There was change in the air in the leafy suburbs of Ota, Ogun state in Nigeria a fortnight ago. The first cohort of the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurs Program gathered together to embark on one of the more exciting challenges of our times – an ‘entrepreneur-led development’ model that seeks to create sustainable businesses that will generate $10 billion in revenue and create a million jobs in Africa over the next decade, all the while addressing social issues that will foster stability and security.
I felt like a kid in a candy store listening to members of my cohort oozing with confidence and boundless energy as they begin their noble quests in using business to address pressing social issues. Some of the note worthy ventures being undertaken include ventures that deal with local issues such as waste management to the outright daring – using unmanned aircrafts to boost agricultural yields in the inhospitable Sahel region.
The journey began with a grueling application process in which 5% of applicants from 51 African countries were selected out of a pool of over 20,000 applications.
Participants have benefited from the seven pillars of this program which have included a start-up enterprise toolkit, mentoring, online resources, bootcamp and in the course of the year, an entrepreneurship forum, seed capital funding and upon completion, being part of the program’s alumni network.
The highlight of the program for me was the bootcamp. My objectives going into this event were the opportunity to meet and be inspired by business leaders and entrepreneurs, put a name to the faces that I had been in touch with over the last couple of weeks and build lasting relationships.
The occasion far exceeded my expectations. We were spoiled for choices with a list of speakers, which included leaders in business, civil society, entertainment and public officials such as the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Prime Minister of Benin and the Governor of the State of Kaduna.
Our patron, Tony Elumelu also provided us with a no holds barred opportunity to learn more about him, his successes (and failures) and his expectations from us. He made it abundantly clear that failure was not an option for us. That said, it was reassuring to note that he is willing to do what he can to ensure we succeed.
Not to be outdone, the entrepreneurs also shared their stories with each other, cross-pollinated ideas and when the time was ripe, took to the dance floor with gusto, amidst laughter, drinks and great expectations from each other.
The common themes that appeared to embody the aspirations of these inspired young men and women were a profound sense of mission, customer/people-centric approach, improvisation and tinkering, adapting best practices to local environments and more importantly, a can-do attitude.
If history is any guide, this can-do attitude may be a harbinger of a transformation that could alter the face of the continent in profound ways as was witnessed on the sunny morning of February 28th, 1948 at Christiansborg Castle in Accra, Ghana. Returning ex-servicemen from the Gold Coast Regiment who had fought alongside His Majesty’s army in Burma, emboldened by their exploits in the war, demonstrated against the colonial authorities due to unfulfilled promises.
The agitation of these men created a sense of awareness and a crescendo that emboldened “troublemakers” such as Kwame Nkrumah and his cohort of “uppity” Young Turks of their time to cause even greater mischief that eventually toppled the erstwhile British colonial regime. The rest of sub-Saharan Africa was not spared the remorseless march of this rebellion. Just three years later, another 17 countries, a stunning 40% of previously unliberated African colonies were freed, bringing down the mighty edifice of European imperial rule.
The confidence and assertiveness of the returning service men changed the face of Africa. However, it is far from complete. Almost 70 years have passed us by with very little to write home about since that fateful morning. In the intervening period, have been unfulfilled potential, false dawns and a desperate desire for the continent’s leaders to re-discover the buccaneering zeal of its forebears to lay the foundation that will bring the best out of the continent’s most valuable resource – its people – to create a virtuous path that will generate prosperity, foster stability and promote security. Thankfully in Africa’s enterprising youth, they need not look too far out for inspiration.
The author is a Tony Elumelu Entrepreneur and a Managing Partner of West Africa-focused investment funds, Diaspora Capital and The Heart of Africa Economic Empowerment Fund (HOA Fund).
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