Business & Economics

Africa’s young entrepreneurs seek to inspire its leaders

Africa’s enterprising youth champion a new development model that will generate prosperity while fostering stability and promoting security. The ethos they embody may be the inspiration that challenges African leaders to re-discover the buccaneering zeal of their forebears who led the independence movement.

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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For editorial inquiries contact: Stories@ZnewsAfrica.com

Sankofa: Investing in Africa in the Rising Era

Editor’s note: This is a recap of the 2016 Wharton in Africa Business Forum. If you’re interested in attending the 2017 event Nov 3-5, visit: http://wabf2017.whartonafrica.com.

“I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.” – First Prime Minister and President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah

Africa has been painted with a negative perception by many, which has created a distorted, one-dimensional view by individuals in the West. In multiple scenarios, members of the African diaspora sometimes partake in this deception, telling narratives that catapult negative stereotypes and in turn, harm the growth of the continent.

Africa has been perceived through a prism of disease, starvation, corruption, poverty, and war. Author Chimamanda Adichie coined this “a single story.”  Even after the celebration of more than 50 years of independence in most African countries, the manacles of ignorance and the portrayal of the media still sadly cripple the continent in the perspectives of many.

For myself, pursuing a westernized education was a driving force in shaping my identity as an African. It provided me with a macroscopic view of the continent and propelled me to comprehend the bottlenecks faced by generational leaders.

There is a popular word in Ghana called Sankofa, which loosely translates to “go back and get it.” Growing up, I never understood the potency of the word, but as I look back today, this word alone has imbued in my ethos a reasoning to not look past Africa as the ultimate destination to grow, harvest, and sell my crops.

This past weekend at the annual Wharton Africa Business Forum, the agenda was to explore the diverse business opportunities that lie in the intersection of the public, private, and social sectors across Africa. Throughout the conference, professionals exchanged ideas, pitched initiatives, and expressed both their excitement and frustration about the state of the continent. It was both awakening and inspiring.

As Richard Branson said, “Finding something frustrating and seeing an opportunity to make it better is what entrepreneurship is all about.” Based on Branson’s quote, it could be argued that almost every attendee present embodied an entrepreneurial drive and possessed a burning flame in their hearts to make a difference on the continent. However, the apparent roadblock seemed to be “How, when, and why do I even begin?”

The first keynote speaker, Ambassador Herman Cohen, President and CEO at Cohen and Woods International and Consultant on Africa at ContourGlobal, advised attendees to look at Africa as an investment destination as opposed to a humanitarian destination.

In her book – Dead Aid – Dr. Dambisa Moyo echoes this statement by making the case that overreliance on aid has stagnated the growth of developing nations by leaving these countries in poverty, leaving their leaders more dependent on aid, and funneling corruption.

According to the World Bank, there is a trillion dollars of African money not sitting in Africa. For this money to circulate the continent, it’s imperative members of the African diaspora put an end to exporting commodities and importing foreign goods. To fill the missing components in the enigma, Ambassador Cohen highlights the lack of technological advances and storage as the problem. For example, 40% of African food goes to waste due to lack of storage and innovative technologies to catapult its longevity.

Leading thinkers, such as Sangu Delle, have created more sustainable ways of growing the continent and produced more jobs through local investments. By investing in the agro processing company Stawi, the company has leveraged economies of scale to create value for people on the African continent. Stawi – like most successful businesses – was born out of frustration.

The founder, Eric Muthomi, noticed the over 400,000 banana farmers in Kenya who produced too many bananas, which eventually went to rot. He then decided to take the bananas and make banana based gluten-free flour and baby food. Today, Stawi foods are sold throughout the Kenyan market. But this is just one success story.

One third of food, beverages, and similar processed goods consumed in Africa is imported. This goes to show a plethora of problems go unsolved on the continent every single day, which creates an opportunity for working members of the African diaspora to play an integral role in enhancing the growth of the continent.

In most African countries, there has been a recent influx of foreigners – particularly from Asia – who gradually invest in the abundance of resources such as infrastructure and agriculture. Unfortunately, most Africans on the continent are unable to take part in their endeavors because of their limited knowledge and experiences in comparison to their Asian counterparts. Foreign investors have compensated for this disparity by bringing thousands of their own laborers and businessmen; this group represents a new face of globalization.

While foreigners are able to benefit from these emerging industries, members of the African diaspora still remain disadvantaged, with only 10% of trade occurring among Africans. However, on the fortunate end, independent court systems have been established to operate fairly in a number of African countries. Regional groups, such as The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have also made it simpler for Africans to trade among themselves.

