African digital entrepreneurs leading the way for COVID recovery and SDG acceleration

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Boris Ohanyan

The entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa is developing with more than 600 technology hubs supporting entrepreneurs and innovators in kick-starting businesses across the continent. However, the African continent is facing challenges such as affordable and meaningful connectivity, the digital skills gap, as well as regulation and policies, which are adapting to digital economy slowly. The session was focused on shedding light on how digital entrepreneurs accelerate the pandemic recovery, contribute to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as noted by the moderator, Mr Robert E. Skidmore, (Chief, Sector & Enterprise Competitiveness, International Trade Centre). The session presented recent digitalisation trends, respective outcomes of the research prepared by Briter Bridges, as well as two case studies with entrepreneurs from Africa sharing their experience on how their business models promote and achieve inclusiveness.

Although digital entrepreneurship in Africa has been widely discussed over the past years, certain issues need to be analysed in more depth., noted Ms Linda Nanan Vallée (ED, Fondation Jeunesse Numérique, Ivory Coast). She stated that many young entrepreneurs engage in the market not merely to seek business opportunities but to feed and sustain their families. She highlighted three overlooked contextual aspects requiring due consideration. Firstly, there is a lack of trust in local products and services offered by young entrepreneurs, especially when they make use of novel tools and solutions. Secondly, the access to markets and financial resources needs to be improved in African countries. Lastly, the arrival of foreign start-ups with better financial resources, needs to be addressed with due care, because local companies, often cannot afford to compete and retain their place in the market, necessitating temporary support to do so. In this regard, the Foundation worked on reviewing the Ivorian Startup Act to ensure it addresses the issue.

Vallée, who has been leading the Fondation Jeunesse Numérique since 2016, noted that the foundation has so far accelerated around 60 tech start-ups in different sectors of the economy. In March 2020, Fondation Jeunesse Numérique launched a call for projects to identify digital solutions proposed by youths to help tackling the pandemic, culminating in the launch of a mobile and web platform called Anticoro, providing a range of solutions useful in dealing with the pandemic.

The next speaker, Mr Theodore Klouvas (Senior Policy Officer Youth Employment, Orange Corners Programme, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands), noted that, during the implementation of the programs, both the resilience and fragility of entrepreneurs was observed. He noted that the pandemic has been a wake-up call and an opportunity to invest in infrastructures in improving the future. He presented the activities of Orange Corners programmme in promoting youth entrepreneurship in Africa. In this regard, he highlighted the lack of connectivity, access to internet, and the importance of always considering the context of Africa when offering solutions which address the local challenges with solid evaluation of programmes implemented and the data acquired.

Mr Ricky Rapa Thomson (Co-founder and director of Safeboda), shared the story of the Ugandan start-up and its contribution in overcoming the recent pandemic. He noted that most of the 20000 drivers hired by their company are young people who need to feed and sustain their families and repay loans. The company, in cooperation with the government, y delivered fresh produce, supporting market vendors, and the population during the lockdown. Overall, this aided the government in keeping people at home, as they did not need to go to the markets and pharmacies, but rather ordered the goods online. Thomson concluded his remarks by stressing that the government needs to support youth entrepreneurship, and not ignore the potential and the creative work of youths.

Mr Taha Jiwaji (Founder and CEO of BEEM) noted that the mission of BEEM is to offer an integrated communication and financial services platform, empowering enterprises in scaling quickly and effectively throughout the African continent. Their business saw an increase in demand in services offered by the company at the time of the lockdown. The speaker noted that they envision an Africa powered by enterprises, empowered through technology, believing that mobile technology would improve companies’ drive growth and commerce in Africa in the coming decades.

Mr Joshua Murima (Ecosystem Engagement Lead, Briter Bridges) presented some of the conclusions of its recent Africa Investment Report, summarising the funding activity across the continent. He noted that the pandemic hit capital deployment, venture capital, and that investors had a low appetite to invest. He highlighted the importance of access to finance and improved due diligence in digital format.

Ms Cecile Barayre-El Shami (Head, Capacity Building Programs on E-commerce, UNCTAD), noted that UNCTAD highlighted the need for consolidated efforts in spreading digital economy gains and closing the digital divide. She addressed two major trends shaping global digital landscape: the immense increase in the number of consumers buying online, and the coordinated international efforts to advance digitalisation. She noted the increase in public awareness of e-commerce. She also stressed that e-commerce development based on enhanced trust, is crucial. She addressed the lack of connectivity in many regions of Africa as the main challenge, and the need to create environmentaly friendly digital ecosystem as the main task.