a wealth of experience in scaling social ventures. Rene serves as the Co-founder & CEO of RLabs, a South African nonprofit addressing complex problems with innovative solutions; and Ken Njoroge, the co-Founder and Director of Cellulant, a leading Pan African payments company offering locally relevant and alternative payment methods for global, regional, and local merchants. These judges bore the weighty responsibility of determining the final ten contestants.

In this exclusive interview, Fred Swaniker provides insights into the African entrepreneurial landscape, the role of an ABH judge, and the selection process for ABH finalists.

Fred Swaniker, Africa's Business Heroes' Judge.
Fred Swaniker, Africa’s Business Heroes’ Judge.

Ventures Africa (VA): You’ve been a judge with ABH for a long time. What makes you keep volunteering?

Fred Swaniker (FS): Well, my career for the last 20 years has all been focused on identifying and developing Africa’s future leaders and entrepreneurs. At African Leadership Academy, African Leadership University (ALX), all we do is find innovators and entrepreneurs, and we accelerate them. This competition, Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH), is aligned with my passion. I believe that those who are going to transform Africa are those who have the boldest ideas, who are willing to reimagine things, who are willing to break boundaries and bring innovation to solve our biggest challenges. So I love finding the next generation of entrepreneurs and helping them to get exposure through a platform like this, sharing ideas and challenging them. I love asking them tough questions that allow them to think through their businesses so that they can be more efficient, more effective, and ultimately create more jobs.

VA: What would you say, is the most challenging thing when it comes to selecting the 10 finalists out of 20 brilliant businesses, for the ABH Competition?

FS: Well, the most challenging thing is simply choosing between great people. I mean, you are now at the stage of 20 to choose the final 10. I mean, they’ve been selected from 27,000 applicants and almost all of them deserve to win. So they’re all really inspiring, all brilliant, and all have beautiful ideas. But then, there are only 10 slots. So, sometimes you have to turn down a really great entrepreneur.

The second is getting consensus. After everyone has presented, the judges will have to debate and discuss. Sometimes, we’re not always on the same page. There are a few that everyone agrees on immediately. “These ones should be in.” And then there are the rest where there’s debate.

And you’re trying to balance as well, representation across the continent, across different sectors. You don’t want 10 finalists in healthcare or 10 finalists all doing mobile payments, right? So we’re trying to show the diversity of the continent, diversity of ideas, and diversity of stages because we also have early-stage entrepreneurs, mid-stage and later stages. So just getting that whole mix is something that’s also quite challenging.

VA: Since 2019, when the competition began, up until now, how do you compare year one to this present year in terms of competitiveness?

FS: Of course, the first year had some brilliant people in the final ten. But now, as I look at the top 20, the quality has really improved. I think we’ve gotten better. You know, the Jack Ma Foundation and Africa’s Business Heroes team have gotten better at sourcing candidates. The brand has grown, so more people apply. I think it’s also a sign that Africa’s wave of entrepreneurship is gaining more momentum. So more people are showing up.

VA: What are your thoughts about entrepreneurship and the African continental free trade zone?

FS: I think to build a big business in Africa, you have to do two things; you either have to be Pan-African or you have to go global because most of our economies are very small. And so, the African Continental free trade area allows you to expand beyond your country so that you can actually tap into a $2 trillion economy and a market of almost 1.5 billion versus sticking to your small economy. We have to break down trade barriers, and barriers to movement to allow entrepreneurship to flourish much more. Or you have to find a way to produce in Africa and sell globally because Africa has only three per cent of the world’s GDP. So if you’re trying to build a billion-dollar business, you’re most likely going to have to sell to global markets.

L.R: Hasan Haider, Fred Swaniker, Rene Parker and Ken Njoroge.
L.R: Hasan Haider, Fred Swaniker, Rene Parker and Ken Njoroge.

VA: In your long journey supporting and organising entrepreneurs and innovators across the continent, how can these 10 finalists reshape the landscape of industries across sectors in Africa? 

FS: Well, I think several of them are disruptors. They are bringing radical innovations that can ripple through entire sectors, whether it’s healthcare, agribusiness, education, or infrastructure. Innovation starts off with one company, then a few companies, before it spreads through the entire society. Take mobile phones for example, 20 to 30 years ago we used small Motorola and Nokia phones. 

So that’s one thing that they are doing. The other thing is that they’re inspiring people. Every entrepreneur here is a role model for millions of young people across Africa who are thinking about their careers, and wanting to know where to go next. And I think that’s the other real impact of these entrepreneurs.

VA: The Jack Ma Foundation is just one of a few organisations that empower African entrepreneurs. How can Africa better position itself to attract similar investments?

FS: That’s a very good question. African entrepreneurship cannot thrive on African capital alone. Because our capital markets are very shallow and we don’t have a lot of wealth in Africa. We have to attract global investment into Africa. Ultimately, money follows where returns are. So, African entrepreneurs have to build great businesses. Businesses that will give good returns to investors. When they do that, money will flow in and we won’t be able to stop it because there’ll be more than enough capital flowing in.

The other thing that needs to happen is governance. Recently, there has been a coup in Garbon and a coup in Mali. When we are seen as a continent that is unstable, no one would want to come and invest here. So our governments have to get their act together. Also, entrepreneurs have to get their act together and build investable businesses that are big, bold and have the potential to scale either across the continent or globally. If you have big ideas that can make good returns, you have no problem attracting the capital you need. 

I honestly believe that capital is the least difficult thing to get as an entrepreneur. If you have a good idea and a good team the money will flow to you. So when entrepreneurs are struggling to raise capital, they need to not say that the markets are unfair. Rather, they should ask, “Is my idea good enough?”, “Do I have a good enough team?” Once you have that, you are on the right path. There’s so much money in the world that is chasing good businesses and the African continent is one that is so untapped.

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