All these practices contribute to making it simpler for commerce to exist between African nations, thus making it increasingly difficult for foreigners to sell cheaper to Africans. As Ambassador Cohen added,

“The key is not Foreign Direct Investment, the key is African Investment.”

Often times, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes may have the resources, skill-sets, determination, and commitment to succeed however; the missing ingredient boils down to capital. Keynote speaker Sacha Poignonnec, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Jumia, shares that finding the money to execute on an idea is not the hardest part of investing in Africa, the challenge is finding the right investors to hold the rope tight as you climb mountains.

Simply put, the worst thing an entrepreneur can do is to train an unseasoned investor about the continent. Poignonnec proposed for entrepreneurs to do their due diligence before committing to any capital, no matter the scenario. To emphasize this point, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, Co-Founder of Andela and Flutterwave, believes that positioning yourself in the right circle makes funding inevitable. He added that investors are averse to risk-taking and unless an entrepreneur has the right track record or a Co-Founder with the experience to complement her skill-set, it is best not to approach an investor right away.

Different experts have varying opinions on the subject however; funding is not the most important hurdle. Poignonnec advised participants to have an idea that is relevant to the people. Often times, entrepreneurs looking to invest fail to conduct a thorough market research on the ground prior to execution. Having so much belief in an idea to the point where you fail to fully comprehend the problem is a setback for many.

Joe Gebbia, Co-founder of Airbnb, proposes “Enlightened Empathy” as the solution to this. According to Gebbia, “Enlightened Empathy is the process of seeing the world so closely in the shoes of the person you are creating for to the point where you see the world the way that they see it and you bring those insights back to the drawing board, combine it with your own design point of view, to create something new.” When channeling your ideas to fruition, Poignonnec encourages participants to strengthen the intersection between three things; talent, brain, and heart. Aboyeji, on the other hand, proposes that it’s best to burn bridges. He believes for an entrepreneur to have one leg in and another out will most likely result in two of many things: cash burn on flights and dwindling profits.

Fred Swaniker, Founder & CEO of the African Leadership Academy, also offered his perspective on the conversation. His formula is simple; pay early employees less than the salary received from their past occupations. This is the mark of true commitment. The recent trend of moving back to Africa has been closely associated with obligation. Swaniker challenges members of the African diaspora to move back not as a sense of obligation, but because it’s an opportunity of our lifetime. He also added,

“We, as black people, will never be fully respected until we have economic power. The reality is this happens in Africa.”

As you look into strengthening the economic pillars of Africa, a few of many sectors to consider include Agriculture, Power, and Payments. Today, approximately 60% of the African population is in the agricultural sector. However, the most talented individuals are leaning towards more conventional sectors for the sake of prestige. Although agriculture has been perceived through a dark lens for many years, the problem is the definition.

Agriculture is more than planting and cultivating, it is every little thing we touch. This includes the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the cement used in building our homes, et al. Power, on the other hand, has recently tickled the fancy of well-read African Millennials. However, there is still potential for growth because 5-10% of annual sales on the continent are lost from electricity outages in Angola, Egypt, and Nigeria. An increase in talents and investments are definitely needed in this sector to fuel enterprises to amass on the continent. As the continent grows and as power plants and innovative renewable energy products are prioritized, manufacturing of local goods will be prevalent.

As highlighted in “Lions on the move II,” McKinsey Global Institute’s widely acknowledged report on Africa’s economic prospects, anywhere between 6 million to 14 million stable jobs could be created through increased manufacturing output. In addition to that, there will be a $326 billion increase in annual revenue by 2025 possible for African manufacturers targeting domestic markets. To make trade between villages, cities, and countries as seamless as possible, Payments will play an integral role. Incredibly intelligent members of the African diaspora are creating some of the most powerful APIs to enable local vendors to accept payments, build, and scale their businesses across the continent. It is no wonder six of the fastest growing economies are currently in Sub- Saharan Africa.

“Lions on the move II” discusses that the continent will profit from rising global demand for natural resources; boast a consumer market of 128 million households by 2020; and see its labour force top 1 billion people by 2040. In addition to this analysis, it is important to keep in mind that investors love transformation. They want to get into spaces that are going through a major transformation from being seemingly horrible to being very powerful. Sankofa. But before that, ponder and you may realize the opportunity you may be overlooking.

