How Africa wins through design-centered and learned entrepreneurship

Africa is not just rising – Africa is transforming – and this transformation can be accelerated through the continent’s entrepreneurial savannah, our 54 diverse and unique versions of Silicon Valley.
To do this, however, we need to embrace two other dimensions – the importance of design thinking and the role that learning plays in stimulatulating entrepreneurial drive. Embracing these three-dimensions will better position the continent to realize its potential for unprecedented and inclusive growth.

African entrepreneurs who can match their entrepreneurial drive with a design-oriented mindset and a desire for continuous learning, have the unique opportunity of realizing their mission and subsequently impacting both individuals and communities alike. In my research and observation since 2008, through traveling most of Sub-Saharan Africa, I believe there are five common themes (the Big 5) that are critical for entrepreneurs and those seeking to help drive entrepreneurship need to embrace in order to realize inclusive sustainable growth.

First, embracing the pan-Africanism mindset as the new business competency that must be taught, exercised and adopted across the continent. When M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing, and microfinancing service, was first introduced in Kenya, few would have guessed how it would impact people’s lives well beyond Kenya and East Africa’s borders. Today M-Pesa has revolutionized financial inclusion and is delivering real impact to millions of Africans (and individuals in other parts of the world) every single day. Now imagine how similar products and solutions can be created when we intentionally think pan-African.

While the continent, through the African Union, is making steady progress to connect the 54 nations, Africans are, for the most part, connected – not only through the cultural context – Africans are now increasingly digitally connected. African entrepreneurs, embracing the pan-African mindset, have the opportunity to create a new wave of African digital renaissance. We can only think beyond our own borders when we understand that we have a unique platform of 54 countries where we can sell, trade and connect. A challenge to an aspiring entrepreneur; next time you are on social media try to search for similar entrepreneurs in other parts of the continent – you will not be disappointed.

Second, and perhaps the most challenging of the five, is having reliable and accessible African data. As one of the World Economic Forum’s reports highlighted: “there is scarce information on the number of existing jobs, of newly created jobs, and of unfilled vacancies in specific sectors, undermining efforts to systematically assess and develop the continent’s skills base”. The same applies for the development sector, trying its best to improve the overall quality of health and education. While this has significantly improved, more remains to be done. Cracking the African data puzzle requires steady collaboration between governments, the private sector, academia and entrepreneurs. It is like a catch twenty-two.

On one hand, entrepreneurs need reliable data to articulate their business plans, and other hand , having reliable data on its own presents a great business opportunity. The business of data, African data in particular, is beyond growing a profitable business, it is about saving lives and providing targeted business opportunities that will create positive change.

Third, we need to embrace design thinking to foster a growth mindset and scalable market-ready solutions. Now, let’s demystify what the design thinking approach is all about. Conceptualized by a leading design company, IDEO, design thinking is a way to address identified challenges with practical solutions that can be ideated, tested and evaluated in a fraction of the time, money and other resources it takes most organizations to address some of the challenges affecting the continent. In other words, you need to visualize both the problem and potential solutions when applying design thinking – and there is nowhere else in the world where the two sides of the same coin are as pressing or as critical as in Africa – where the challenges are in need of urgent and practical solutions. While more and more countries are adopting the idea of teaching entrepreneurship at public schools, I believe design thinking should be made a focus point of any curricula, and can be taught as early as in primary school.

The fourth idea is to address the unemployment dilemma by creating a conducive environment for the future massive wave of employees – Africa’s entrepreneurs. An estimated 15 to 20 million increasingly well-educated young people are expected to join the African workforce every year for the next three decades. Delivering the quality jobs to match, in order to fully leverage the continent’s demographic opportunity, is set to be one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s defining challenges over the coming years.

The fifth idea is that there needs to be more focus on game-changing killer apps to spark the inclusive growth that the continent needs – particularly in the Agriculture sector. Like in other parts of the world, around the continent, entrepreneurs and innovators alike are chasing the next killer app. In my journey around the continent, at least one out of three entrepreneurs I engaged with will be speaking about the killer app she or he is working on and how it will change things for the better – the Uber, LinkedIn or Facebook of something.

If there is one killer app that will change everything for Africa, it has to be in the Agriculture sector. We all know how agriculture has transformed the world over, and Africa is blessed with most of world’s uncultivated land and an energized and youthful population.

Like data, the world will always need food and other products that are part of the agriculture sector. The real enabler is in related industries integrating manual and digital platforms to develop solutions for agrichemicals, breeding, crop production (farming and contract farming), distribution, farm machinery, processing, and seed supply, as well as marketing and retail sales. There are many killer apps (both digital and manual) that African entrepreneurs can create in the agriculture sector that will bring prosperity the continent needs.

These entrepreneurs are uniquely placed to transform Africa and drive prosperity. Moreover, from the young and promising entrepreneurs like Kizito to the massively successful, like Dangote, Elumelu, Gore, Djondo, Dewji, Masiyiwa and others, Africa has a unique opportunity to leverage its design-centered entrepreneurs to transform hundreds of millions of lives.

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