In this Q&A, Okendo Lewis-Gayle, founder of the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance, discusses Africa’s entrepreneurial future and the challenges and opportunities of a disparate continent.
At the heart of it all, because I’ve moved among so many different cultures and backgrounds, I simply don’t see barriers. I tend to focus more on the commonalities of individuals.
I grew up in Rome; I’m a historian by training who studied classics at Julius Caesar Lyceum in the shadow of the Colosseum and so the lessons of history have a powerful draw. Rome was once considered the Beijing, New York, London of its time, and now it’s just a beautiful open museum. The ancient Romans could never have even conceived of a world in which they would no longer be the center of the world — the Caput Mundi as they called it. So once you’ve explored this history, you see that yes, Africa might currently be home to the poorest people on the planet, but that is something we can entirely change. It has happened before and it will happen again.
In addition, because I am part of Africa’s historical diaspora and wasn’t born on the continent, it’s hard to pinpoint my origins. It’s easier for me to think not of disparate nations, Ghana or Nigeria or South Africa, but rather as “the continent,” the motherland. That has shaped my worldview and my ability and willingness to help bring together such a diverse group of people, building a pan-African alliance.
Harambeans are African innovators who have pledged to work together as one, to unlock the potential of Africa. We are an alliance of entrepreneurs who are building Africa’s future. We now have around 300 Harambeans, who have collectively raised over US$ 700m. Prominent innovators from Mark Zuckerberg to Jeff Bezos and Jack Ma have invested in Harambean-founded companies. Every year we get around 5,000 applicants and we accept 30, so it’s truly competitive.
We find ourselves at a central node in the conversation around entrepreneurship on the continent, and very much see our role as helping to build trust among these innovators, enabling them to share best practices and recycle knowledge, networks, and capital. What we’re seeing now is that Harambeans are investing in other Harambeans, hiring them. If you’ve seen the evolution of other entrepreneurial ecosystems, whether it’s Silicon Valley or the tech hubs in Israel and China, you’ll see that there are always small communities, the genuine collaboration of which unlocks the potential of the entire industry. Some of the serial entrepreneurs in the alliance are now investors, or are starting to become the policy makers. Our alliance is increasingly becoming the “living room” where innovators can feel comfortable to engage in creative exchanges and grow together.
In The Prosperity Paradox, authors Clayton Christensen, Karen Dillon, and Efosa Ojomo (who is part of the Harambean network) observe that the best of altruistic intentions — and billions of dollars of aid — have not lifted countries out of poverty. Instead, the authors advocate market-creating innovation as the key to prosperity.
At the core, The Prosperity Paradox reminds us that there are global implications to African innovation. It illustrates that some of the challenges that entrepreneurs are facing on the ground might actually be their advantages. Very much like Malcolm Gladwell tells us in his book David and Goliath, the constraints on capital and resources for many entrepreneurs mean that they have to think of creative and resilient ways to develop their businesses. There are some entrepreneurs who are trying to build products and services not just for the 80 million Africans in the middle class, but the 800 million who are not currently participating in the global economy. If they can find a way to deliver education and health care to people who can’t afford it, then this is of relevance not just to people in cities across Africa, but all around the world.
Entrepreneurship in Africa is often thought of as being on the periphery. However, before China had Alipay and America had Apple Pay, Kenya had M-Pesa. If we are successful in the alliance — in not just identifying entrepreneurs but helping them scale their ideas, next time China won’t need an Alipay because we’ll be able to scale the M-Pesas of Africa.
History is an important guide here. Henry Ford, who came up with the Model T, did not first have the government pave roads so that he could then build a car. Ford and other innovators developed technology that then became pervasive, and the government saw the need for the infrastructure. This is innovator-led development, or market-creating innovation.
In some cases we are fortunate enough to have governments that rally around those ideas as they take shape. In Singapore we’ve certainly seen that model. For Africa, sometimes it’s not a choice. Governments are highly constrained as they just don’t have the resources. But if necessity is the mother of all great inventions, Lord knows Africa has plenty of those.There was a proverb in antiquity, ex Africa semper aliquid novi, which means “out of Africa always something new.” I believe that this will be more relevant now than ever before. The convergence of the need and rapid advances in technology will ensure that African innovation will continue to surprise the world.
This year, two of our companies have already been declared unicorns — companies valued at over a billion dollars. And some of the commentary was fascinating, with people taken aback by such a development. I think, partly because the world has low expectations but really mainly because of the convergence of technology and necessity on the ground, we are going to see a lot more of this. There are exciting times ahead.
A great example is a company called Yoco, here in South Africa. This is a country where we have a first world and third world economy living side by side. It means that a whole host of people are not participating in the global economy. In many townships, there are a lot of businesses that are often not able to take credit cards or participate in financial systems. Yoco therefore found a way to provide them with calculator-sized sales machines that facilitate payments, and bring people into that bigger economy. Yoco really epitomizes what these market-creating innovators strive to do: create simpler, more affordable products so that more and more people can participate.
The truth is: once you figure out a better, less expensive way to do something, there’s a global knock-on effect. Companies in the first world want to utilize the inexpensive option too. The constraints of serving the underserved will therefore eventually be seen as an advantage, because if you have no option but to devise a creative way forward, you will redesign and reinvent. It’s an intriguing thing to see, how transformative these businesses can be for the whole world.
What we have to understand here is that these kinds of innovations require transformative, patient capital; require people who see the big picture, who understand that Africa’s challenges are opportunities. My genuine hope is that more people engage with what is happening here, how it’s relevant to the world. People who are interested need to gain proximity; get closer to these innovators, and in so doing, gain an understanding and confidence in the ability of these entrepreneurs to not just help us extricate ourselves out of seemingly impossible odds, but to help create global ventures.
I have great confidence because I spent the past 14 years seeing how these innovators from the continent are getting bolder. When we started, people thought: why would graduates from Harvard and Oxford go back to Africa? Back then, turning down Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase was a huge risk. And now these individuals apply. There are so many intractable problems on the ground. Now there are a plethora of Harambeans leaving impact across the continent.
If Africa is to seize the opportunities of the 21st century, linear thinking isn’t enough. Africa needs disruptive business models and unapologetic supporters of its disruptors, visionaries who will enable the continent to exceed expectations.
Dr. Mo Ibrahim demonstrates this best. In the 1990s, he had the audacity to believe that Africans could have cellphones. To the rest of the world it was a ludicrous business model; too expensive, there was just no way that people who couldn’t afford food could afford phones. And yet within six years, he established a company that he then sold for US$ 3 billion. Now Africa is the biggest market for these cellphones.
When we think about Africa Rising, it’s important to see that Africa’s opportunities are real, but so are its challenges. And there is beauty in that. Those early pioneers who ventured into the West and America to pursue a goal, they would recognize this. It’s a story unfolding, we are writing it as we speak.
Growing up in Italy, I remember some of my friends would go on summer trips to America, and upon returning would regale us with stories of an America beyond that which they recognized from the movies. They’d gotten off at the wrong exit on the highway and discovered that there was more out there than just Stanford and Harvard. When it comes to America, people are willing to have a complex and contradictory narrative in their heads, whereas when it comes to Africa, some have just accepted a single narrative. In reality it is complex. For example, I’m sitting in Cape Town. People come here and discover that it has vineyards and glamour — and that this is also the real Africa. We need people to learn that Africa is the full spectrum: black, white and all the grays in between, and that’s why we love it.
Trend is not destiny. To secure lasting gains from the exciting current momentum, more young Africans need to know that they can choose, and be equipped and supported, to establish market-creating innovations, fulfilling the promise of Africa Rising.