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Jephthah Acheampong is an Entrepreneur, Writer, and Storyteller based in New York. Equipped with a background in Economics, Jephthah writes as a millennial voice on social justice, women equality, and education. He currently serves as Director of Sales & Marketing at Esusu. Jephthah also founded Anansi Global, a non profit empowering youth in Ghana by providing quality education and mentorship.

View his work at www.jacheampong.com or find him on Linkedin.

For editorial inquires contact: stories@znewsafrica.com

Fostering A Paradigm Shift in Innovation Across Africa

(Photo by Benny Jackson on Unsplash)

By Jephthah Acheampong

From the 18th to 19th centuries, the First Industrial Revolution which used water and steam power to mechanize production occurred. Africa missed it. Between 1870 and 1914, the Second which used electric power to create mass production occurred. Africa missed it. During the 1980s, the Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Africa missed that one too. Since the middle of the last century, the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is often categorized as the digital revolution is building on the Third, where a fusion of technologies is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. For the very first time, Africa is taking part of a revolution that is bringing with it the promise of dramatic changes in the way people live and work, and perhaps even the way people think. Unlike the preceding revolutions, the Fourth can help Africa participate in the globalized economy and improve the quality of life for many. With this revolution comes emerging technologies such a mobile connectivity, artificial intelligence, next-generation robotics, and 3D printing that can be utilized to drastically innovate  supply chains and factory floors. Africa now has the potential to be at the forefront of this exciting change.

In the recent Stern in Africa Business Forum where leaders from various industries convened to share insights on the Forum’s theme: “The Tipping Point: Accelerating Africa’s Agenda,” innovation seemed to at the forefront of each panel. As Keynote Speaker Samuel Alemayehu, Head of Africa & Managing Director at Cambridge Industries Ltd. shared, there are two kinds of innovations on the African continent; (1) Designing for extreme affordability and (2) Designing for extreme survival. One of the most romanticized examples pertaining to Alemayehu’s point is microloans accessibility. In many African economies, microloans have been the most prescribed financial empowerment tool for low-income groups to attain the immediate capital needed to launch a business or to cater for their families. This scenario is analogous to designing for extreme affordability because most entrepreneurs have been innovating around poverty for many years. On the other hand, designing for extreme survival means taking Keynote Speaker Child Liberty’s approach to co-founding Liberty & Justice by directly tackling poverty. As Africa’s first Fair Trade Certified apparel manufacturer, he and his team set out to build a factory that employs a robust women workforce, where a 51% to 49% factory ownership split is enforced. This empowers their employees to feel apart of the company’s vision.

Based on my experiences serving on the African continent, there’s definitely room for both forms of innovation. Africa is the only continent that will experience exponential population growth in the coming decades and unemployment may be the greatest problem the continent faces as a result. Similar to Lu Ka Yew’s approach of taking Singapore From Third World to First World, Africa too can surpass this ongoing problem by using microloans to catapult the widespread networks of small businesses, which are the real creator of good jobs as opposed to corporate giants who are slowly becoming reliant on automation. It’s evident Child’s approach to tackling poverty may be unconventional however, as Keynote Speaker Bisili Bokoko echoed, “to be an entrepreneur serving African markets, you really don’t know what’s next but you have to trust the process. It’s easier to do business now because we are in an economy of generosity. We are in the economy of sharing…” In a new study by McKinsey & Company, titled Dance of the lions and dragons, nearly a quarter African-based Chinese enterprises recovered their initial investment within 12 months, while 50% reported it took them three years or less. Most attribute this success to right timing and their level of expertise, which may definitely be true. However, it will also be sophomoric to overlook three important factors discussed at the forum and projected to play a role in Africa’s economic growth in the next decades: Manufacturing, Infrastructure, and Governance.

Manufacturing in Africa

In the most recent presidential campaign in Ghana, one promise seemed to be at the forefront; One District, One Factory. In this promise, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo gave the assurance that each of the 216 districts across the country would get a factory within the first four years of his government. It comes as no surprise that the country’s Foreign Direct Investment inflows hit 1.3 billion dollars in September 2017, as recorded by the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre (GIPC). As Liberty shared during his keynote address, “it’s important to really consider manufacturing when doing work on the continent because it’s an investment that will be really difficult for outsiders to make.” Unfortunately, simple commodities such as matches are not manufactured anywhere on the continent however, almost every single household, if not all, own a pack. Microscopically assessing, Angola’s agro-processing is likely to play a particularly significant role, accounting for 48.2% of the manufacturing sector and in Ivory Coast and Ghana, over 2 million small-scale farms produce nearly 60% of the world’s supply of cocoa. Yet, only 3% of Africans are employed in manufacturing, as compared to 15% in Beijing, China.

