Let’s be honest. The Middle East and North Africa is burning, and in some areas it is literally burning. Conflict and fragility have long warped what once was the cradle of civilization and the inspiration for the many inventions we can’t live without today. However, in the midst of that fire hope rises, a driver of change that is transforming the ugly reality into a bright future.
After I fled the war in Iraq in 2006, I was pessimistic about what the future was holding for that region. Year after another, the domino-effect of collapse became a reality that shaped the region and its people. Yet, fast-forward to 2017, I have witnessed what I never thought I would see in my lifetime: the new renaissance in the Middle East and North Africa.
I have just recently come back from attending the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa at the Dead Sea in Jordan. This year, the Forum and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, partnered to bring together 100 Arab start-ups that are shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
There, the positive vibe was all around; no negativity, no pessimism. Instead there was a new sense of optimism and enthusiasm, hunger for change, and the will to take the region to a whole new future, away from conflict and the current norm of pessimism.
Pop quiz: Which of these statements do you agree with?
- If you build “IT” they will come.
- Poor people don’t need mobile phones. They need clean water and food instead.
- Digital skills are only relevant for people who work in the ICT sector. The rest of us don’t need them.
Heading back from a recent mission to Ghana, I felt really proud of what we have accomplished: training 20 of the most promising local clean-tech entrepreneurs through the Green Innovators Bootcamp. The words used to inaugurate the event are still in my head: “This bootcamp is not an end in itself. It’s the beginning of your journey as entrepreneurs.”
Indeed, bootcamps for startups and SMEs – as well as close cousins like Hackathons, Start-up Weekends, and Business Plan Competitions – are an increasingly popular activity used to catalyze innovative ideas and provide entrepreneurs with the tools and resources they need to launch their ventures.
In Ghana for example, infoDev -- a global innovation and entrepreneurship program in the World Bank Group -- organized a two-day training event to help a group of 20 early-stage entrepreneurs assess the feasibility of their business concept, identify their customer base, and refine their business model.
Organizing a bootcamp can be very challenging and time-consuming, but, when done properly – read “7 things you need to do to prepare for the perfect bootcamp” – the payoff is big. "Bootcampers" find these initiatives very useful to identify new solutions to the challenges they face to launch their businesses -- mostly access to finance, product development, and marketing. Furthermore, "pitching competitions" and "business contests" offer new entrepreneurs an excellent and safe stage to refine their business pitch -- a key tool of every successful entrepreneur.
One of the goals of bootcamps and pitching competitions is to bring together different stakeholders – from entrepreneurs to investors and policymakers – to facilitate the creation of ecosystems in which entrepreneurs can grow and thrive. But is it realistic to expect that bootcamps and similar training initiatives are enough to enable promising entrepreneurs to reach their full potential? The answer is simply: No. Make no mistake: Bootcamps are an exciting tool to create buzz and interest in countries that have little entrepreneurial history and culture. In most contexts, however, there is no follow-through with effective action plans that can keep the momentum going. This not only limits the value of these initiatives, but can also cause harm to a nascent ecosystem.
Kone Gninlnagnon is a young entrepreneur who dreams of exporting rice from Côte d’Ivoire to the world.
But he knows the quality of the rice must be improved and tested in the domestic market first. Thus, a new business idea was born: helping to make homegrown rice more competitive. “We cannot win the loyalty of consumers with bad quality rice,” he says. His project, “Riz Ivoire,” would promote the rice that comes from the heart of Côte d’Ivoire and help deliver high-quality rice to Ivorian dining tables. He also wants to encourage other Ivorian youth to invest in “rizculture.”
Now Gninlnagnon is one step closer to achieving his dream. His project won third place in the Start-up Competition at ICI 2014, the Fourth Côte d‘Ivoire National Investment Forum that took place in the city of Abidjan in January. While the three-day event focused on investment opportunities in the country’s key sectors like agriculture, industry, and infrastructure, the spotlight of the closing ceremony fell on entrepreneurship and the youth of Côte d’Ivoire, as they are the drivers of future growth and innovation in the post-conflict country. Côte d’Ivoire aims to be an emerging market economy by 2020. In 2013, the country’s growth rate was 8.7%.
Kelvin Doe found that batteries were too expensive for a project he was working on in 2009. He used acid, soda, and metal parts that he found in trash bins in his neighborhood to build his own battery. Doe, then a 13-year-old from Sierra Leone, constructed a generator to light his home and operate an FM radio station that he built. He now employs his friends at the radio station.
Ennovent and WWF Switzerland announced the winners of their Tropical Forest Challenge this past Monday. The winners came from two categories: company and startup. Launched in May 2012, the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge is a global initiative managed by Ennovent on behalf of WWF Switzerland to discover the best for-profit enterprises from around the world that have a positive impact on the conservation of tropical forest biodiversity.
The winners are endorsed by WWF Switzerland as best solution providers and are awarded global visibility, networking and capacity building opportunities from the challenge partners such as, Good Company, Sustainatopia and Thomson Reuters Foundations’. These Challenge rewards are important as many early-stage entrepreneurs face resource gaps – such as networks and training – that inhibit their ability to scale high potential ventures.
I met Roselynd Laubhouet in 2004 when, as a recent graduate, she accepted an assignment as a Junior Professional Associate with the World Bank's Africa Region in Washington, D.C. From day one, it was evident that Roselynd was special. Being an entrepreneur at heart, she was filled with dreams, aspirations, and a passion for her home country of Senegal (and her continent) that set her apart.
When Roselynd and I reconnected in Abidjan last December, eight years after our first meeting, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only had she moved home to Senegal, but she had also started a successful international business. The journey from bureaucrat to entrepreneur was not easy, but it was clear that--having returned home--Roselynd was realizing her dreams.
I was curious to learn the secrets of her success, to understand the challenges facing returnees, and gather any advice for other Africans in the Diaspora considering a return. Roselynd was kind enough to share her experiences with me in the hopes that other young women in the Diaspora might be inspired to follow in her footsteps.