We were standing at ground zero in the fight against climate change, looking at a still body of water and talking. Our group was gathered along the edges of a “farm pond,” a technique used by farmers to enhance agricultural resilience to climate change, which often impacts countries through crippling droughts. A farmer demonstrated the measures he had taken to protect his livelihood from the extreme weather events that were increasingly common in his region.
Climate Innovation Centers
Members of the World Bank Group’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship team – along with two of the entrepreneurs supported by the team (with their affiliations in parentheses) – at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. From left to right: Temitayo Oluremi Akinyemi, Loren Garcia Nadres, Natasha Kapil, Kenia Mattis (ListenMi Caribbean), Ganesh Rasagam, Charity Wanjiku (Strauss Energy), Komal Mohindra, Ellen Olafsen.
What do you picture when you hear of new technologies and hot startups? Perhaps a trendy office space overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and tech moguls from San Francisco? Well, think again.
At the recent Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Silicon Valley — an annual event hosted by President Barack Obama and attended by nearly 700 entrepreneurs — one message came across clearly: Great ideas come from anywhere. And, increasingly, they’re coming from talented entrepreneurs who are overcoming the odds in cities like Nairobi, Kenya or Kingston, Jamaica.
Increasing internet and mobile-phone access is bringing new opportunities to young entrepreneurs from developing countries. More than 40 percent of the world’s population now has access to the internet and, among the poorest 20 percent of households, nearly 7 out of 10 have a mobile phone.
Businesses that can take advantage of the widespread use of digital technologies are growing at double-digit rates — in Silicon Valley, as well as in emerging markets. Ground-breaking technologies and business ideas are flourishing across the world, and a new, more global generation of tech entrepreneurs is on the rise.
The potential impact — economic and social — is significant. Entrepreneurs have a powerful ability to create jobs, drive innovation and solve challenges, particularly in developing economies, where technology can address old inefficiencies in key sectors like energy, transport and education.
“[I]n our era, everybody here understands that new ideas can evolve anywhere, at any time. And they can have an impact anywhere,” said John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State. “In my travels as Secretary, I have been absolutely amazed by the groundbreaking designs I’ve seen, by the ideas being brought to life everywhere — sometimes where you least expect it. By the men and women striking out to create new firms with an idea of both turning a profit as well as improving their communities.”
But for many of the brightest minds in developing countries, entrepreneurship is not an easy path.
As President Obama said during the Summit: “It turns out that starting your own business is not easy. You have to have access to capital. You have to meet the right people. You have to have mentors who can guide you as you get your idea off the ground. And that can be especially difficult for women and young people and minorities, and others who haven’t always had access to the same networks and opportunities.”
President Barack Obama on stage at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit with Mark Zuckerberg and entrepreneurs.
Charity Wanjiku pitching for Strauss Energy
What does the journey of an entrepreneur look like? For founders like Mark Zuckerberg, it often begins with a groundbreaking idea, followed by several rounds of fundraising through Ivy League and Silicon Valley networks. But what if you weren’t raised in the United States? And what if your idea is not global in reach — but instead addresses clean technology needs that are unique to your region?
The World Bank Group’s Climate Innovation Centers are one solution to this challenge. The seven centers — in the Caribbean, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa, and Vietnam — support more than 270 clean-technology startups with training programs, grants and mentorship. Increasingly, the centers have turned to competitions to help entrepreneurs grow.
Bootcamps and pitching competitions have emerged as promising opportunities for jump-starting an entrepreneur’s journey. Participants train intensively with seasoned entrepreneurs to perfect their pitch. They learn to showcase their business idea and strategy in mere minutes before a panel of judges. Winners bring home significant prizes — and, perhaps more important, connections with potential investors and a greater understanding of the business landscape.
The 1776 Challenge Cup is a pitching competition on a grander scale. The Challenge Cup is a tournament for startups from around the world to share their vision on a global stage and compete for more than $1 million in prizes. 1776, a Washington-based incubator and seed fund, hosted its first annual Challenge Cup in 2014. Past finalists have developed mobile training for Middle Eastern women entering the workforce, have built charging devices for electric vehicles, and have disrupted the value chain in Kenya for perishable goods like bananas.
We raised glasses and cheered to the future success of Mr. Minh’s company. I had just visited his manufacturing facility where his company ASAMLED produces light-emitting diode (LED) lights for a variety of applications. A 40 person start-up and the only LED lighting company to manufacture over 90% of the final product locally, ASAMLED had the makings of Vietnamese clean tech success story. But as the day rolled on, we began discussing the real challenges the company and industry face. Starting an energy efficiency business in a country where energy is cheap and Chinese importers (who he called ‘screw-driver innovators’) are plenty, is not easy.
He told me how ASAMLED was conducting market tests with dragonfruit farmers. Using LEDs at night, dragonfruit production could jump from four harvests a year to nine – good news for the Vietnamese farmers who supply 40% of the fruit’s market in Europe. But he explained research like this was expensive and difficult to do with limited resources. According to him, the World Bank-run Climate Innovation Center could help him advocate his technology, inform consumers and access funding to market test a host of new LED applications.