According to the latest Africa Agriculture Status Report, the continent’s food market may be worth more than $1 trillion each year by 2030 as imports are substituted with high-value locally-produced food. Although this creates an immensely lucrative opportunity for entrepreneurs in the manufacturing sector, most African economies – such as Nigeria – are still fixated on the availability of mineral reserves and oil. This level of thinking is what led Nigeria’s economic expansion to being ephemeral, unsustainable, and extremely unequal, thus resulting in one of the worst recessions on the continent. In 2014 alone, 30% of China’s GDP came from manufacturing, according to the World Bank. By comparison, Nigeria’s share stood at just 9%, Kenya 12%, and Zambia 8%. As summed up by Joe Kraus, one of the leaders of the dot.com boom of the late 1990s, the availability of new manufacturing technologies, which diversify production and multiple markets for local producers, makes the shift to a decentralised economy easier than ever. Until we choose to re-construct our wealth creation model by marrying emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution with our manufacturing sectors, poverty levels will only continue to rise as we approach a population of 2.5 billion by 2050.

 

Infrastructure in Africa

Entrepreneurs can help mitigate poverty when they can leverage already built infrastructure on the ground. However, for African entrepreneurs to be more productive, it’s imperative to increase innovation, apply the latest technologies to implementations, and focus on more value-added products and services. This is where smart introduction of mechanization will be needed, combined with a significant effort in training and skills development. In most African economies, there’s evidently an influx of foreign business women and men bringing in their own workforce; this is seemingly the new face of globalization. As a result, a continent where 200 million people are aged between 15 and 24 end up being displaced from the workforce primarily due to the infrastructure gap across universities. As Speaker Amini Kajunju – Director of Strategic Partnerships at Africa Integras – shared, “there’s currently a $48 billion-dollar gap in providing the appropriate infrastructure in African universities.” Without infrastructure, it becomes incredibly difficult to retain quality teachers. The lack of quality teachers further results in students focusing on scholarly development, as opposed to learning the practical skills needed to excel in the labor force. Foreign companies will be more willing to do business and hiring Africa’s youth once innovators can show predictability in bridging the infrastructure gap.

On the other hand, when we observe countries such as Ethiopia which is on a mission to be a middle-income economy by 2025, China is supplying much-needed infrastructure projects, such as power, roads and bridges, enhancing intra-African trade. Although this is commendable, one integral area in which Africa could benefit from foreign country cooperation and lessons is in the area of knowledge transfer. The jobs and skills gap in Africa is wide and only growing wider as its population explodes. For Africa to take advantage of this potential demographic dividend, encouraging foreign investors to focus on working with universities to bridge the jobs and skills gap is a worthy start. Today, mobile connections are widespread across Africa, making virtual and mobile training techniques a great entry point needed to overcome the lack of immediate training infrastructure. Also, vocational training with a key focus on artisan skillsets is essential because it fosters global commerce, thanks to policies such as The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The main objective of AGOA is to help facilitate the integration of Sub-Saharan Africa into the global economy. Across all industries, there is clear evidence that the technologies that underpin the Fourth Industrial Revolution coupled with the right policies in place are slowly having a major impact on development.

Governance in Africa

When it comes to Africa, entrepreneurs can choose to be dispassionate about politics but cannot afford to be dispassionate about governance. In many countries across Africa, corruption and poverty results from poor governance. Organizations such as Transparency International are working to address this issue by giving voice to the victims and witnesses of corruption. They also work with governments, businesses and citizens to stop the abuse of power, bribery, and secret deals. Despite their commendable efforts, entrepreneurs such as Alemayehu continue to face roadblocks when doing business on the continent due to failed intellectual properties. This is not foreign to many. As he shared, “Africa is a continent that has to live in the limits of the reality of its implementations so we often see a lot of bandages versus cure on the continent.” Therefore to catapult innovation on the African continent, it’s imperative to think as Policy Entrepreneurs. According to Oby Ezekwesili, a Nigerian Chartered Accountant, “Policy Entrepreneurship is using your knowledge of the sector that you are operating in as a basis to engage governments on why it needs to play certain roles and also giving them an incentive to pursue that role.” Businesses fail to be competitive due to poor governance; Foreign Direct Investment slowly begins to dwindle, and tariffs continue to elevate. It’s no surprise Africa’s richest man – Aliko Dangote – shared in an interview that “we cannot get things right unless there is good cooperation between politicians and the businessmen.”

