Beating the odds

2013-10-20 14:00

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Africa has often been criticised for creating entrepreneurs out of necessity rather than innovation. This was also supported in a study conducted by investment firm Omidyar Network.

‘Efforts still need to be made to promote high-impact entrepreneurship based on opportunity rather than necessity,’ the report said.

At the recent African Entrepreneurship Summit held in Mauritius this month, entrepreneurs shared stories of how they started businesses, often without access to conventional financing and government structures. Mamello Masote was there.

Manu Chandaria

Kenyan-born industrial magnate Chandaria – who is also one of Africa’s 55 billionaires, according to Nigerian magazine Ventures – believes exposure to different countries and cultures contributed greatly to growing his multinational industrial company, Comcraft Group, which manufactures steel, aluminium and plastic products.

The company operates in 45 countries and employs more than 40?000 people.

Chandaria spent the first 11 years of his life in Kenya and then his family moved to India.

He said he was struck by how different and more advanced life was in India, and he realised that what he knew wasn’t good enough.

“When we were in Nairobi, we knew two-storey houses, but in India, we saw six-storey houses, double-decker buses and millions of people. It opened up our eyes to a world outside of what we knew. And when I went to the US to do my master’s, it again opened my eyes.

“It forces you to ask yourself: why are these people progressing and I’m not? And that gives you the first shock.”

After completing his master’s degree in engineering at the University of Oklahoma, Chandaria spent time making porcelain pans at the family business in Mombasa.

This is where he was faced with a dilemma: “Should I carry on in this itty-bitty place, or find a nice job working nine to five and get myself a driver?”

Fortunately, his brother and two cousins were also debating the same thing and they decided to follow their dreams.

Chandaria has mixed feelings about conventional education. “So many people are comfortable doing what they’re doing, but they need to look forward and ask themselves: is that enough?”

Deborah Ahenkorah

Ahenkorah is passionate about reading. Her organisation, Golden Baobab, was in part the result of being ridiculed in her home town in Ghana as an 11-year-old girl for wanting to grow up and become one of her favourite protagonists: Nancy Drew.

While African countries such as Zimbabawe and Nigeria are renowned for their high literacy rates, many other African countries lag behind.

While in university in the US, Ahenkorah started an organisation that sent thousands of books to more than 30 African countries, but after a while she realised that many of them told Western stories that very few African children could relate to and that did not match their realities.

Ahenkorah then introduced the Golden Baobab Prize, which is an annual writing competition that encourages a steady stream of African children’s books from talented authors.

For now, the books are all in English and, despite research suggesting that reading in an indigenous language may help a child to develop a love for reading, Ahenkorah says she’s currently focused on improving English literacy across Africa.

She was nominated in the Outstanding Social Entrepreneurship category at the recent Africa Entrepreneurship Awards.

Evans Wadongo

A company called Sustainable Development For All in Kenya, run by the charismatic Wadongo, is proof that the dismal circumstances you were born into can become your gold mine.

Wadongo, who is the youngest of four children, was raised in a mud home with no electricity or running water.

He recently won $50?000 (R492?360) at the African Entrepreneurship Awards for an outstanding social business that has revolutionised many Kenyan villages.

Because his parents were strict about school, they expected Wadongo to get great marks and thus began Wadongo’s journey with the kerosene lantern, which he often had to share with his siblings.

While studying at university, Wadongo discovered a way to build solar lanterns that are made from scrap material and provide free light in remote areas.

Wadongo’s organisation secures grants to build the first batch of lanterns for the community and then teach young people in the community to build them.

Then they provide the community with the rights to build and sell the lanterns to other communities, which provides an income stream.

His organisation has directly benefited 120?000 people.

Mitchell Elegbe

Elegbe has become a heavyweight businessman in Nigeria, having grown his company, Interswitch, from an e-payment switching company to a Pan-African integrated transaction and payment processing company.

Through its Super Switch service, the company, started in 2001, provides online real-time transaction-switching that enables businesses and individuals to have access to their funds across the 20 banks in Nigeria and across a variety of payment channels, such as ATMs, point-of-sale terminals, mobile phones, kiosks, web and bank branches.

Before Interswitch came along, Elegbe says it was incredibly difficult to transfer money in Nigeria.

The logo of his company can be found on many credit cards in Nigeria, especially after partnering with MasterCard in 2011.

Elegbe recently won an African Entrepreneurship award in the transformational category for companies with revenue greater than $50?million (R492 million).

He says he wants to grow his business to even greater heights and stay innovative in the Nigerian financial services sector.

There is already some evidence of this, with the company spinning off two of its core divisions in June this year – the payment card solutions business, and the switching and processing business – to prepare for the next stage of sustainable growth in Africa.

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