Alibaba’s Jack Ma Foundation chooses African business idols

The African Business Heroes (ABH), a flagship philanthropic program of Jack Ma Foundation (JMF) has announced a grant of $1.5 million to foster entrepreneurship across Africa.

Founded by the Chinese multinational technology company Alibaba, the JMF focuses on entrepreneurship, education, women, medical support, and environmental protection.

ABH organizes a yearly TV show to spotlight mission-driven and impactful African entrepreneurs, who can inspire others to pursue entrepreneurship.

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency Zahra Baitie Boateng, senior program manager at the ABH said in 2021, her group has set aside $1.5 million for 10 outstanding finalists, who provide solutions to African problems through entrepreneurship.

Q: What is the objective of the ABH initiative?

Zahra Baitie (ZB): The ABH’s prize competition aimed to celebrate Africa’s entrepreneurial talent is currently in its third year. Every year, we select 10 brilliant finalists who will pitch their business ventures at the grand finale, for a chance to win $1.5 million.

Over the next 10 years ABH’s objective is to contribute to the growth of the continent’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and award funding to 100 talented entrepreneurs across sectors, and importantly provide them with access to training and mentorship.

In the long term, our vision is to help build a diverse community of entrepreneurs and business leaders, who can work together with investors, educators, policymakers, and civil society to address and solve pressing issues in Africa.

Q: Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) play crucial roles in Africa's growth and development, but many argue they have very limited capacities for expansion because they receive little, if any, incentives - working spaces, loans, etc. What is your view on this issue?

ZB: Our experience has shown that talent and skills are spread everywhere in Africa, and it is no surprise that the continent has the world’s highest entrepreneurship rate. More than one in five Africans are starting a business. SMEs are now the biggest formal employers in Sub-Saharan Africa and will play a crucial role in creating 54 million jobs by 2022 in Africa.

However, there are several constraints, including gender inequality, inadequate infrastructure, limited and expensive access to capital, unstable and costly access to energy, political instability, high tax rates, and customs and trade regulations.

The vision of ABH is to support the development of a sustainable and robust African entrepreneurial ecosystem. Most of the applicants are small businesses and we have great examples of finalists successfully running small enterprises and despite the size and limited resources, they are driving substantial change in their communities.

Developing robust Africa

Q: How do you assess the level of innovativeness among SMEs? There seem to be tell-tale signs of innovations across Africa driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, how much of these have been noticed, and how widely?

ZB: During these challenging times, we have seen the show of resilience and innovation in the entrepreneurs we have met with. A lot of the 2019 and 2020 ABH finalists, for example, have stepped up and committed to doing their part to tackle the pandemic’s impact in their region.

The first prize winner of the 2019 competition, Temie Giwa-Tobosun, founder of Lifebank has expanded her firm’s services to include the delivery of oxygen and COVID-19 testing. Her firm uses data and technology to help health workers discover critical medical products, and has saved thousands of lives in Nigeria. She is also expanding her impact footprint with a branch in Kenya and Ethiopia later this year.

Another 2019 finalist, Omar Sakr, is the founder of Nawah Scientific - the first private research center in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. To tackle COVID-19 Omar’s team is offering cheaper and quicker diagnostic tools, as well as free pickup services for research samples requiring examination at their laboratory.

We believe that there is not sufficient spotlight on these developments or the role of entrepreneurs in fighting the pandemic. We hope to change this, in part, with our ABH shows – a televised series that highlights the journeys of our finalists and the impact they are creating. Our 2020 ABH show will be on air later this year and our 2021 finalists will also have the opportunity to be featured in next year’s edition.

Monitoring awardees

Q: What kind of a mechanism is in place to follow up and monitor the awardees after receiving prizes?

ZB: After the finale and the transfer of funds to the winners, we remain connected with them and periodically request updates on the progress and developments of their business. All the finalists from 2019 and 2020 have joined the ABH community of entrepreneurs and business leaders, and most of them collaborate with us to shape and deliver training and counseling for the new batches of ABH candidates.

The ABH 2019 grand prize winner – Temie Giwa-Tubuson of Lifebank has won several other awards including the Cartier’s Women Africa Laureate & Global Citizen’s Business award.

Moulaye Taboure of Afrikrea who participated in the 2019 ABH show is now DHL’s biggest e-commerce exporter from Africa.

Kevine Kagrimpundu of Uzuri K&Y, also the winner of the ABH prize has launched two new physical stores. Partnering with fellow ABH finalist, Moulaye, she has expanded sales of Uzuri K&Y shoes across Africa and Europe.

We are encouraged by the growth of our finalists and it motivates us to continue the work that we do to support and spotlight inspiring African entrepreneurs and enable their growth.

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