As briefly mentioned earlier, Africa’s population is set to double by 2050 as the continent’s problems with poverty, joblessness and health issues mount. We, as Africans, will be in a more frightful situation than we are already unless we stop doing business as usual. Above all, it is important that African governments, businesses, labour unions and communities work together to develop economic clusters. As Bokoko shared, “…there are two reasons people go into business; to fulfill people’s dreams or to remove people’s frustration.” When it comes to doing business in Africa, the entrepreneurs who start on their own and refuse to develop the policy entrepreneurship mindset will have a hard battle to fight and will also need to have deep pockets to drive consistent innovation regardless of their reasoning. The promising thing is as the physical, digital, and biological worlds continue to converge, new technologies and platforms will increasingly enable citizens to engage with governments, voice their opinions, coordinate their efforts, and even circumvent the supervision of public authorities. Simultaneously, governments will gain new technological powers to increase their control over populations, based on pervasive surveillance systems and the ability to control digital infrastructure.  

Africa currently boasts about 1.2 billion people. To foster a paradigm shift in innovation across the continent is no small task, however nothing is impossible. As Alemayehu posed to participants, “‘Why is it so hard to innovate from the bottom of the pyramid?’ Because they have limitations.” To succeed in fostering innovation, one must work for the majority. Additionally, it’s imperative to first understand the societal structures evident because a one size fits all approach is simply a waste of time when launching a business in Africa. This exercise guides entrepreneurs in designing products and services that will not only be needed but will also better shape development. Steven Grin – CEO of Lateral Capital – shared on the Venture capital panel that, “11-13% of the population in Africa are receiving 1/100 of VC capital….even when South Africa’s Venture capitalists look up, they don’t see Africa, they see Europe.” This creates room for another topic subtly touched upon during the forum; Impact Investing. Impact investing is investing that aims to generate specific beneficial, social, or environmental effects in addition to financial gain. As policy entrepreneurs embark on launching a business in Africa, this form of investing is something to highly consider. The winner of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not yet determined; it could very much be Africa provided we choose to abide by the closing remarks of Founder Adeola Adejobi, which is to connect with like-minded people, to create breakthrough products and services, and to invest in Africa as a collective.

 

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Jephthah Acheampong a contributor to ZNews Africa.

He is a Social Entrepreneur, Connector, and Writer. As a social entrepreneur, he is the founder of Blossom Academy, Africa’s first Data Science talent accelerator that trains and connects unemployed graduates in Ghana to the world’s most influential institutions operating on the African continent.

Jeph often writes as a millennial voice on a wide range of topics including business, entrepreneurship, and philosophy. He is passionate about the role entrepreneurship and innovation play in shaping the African continent.

Learn more at: www.jacheampong.com

For editorial inquires contact: stories@znewsafrica.com

Meet the Model and Athlete Launching ‘Tinder for Fitness’

Two-time Golden Gloves Champion, Ngo Okafor poses in his boxing gear.

(Photography by Eric Acquaye)

Written by Michael Rain

Ngo Okafor entered his crowded apartment. It was filled with tall stacks of boxes. The boxes contained thousands of copies of his modeling calendar. His friends encouraged him to produce it but disappeared when it came time to market and promote it.

The boxes consumed his bedroom. They were blocking him from moving forward. They marked a physical representation of failure caving in on him. The calendars were now collections of wasted time.

Ngo went through a mild depression, wondering what he would do. “I said to myself, either you’re going to throw them all out or figure out a way to sell them all,” he recalled.

He decided to sell them. He bought a collapsible table, filled his backpack and duffel bag with 200 calendars and hit the streets. He set up shop in the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn, New York, where he offered the calendar for free. He invited people to donate any amount they liked. He gained traction and eventually worked his way over to Times Square, where he would start his day at 5 a.m. doing his best to get people’s attention and to sell every copy.

“People would just walk by me. Some people would laugh at me. Others would be like, ‘who the hell does this dude think he is?’and all kinds of verbal jabs,” he remembers. “And then other people would come at me and say ‘wow, amazing work!’ And I would sign a calendar for them and take pictures with them.”

When tourists discovered Ngo, that’s when things changed. They’ve never seen anything like him. A 6’5” striking and fit African man selling a high-quality calendar in person. They would buy several calendars at a time, and eventually, Ngo sold every, single, one.

