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Enthusiasm and business acumen not enough for African Entrepreneurs

By Mohamed Osman and Abdelkarim A Hassan

Africa’s image as portrayed in the media is usually that of conflict and hunger; however, that image is rapidly changing and is quickly becoming a thing of the past. We are currently witnessing a time when Africa is filled with excitement, anticipation, and hope for a better tomorrow as opposed to the pain and despair of yesterday. Even the mindset of leaving the continent in search of better opportunities has transformed into that of staying and capitalizing on the current economic boom of the last 15 years.

The African diaspora which was to blame for much of the brain drain of the past century is now returning and investing in new businesses. According to a recent study by the UNDP, in 2014, 26 % of Africans created businesses, compared with 7.4 % in Europe and 13.4 % in the US.Africa economy These entrepreneurs do not lack enthusiasm and business acumen; however, it may not be enough to keep their ventures alive. Unlike young companies in the West, African businesses do not have ready access to loans and support. These entrepreneurs need various kinds of support to improve their business environment, enable job creation, and stimulate investment. Business in the Region is booming across all sectors from Information Technology and Telecommunications to Alternative Energy.

Today Africa is home to the worlds’ fastest growing economies, with a growing middle class whom are young and educated. The International Monetary Fund is predicting gross domestic product growth of between 2 and 6 percent or more for most of its countries in 2015, lifting millions of consumers into the mid-income category.

According to Dr. Bokrezion, Market Entry Strategist at Africa Business Jumpstart, “We follow media outlets featuring amazing opportunities in Africa and highlighting amazing returns on investment (ROI) reaching well above the global average. At around 15-25% ROI – sometimes even more than 30% – as compared to a global average of around 5-10%, Africa seems to be the place to put your money in”. In fact, Forbes states that according to the 2014 release of Dalbar’s Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior (QAIB) in the US, “the average investor in a blend of equities and fixed-income mutual funds has garnered only a 2.6% net annualized rate of return for the 10-year time period ending Dec. 31, 2013.”

So Africa is a little like a full pot of honey, and a lot of bees are flying around it, but they are not quite sure where to land. You don’t want to get stuck in sweet promises, right? The media at large is highlighting opportunities, but you hear little about how to go about your investment plans, whom to contact, and how you can ensure your contacts are reliable.

Recently joining in on the action have been angel investors whom focus on investing in African Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) to facilitate the creation of profitable and sustainable businesses. To learn more on the role of angel investors in Africa and East Africa in particular, we recently interviewed Matthew Davis, the co-founder of RENEW LLC, which has recently been featured in the Washington Post and Forbes, for its entrepreneurship, particularly the work that RENEW and other organizations and entrepreneurs are carrying out in Africa to support SMEs.

Washington DC Entrepreneurs Matt and Maure
Matt and Laura, photo- courtesy of Washington Post

Responding to a question we posed on the investment network organization, RENEW LLC; Matthew stated, “RENEW is an investment adviser that manages and serves the Impact Angel Network (IAN) – the largest U.S.-based angel network for Africa. We started RENEW because we believe it is better to focus on opportunities in developing nations rather than on the problems. We believe it is better to invest than to just provide handouts. We find promising businesses, invest in them, and grow them into world-class companies. We do this because we believe that many growing businesses together create prosperous nations.”
Although Africa is ripe for business opportunities, there still remains certain barriers to market entry. Various reports including the World Bank’s report on the ease of doing business often cite the high cost of doing business in developing countries. In the aforementioned report most African countries were portrayed as being risky and the high costs of doing business were often mentioned due to complex administrative procedures and bureaucratic regulations coupled with inefficient and weak judicial institutions. Vetting of the businesses could also be quite cumbersome, due to the lack of reliable data on credit history and business track records.

Addressing these challenges based on his past experience in Africa and Ethiopia in particular, Mathew stated ” We invest in ethical and visionary leaders who have a proven track record of successfully growing companies. We like businesses that make sense in the context of their industry and their country. For example, coffee, teff, livestock and fast moving consumer goods are sectors that make sense to invest in, in Ethiopia. We will consider start-ups on rare occasions, but they must be started by entrepreneurs who have already been successful in other ventures. The most important criteria is the entrepreneur, because investing is similar to getting married – you have to really believe in the person. RENEW and the IAN are private equity investors, so we are investing in companies that normally already exist in exchange for an equity position in those companies. So, the incentives we look at are generally at the company level.”

Africa Econ growthMatthew continued to say” My philosophy is that everyone can do better – and this mindset is what creates successful people, companies and countries. I also made a choice to invest in Ethiopia and I am a guest in this country. So, if I don’t like it, then I can leave. But I like it very much and plan to invest here for many years. I believe things are getting better every day!

On the aspect of growth prospects of SMEs in Africa, Matthew said ” the growth prospects depend on the entrepreneur. I think business owners need to really ask whether they are ready to enter the world market and compete with international companies. If so, they may need to learn new behaviors, adopt new customs and implement strategies that are different from their traditional ways. But, entrepreneurs are generally open to change and are driven to succeed; I think the prospects for SMEs in Africa are just as good as SMEs in Silicon Valley. I like the people, the food, and the many opportunities.”

Africa is in its natural progression to develop and move forward in pursuit of its true socio economic potential and likely will do so through this renewed entrepreneurial spirit.

Mohamed Osman
Email:[email protected]

Abdelkarim A Hassan
Email:[email protected]


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