A most enlightening engagement over the years was the invitation to Mauritius in July 2016 by Fred Swaniker, founder of the African Leadership University (ALU), to share my professional experiences in the US and Ghana with students and faculty in their Distinguished Guest Speakers Series.
The interaction involved visiting classes comprising of facilitators and students – from Morocco to South Africa, and from Senegal to Ethiopia. Speaking in a particular session, I labeled the university “a mini African Union of prospective leaders and entrepreneurs, and that Kwame Nkrumah was smiling in his grave knowing that the best has yet to come for this wonderful continent of ours!”
In a delightful lunch with students at the Elysee housing in Trou aux Biches, they shared their hopes and dreams for themselves and Africa. The ALU visit inspired the column, “African Leadership University re-imagines tertiary education: Innovations for problem solving and entrepreneurship” (August 15, 2016). I noted that some fresh universities “reject the usual ways of getting young adults to learn: lectures, textbooks, slogs in the library, exams – and professors. Instead students work on projects in teams, trying to solve problems” as entrepreneurs.
Recently, Swaniker cited three reasons why he decided to live and work in Africa. Edited slightly for space, he said the following:
1.Africa is an entrepreneur’s paradise
“Africa today is where China was 30 years ago. So those on the ground today will capture all these exciting opportunities. This is especially so if you think like an entrepreneur. You see, entrepreneurs succeed by solving problems for society, and guess what – we have so many problems just waiting to be solved in Africa! For this reason, I call Africa ‘an entrepreneur’s paradise’.
“For example, we still need to create great infrastructure. So why not be the one to build Elon Musk’s ‘hyperloop’ and enable fast transportation across Africa, without us having to build expensive and obsolete highways? Or why not be the one to build low-cost housing for the 800 million people who will be moving into African cities over the next 40 years? Why not be the one to leverage technology to create low-cost healthcare or education for the hundreds of millions of Africans who don’t have it today? Why not take advantage of Africa’s abundant land, sunshine, and rain to become an ‘agro-billionaire’ by growing and exporting huge amounts of food to the world’s ballooning population? If you have an artistic flair, why not be the one to create the African Disney? Why not be the one to figure out how to bring consumer credit to hundreds of millions of people – perhaps using blockchain technology? Or become rich by creating tourism businesses that also promote the conservation of Africa’s wildlife? The list goes on. There is SO MUCH entrepreneurial opportunity in Africa!
“In Africa, the ideas are simple. They’re just waiting for smart and courageous people to make them happen. With the exception of Elon Musk, I’ve never heard of an African billionaire in the USA. Almost all the African billionaires we know – Strive Masiyiwa, Aliko Dangote, Patrice Motsepe, Jim Ovia, Folorunso Alakija, Mo Ibrahim, Manu Chandaria, etc – made their fortunes right here in Africa.”
2. You can climb the corporate ladder faster in Africa
“All businesses in Africa need 3 things: a viable product, some capital, and talented teams. Of those three, most people think capital is in the shortest supply. That’s not true – it’s actually fairly easy to get capital as an entrepreneur if you have the right idea. The real shortage most businesses in Africa struggle with is finding well trained talent with the skills to execute. We have tremendous skills gaps in crucial areas that will be important for Africa to stay competitive. So if you’ve studied abroad and acquired those skills, you’ll be a hot commodity on the continent. I experienced this firsthand when I moved to Johannesburg after my first degree and started working with McKinsey. I was given far greater responsibilities than my colleagues who were working for the same company in New York. As a result, my career took off much faster than my peers who stayed in the USA.”
3. The priceless value of respect and dignity
“There is one thing I value far more than money or a successful career–and that is dignity and respect. In the USA, no matter how successful you get, you may be seen as a ‘foreigner’, an outsider, and (especially as the world becomes increasingly racist), even worst things. For example, before Uber came along, I had so many experiences of taxi drivers in New York driving right past me – a successful black man wearing a suit – to pick up the white passenger. The ability to live in your own continent and not have to suffer such disrespect is something that I can’t begin to put a value on. I love living in Africa, listening to our own music, eating our own food, being close to family, friends, and others who respect me for who I am not and because of my skin color. Nothing beats that!”
We all have a role to play
“Of course, while returning home was the right choice for me and many others, it may not be right for everyone. If I haven’t convinced you about the phenomenal opportunities that exist on the continent, all is not lost. You can still play a role: last year, Africans abroad sent $33billion to Africa, which typically compares to or even exceeds foreign aid sent to Africa. This is all investment that can support businesses on the continent.
“A program that we run called the Africa Business Fellowship (ABF) brings young American professionals (mostly graduates from top MBA programs) to Africa to work in African companies for about 6 months.
After their 6-month stint, the number one question on their minds was – how can I stay on the continent? Almost all of them didn’t want to go back to America! – which goes to show that something special is happening on this continent. I hope many young Africans around the world will come home and be a part of it.”
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