This hustle and determination have helped Ngo garner a range of achievements in fashion, sports, fitness, and entrepreneurship. This Nigerian-American has defied expectations throughout his life, and now he is betting on the success of his startup.

Ngo is a 2-time Golden Gloves Boxing champion, winning at the ages of 33 and 34. He’s graced the covers of top-line publications as a fashion and fitness model for FORTUNE, VOGUE, W, ESPN Magazine and The Source. And for over a decade he’s been the top celebrity fitness trainer in New York, working with some of the world’s best-known beauties, including Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Jennifer Lopez.

FitMatch founder, Ngo Okafor shares a smile on a rooftop in New York City. Photography by Eric Acquaye.

Today, he is focusing his hustle as the founder of FitMatch, a social fitness app that he describes a “Yelp meets Tinder.” The app connects people who are looking for workout partners. Many of Ngo’s clients travel frequently and often lose motivation to exercise when they are away from home.

FitMatch uses geolocation technology to connect people worldwide, giving people the option to connect with someone else anywhere. FitMatch is also a solution for beginners looking for a workout buddy that is at a similar fitness level. Once users have found and connected with each other, they can keep one another accountable on their fitness goals, and provide inspiration and motivation.  

After interviewing loads of his clients and others, he determined that the disconnected offline world needed a simple way to connect with people for exercise and support.

“A lot of people don’t deal with humans anymore. You can wake up and have all of your services done by an app. You get on your phone you order an Uber. You get into work, sit in your cubicle, put your headphones on, you don’t talk to anyone. You order your food from seamless your food gets there. You go to the gym, get your headphones on, you work out you go home and the cycle starts all over again.”

“You don’t have to interact with people if you don’t want to. And when you want to interact with people you have Tinder, you have OK Cupid and now you have FitMatch when you’re looking for someone to workout with. That’s where the world is going. Make it as easy as possible for people to connect, and for people to get what they want.”

Founding FitMatch is a culmination of Ngo’s fitness, sports, and entrepreneurial past. He has a habit of setting his mind on new goals, learning what he can, and working his hardest to achieve success. Following this path has never been easy. As any African-immigrant knows, careers that fall outside of law, business, medicine, and engineering are not met with the most supportive reactions.

“My story has always been if a human being can do it, I can do it. No matter what it is,” he shares confidently. “People laughed at me when I said I was going to train as a boxer. I started boxing at 31, and I won my first Golden Gloves at 33 and won it again at 34.”

Ngo Okafor, founder of FitMatch. Photography by Eric Acquaye.

“So for me, I just focus and I learn. I just read a lot. I read about how other people did it and wonder how I could do it better.”

This approach is what kept a young Ngo together when he arrived in the U.S. from Nigeria, adjusting to hardships and pursuing what made him happy, despite not initially receiving support from his family.

“I left home when I was 18 and came to the U.S. Originally I studied computer science and I worked in IT for a while. I loved computers. I loved technology. But I loved so much more. I wanted to do so many other things. But you know what African parents are like, ‘You have to get that job. Get that insurance. Make money. You cannot make money from entertainment’. And I get it. It’s all they know.”

“I wanted to play sports. African parents don’t support that. I loved the arts. I got into modeling and I was doing pretty well at that. It wasn’t until people started saying ‘oh I saw him on this or I saw him on that’ that they started saying ‘oh you know congratulations’ or ‘you’re doing well.’”

“Before then they were like, ‘what are we going to tell our friends that our son is a model? What is that? Their son has come to America and now he is lost,” he says humorously.

His parents do not completely understand where he’s going with this startup, either. Nor do they understand how it could make him money, or the implications of its success. “They are like, well as long as you’re still training people and making money,” he laughs.

Ngo doesn’t worry about the people who do not support him or do not understand his journey or path. “People are out there waiting for you to fail because it makes them feel good about themselves. ‘How dare you succeed,’ because you if succeed that means they are not taking risks to do their best.”

He’s also not afraid of failure. “You learn from your mistakes. You can’t learn if you’re only winning all the time.”

“Work ethic is what gets me through anything,” he says with conviction. “That’s what helped me with boxing. That’s what helped me with this app. I’m not going to give up until it becomes the true success that I know it should become.”

Even if you don’t have your family’s support, and there is no app available to give you supporters of your dreams on demand, Ngo suggests taking your own journey and focusing on your talents and gifts.

“You don’t have to travel the beaten path. Trust that you have been given a gift that nobody else has. Believe in that gift.”

