In a continent where “every street corner boasts an entrepreneur,” entrepreneurship is not only encouraging profound economic growth, but bettering lives of its people. While it’s true far too many Africans lack access to decent healthcare, education, food, and water, and that governmental corruption and instability continues to stagnate the economic growth of some countries, the success of a new generation of sub-Saharan business leaders is bringing positive changes to the region. “The rise of an indigenous, often brilliant, brand of social entrepreneurialism is increasingly providing local solutions to local problems.” says Elsie Kanza, head of Africa, for the World Economic Forum on Africa. “There is still much work to be done,” Kanza continues. “But transformation is truly under way.”
Examples of the kind of entrepreneurship Kanza is referring to are plentiful and varied; there’s Whiz Kids Workshop, a children’s educational media organization based in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, that creates television programs for pre-K through high school aged students, soleRebels, an internationally recognized and again, Ethiopian-based footwear company whose shoes are made entirely from recycled, local materials and designed by local artisans, and MadÈcasse Chocolate, who makes gourmet chocolate “from bean to bar” entirely at the source on the island country of Madagascar.
According to the International Monetary Fund, over the next five years, Africa will have the world’s fastest growing economy of any continent. Seven of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies will be African, including Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia, and Nigeria. The rise of commodity prices, including cocoa, cotton, copper, and oil, is partly responsible for the region’s current economic picture. But high priced commodities are not the sole reason for Africa’s rise, nor can they, being a temporary boom, sustain it. What is currently driving sub-Saharan Africa’s economy forward are small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs), including wholesale, retail, transportation, telecommunications, and manufacturing companies, which constitute the majority, up to 90 percent, of the region’s businesses operations, and over 50 percent of its employment.
The women and men behind these businesses are categorically positive in their outlook; they don’t dwell on challenges that many in the West might find completely insurmountable. Their attitude and spirit is fueling the region’s economic growth.
Whiz Kids Workshop
Self-taught filmmaker and television producer Bruktawit Tigabu grew up and taught elementary school aged children in Addis Ababa. Many of her students were orphans, abandoned by parents unable to care for them, or had lost a parent to AIDS. To help these children process their feelings of confusion and grief, and address the fact that over half of Ethiopian children grow up illiterate, Tigabu and her husband Shane Etzenhouser created Whiz Kids Workshop, a media company the produces shows for national television and schools.
Whiz Kids Workshop’s popular show Tsehai Loves Learning features an Amharic speaking and singing giraffe named Tsehai, who learns the things any preschool aged kid needs to know, such as the importance of washing your hands, why it’s important to tell the truth, and the value of being patient. But other episodes show Tsehai confronting serious grown-up subjects, including malaria, AIDS, and the child-slave trade, subjects the show’s young Ethiopian audience are all too aware of.
Whiz Kids Workshop is only somewhat similar to the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), home of Big Bird and Elmo. “We are similar to them in the sense that we create educational media for children,” explains Tigabu via email. “We operate like a not-for-profit, but our legal structure is that of a social enterprise.” Whiz Kids Workshop is a for-profit venture, and not a children’s advocacy organization, although its mission is to engage and educate Ethiopia’s young people.
So how does Tigabu, named by Fast Company magazine as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business 2012, keep Whiz Kids going?
“Almost none of our income comes from charitable aid,” says Tigabu. “We try to win grants and contracts to promote education in Ethiopia. The bottom line is we struggle to sustain our project and stretch ourselves thin and rely on volunteers to make the productions possible.”
While growing up in the Zenabwork/Total area Addis Ababa, one of Ethiopia’s poorest communities, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu saw that her country had plenty of what she calls “charity brands,” but not the kind of grassroots, localized development that could provide sustained economic development. Unemployment was rampant, and the type of aid perpetuated by charitable and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was actually stifling her community’s creative and business talent.
In 2004, inspired by recycled tire sole shoes worn by Ethiopians for generations, including rebel fighters who, in 1896, successfully defeated Italy’s attempt to colonize the country, Alemu founded soleRebels footwear, locally sourcing the raw materials for the shoes, and employing local artisans to design them. Since then, her company has become incredibly successful, selling what is a finished export product made out of a zero-carbon, eco-sensitive process, from 100 percent local inputs.
soleRebel sandals, shoes, and boots are hip, eco-friendly, and, unlike footwear made by some internationally known giants, not made by starving children working in inhumane conditions. Not surprisingly, soleRebels is the world’s first and only World Fair Trade Federation (WFTO) fair trade certified footwear company.
To build on what has become the world’s fastest growing African footwear brand, Alemu recently launched Ethiopia’s first “fully commerce enabled global website” solerebelsfootwear.co. The website is created and maintained in house, by their design team, and gives anyone with an internet connection “the opportunity to have a soleRebels store on every type of web enabled screen on the planet.” She believes the current expansion of the soleRebels business, which includes partnering with several e-commerce companies, will create not only more jobs and economic growth for Africa, but for other countries as well, including Canada and those throughout the European Union.
There are many examples of exports that are produced in Africa, such as cocoa, and then processed and packaged by companies in the West who ultimately profit the most from sales of the final product. Writer Daniel Bergner, who recently profiled the founder of Ugandan company Good African Coffee for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, points out that while some argue coffee beans produced in Africa should be “celebrated” as an export, “most of the profit goes to the roaster (the Western roaster), even if the earlier aspects of processing are well carried out in Africa.”
Like soleRebels, MadÈcasse Chocolate’s products are made, in this case, “from bean to bar,” utilizing 45 cocoa farmers, a single factory, and several local businesses in the ecologically diverse country of Madagascar. The hand-wrapped chocolate bars are then shipped to retail stores all over the world. The company was co-founded by Tim McCollum and Brett Beach, two Peace Corps volunteers from the West who met and worked in Madagascar for over 10 years before creating MadÈcasse Chocolate. Their business model is unusual in that they’ve taken every step possible to stimulate economic growth within the island nation they love.
“One of our goals is that we prop up and support local businesses in Madagascar to become our suppliers,” says McCollum via email. “We have five independently organized and governed cocoa operatives that supply us. Our list of suppliers includes a local chocolate factory, a local printing press, a local box manufacturer, a local raffia producer, local sugar producer, local vanilla producer, local spice supplier, and a local vanilla extract company. All of these companies existed before us, but they are much stronger and stable now that they are working with us. Our growth is driving their growth.”
Madagascar, like Ethiopia and other countries throughout sub-Sahara Africa, is no stranger to political upheaval. McCollum acknowledges Madagascar’s “mismanagement of the government” is one of the biggest challenges to starting a new business in that country. And yet, as they and their local partners have shown, it can be done.
With the emerging world set to account for half of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by the end of this decade, it remains to be seen if such growth will be attributable to business practices that stifle local entrepreneurship and instead encourage foreign “investment” at the expense of jobs, public health, and human rights, or the kind of “social entrepreneurialism” Elise Kanza speaks of and is practiced by Whiz Kids Workshop, soleRebles, and MadÈcasse Chocolate.
One thing is certain; innovative entrepreneurship in sub-Sahara Africa is stimulating the economic health of not only that region, but of the world.