You can download FitMatch in the iTunes Store

For more about FitMatch visit: http://www.wefitmatch.com

Michael Rain is Chief Editor of ZNews Africa. Follow him on Twitter as @michaeljrain. 

For editorial inquires contact: stories@znewsafrica.com

Powered by Passion: An Investment Banker’s Journey to Build Social Good

By Michael Rain

At close to the end of a humid spring New York day, Laurel Djoukeng arrives in Brooklyn full of energy, and fatigue. The investment banker traveled from Midtown Manhattan to Flatbush in central Brooklyn after an already long day, but his workday is not over.

He projects a warm enthusiasm. His eyes are slightly weary, but his smile is bright enough to disguise most hints of weariness. His tie is sharp and his suit is freshly crisp, as he heads into a parent-teacher night at Erasmus Hall High School. He is attending the event to inform students, parents and educators about a free summer program offered by the non-profit organization he co-founded, Catalyst Network Foundation (CNF).

In the midst of an era of Black Lives Matter campaigns, adverse statics about the future of young African-Americans and reports on millions of missing Black men, Djoukeng has built a smart social impact enterprise that has benefitted hundreds of Black lives. His non-profit helps high school sophomores and juniors of color develop academic and professional skills through a variety of fellowships, programing and workshops.

CNF was launched in 2011, guided by the wisdom of experienced African-American elders and powered by a team of young and educated professionals of color. The organization operates in both New York City and Washington D.C. and maintains three cohorts with over 65 Fellowship Scholars who have moved forward to earn acceptance and attend selective colleges and universities.

CNF offers career workshops, SAT prep sessions, and college admissions events by partnering with Ivy League schools including Columbia and Harvard, as well as, top historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) including Spellman, and Djoukeng’s alma mater, Hampton University.

CNF has also exposed young people to corporate careers and industries through internships, company site visits, and special programs provided by financial leaders, tech titans and media powerhouses including, Google, Goldman Sachs, Nike, LinkedIn, HBO, Microsoft, Essence Magazine, Bloomberg, FOX News, BET, and NBC ‎Studios.

As Mr. Djoukeng’s prepares to introduce himself and CNF to faculty and parents, he reminisces about how this all began. This social impact venture wasn’t originally his planned path. His passion for community and several encouraging mentors led toward a journey to build it.

Djoukeng was born in Washington, D.C. His parents emigrated to the United States from Cameroon. They were from the same village, but met in the U.S. as students at Howard University. He moved to New York after graduating from Hampton University.

“What are you doing to help the community?” a gentleman about 60 years old would ask Djoukeng every day for two years as he walked home from work. He answered the man by sharing his contributions as mentor with iMentor and volunteering with other social good programs.

“No, what are you doing for this community?,’” the man would reply, referring to the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn Mr. Djoukeng lived at the time. Finally he asked the man what he needed to do to help out “this” community. He was directed to attend a meeting at Community Board 8, which covers most of the Crown Heights neighborhood.

At the meeting Djoukeng joined a committee and met Priscilla Maddox (whom he refers to as Miss Priscilla) who offered to drive him home. During the ride she asked him why there weren’t more Black professionals, entrepreneurs and famous people involved in community building.

“I think we learn how to give back when we had a base of support giving to us. Most young African-Americans just don’t have that platform,” he assessed.

“Then why don’t you build it?,” Miss Pricilla inquired. She planted the seed. She stressed that there needs to be a platform that gets young people of color from wherever they are to rise toward their goals. Reaching their potential takes a cultivation of a lot of things. It takes guidance, mentorship and a support system from the earliest stages of development.

The two spoke for over two hours and by the end of the conversation Djoukeng promised that he would work to build that platform.
“I just met her that night. I shook her hand and gave her my word that I would build this platform, even though I had no idea what I was committing to build,” he remembers.

Djoukeng assessed his experiences with non-profits he worked with in the past and thought about how he could recruit a committed team. He knew he would need to find people who were naturally passionate about the organization’s mission and their role in making the vision a reality. “I never reached out to someone blindly,” he says. “I engaged people, then figured out what they loved to do and then asked them to do it for CNF.”

The organization has been run by a team of passionate volunteers. There are no salaried employees atCNF. Djoukeng himself holds a full time job while operating the venture, as does his team, who all retain 9 to 5 employment.

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“Passion is the only thing that will make you want to get involved and do anything. We have volunteers who stay up until 2 and 3am to get work done even when I tell them not to do it. They go in that hard because they are passionate about it,” he shares with a proud grin.

Djoukeng began by working with his team to design an approach that helps young people identify their strengths and interests. They then receive guidance on how to pursue building a career based on their assessment.

“We feel like the most important thing is self-motivation. Once you’re self-motivated, you don’t need anything but the resources so you can go to where you want to go. We feel like the only way to get them to be self-motivated is to get them to feel like they are pursusing their passion. So we’re doing everything to help them discover what that is,” he shares.

The program gives students a head start to try a variety of interests and discover what they are good at and what they don’t like. CNF then cultivates their youth, provides a base of resources and then partner with organizations to facilitate that exploration.

One example of CNF’s approach is their summer intensive program. It guides the students in the discovery of their passions. They then learn practical steps on pursuing a career aligned with what they enjoy.

Strengths Finder 2.0 is used to assess the student’s character traits and leadership skills. Once the organization has identified what student’s have an aptitude for, the team then figures out which professional sectors compliment them.

Students’ soft skills are developed through workshops improving their public speaking, presentation ability, writing and resource skills in the two-week intensive program. They then work on a special project to hone their practical skills. Their hard skills grow through internships and hands on training.

“We create that ecosystem to help draft that roadmap for them to go from point A to point Z,” says Djoukeng. “It is always going to be fine tuned, because there is no way to do it perfectly.” He stressed, “We as young professionals are still trying to figure it out. We’re just ahead of the students at point F or point G. Going from point A to point Z is a never ending journey, but it’s critical to continue.”

While in college, Djoukeng saw his fellow classmates compromise on their dreams out of consideration of financial pressures and desires. It influenced him to set a framework for CNF to encourage students purse their passion and become aware of innovative ways to monetize on it. The goal is to provide them with the necessary recourses so they don’t have to conceed when they leave college.

Djoukeng just happens to love capital allocation and business development so he works in the sector that aligns with his interests, but “I’ll be damned if somebody told me I better learn illustration because what I love to do doesn’t pay the bills,” he says with a defiant eyes and smirk.

Much of what motivates the volunteers and partners of CNF is their sense of community, particularly as African Americans and people of color globally. This is something Djoukeng feels is prevalent but underreported and remains largely unacknowledged.

“Blacks want to see other blacks succeed. It’s not highlighted enough but they do” he shares as he remembers the support he received from Community Board 8. One board member was an attorney who helped him file a 501(c)(3) for free. Others donated their time and money to get the organization off the ground.

“The elders in our community have the wisdom and they want to help. They know where the bones are buried, but they don’t have the energy to execute anymore. Young people have ideas, but lack the capital. We need to keep that bridge together,” he says in a hopeful tone.

The public high school Djoukeng attended was predominately filled with Black and Latino students. There was a magnet program so the school had an influx of student from wealthier areas, which guaranteed that there were college prep resources available. He took AP classes and other challenging courses that helped him get into the schools of his choice when he became more serious about college.

“I was a jokester in high school. Some of my Black teachers saw me as that but once they found out I was applying the college they were some of the first ones to offer to write my recommendations and assist me through the process. These were teachers who had kicked me out of class or sent me to detention for being a jokester, but they became some of my greatest champions,” he shared.

Djoukeng’s assistant basketball coach, a proud Hampton alum, took him and a teammate on a tour of the University. They connected with a current student who was a senior and whom his coach took on the same tour of Hampton a few years prior. His coach then pushed him to complete his college application and get his recommendations in on time. “I didn’t know how big that was until now, when I’m doing the same thing for CNF students,” he says.

Between a finance driven day job and his social good organization, it might not be clear what Djoukeng’s passion is in his life. “I love to bring new ideas into fruition,” he says with a childlike smile. “I love coming up with new ideas and then working with people to make something that wasn’t there before exist.”

Djoukeng thinks back to that two-hour conversation four years ago with Miss Priscilla and says, “ I didn’t even know what I was committing to, but you don’t always know where things will go.”

He adds, “I always thought I would be the person who allocated capital to non-profits when I got older for initiatives that I liked. I never thought I would be running one. Never. You never know where ideas will lead you, but as long as you are still be pursing your interests, it will be a good place.”

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Michael Rain is the editor-in-chief of ZNews Africa. He communicates ideas through written and visual stories and has an ardent interest in expanding the perception of people of color. His editorial intrigue includes design and technology, and their relationship to culture. Say hello on Twitter @michaeljrain.

For Editorial Inquires: stories@znewsafrica.com

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