JOHANNESBURG - “If money could solve all problems, then banks would have all the answers.” This slightly paraphrased quote is from Jack Ma’s speech at the recent Netpreneurs event in Johannesburg which saw the launch of the Jack Ma Foundation's African Netpreneur Prize.
The award, which will provide one million dollars in grants to 10 entrepreneurs per year for the next 10 years, has left many rolling their eyes over the measly sum. Ma himself admits, “The money, ten million- it’s not big.” So, why would the founder of one of the world’s top 10 online companies, which he boasts is worth over $500 Billion, invest such a small sum?
Tech entrepreneurs need more than money
If you’ve ever started a business or interacted with entrepreneurship support programs, you’ll know that there are problems that money alone won’t fix. A fact Ma pointed out. There are now at least 442 tech and innovation hubs dotted across the continent, and each of them are essentially startups backing startups. They constantly have to iterate their service offerings and re-think their revenue and/or fundraising models.
On a recent episode of African Tech Roundup podcast, Simunza Muyangana, co-founder of BongoHive, described how he and his co-founders created what is now Zambia’s leading innovation hub by listening to their customers and growing out their service offerings as needs evolved. They started out by offering digital skills development classes and providing support to build new market-relevant digital business solutions and ended up delivering acceleration support to grow existing businesses.
Meanwhile, from their base in Pretoria, mLab SA has developed a network of mLabs and CodeTribe Academies in several townships and expanded their reach into rural provinces. mLab’s leadership team has taken an iterative and agile approach to providing tailored support to different stakeholder groups while remaining demand-focused at each new location.
If Ma only plans to donate $1 million to a handful of entrepreneurs each year, and leave it at that, then his plan to grow the next generation of “Africa’s Digital Lions” will likely do very little to address the real needs of young entrepreneurs with various levels of digital skills, operating in 54 very different African markets.
Jack Ma’s ecosystem approach
To his credit, Ma seems to understand the importance of taking an ecosystem approach and has taken very deliberate steps to coordinate his support for African entrepreneurs with a network of other stakeholders. In an affirming nod to existing African tech hub efforts, the Jack Ma Foundation has chosen to partner with Kenya’s Nailab to administer the African Netpreneur Prize. And although his Netpreneur initiative was only launched a couple of weeks ago, he first hinted at this plan during his first trip to the continent in July 2017.
At last year’s Youth Connekt Summit in Rwanda, Ma brought along 38 Chinese billionaires to tour East Africa and explore opportunities together. Rather than soaking in the spotlight or profiting from opportunities alone, he sought to influence his peers and work against potential investor biases.
During that trip, Ma also announced two relevant initiatives which would be implemented through strategic partnerships. First, the Alibaba Business School-backed eFounders Fellowship Initiative, which was launched last November to empower 1,000 entrepreneurs from developing countries over five years, through a two-week intensive course at Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou.
By July 2018, the initiative had already trained its third cohort of 25 to 30 “eFounder Fellows”. Ma has so far leveraged his high-profile association with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to deliver speedy and efficient results. Then, because a two-week course for a fortunate few can only go so far, Ma also announced his company’s far less publicised intent to partner with African universities to deliver specific courses on e-commerce, artificial intelligence, and related topics.
Challenge equals opportunity
Jack Ma seems fairly sensitive to the challenging reality that stepping off a private jet to sign some cheques, however big or small, won’t automatically deliver positive benefits over the medium and long term if a healthy ecosystem approach is not adopted.
What often stands out in Jack Ma’s speeches is the recanting of the challenges he faced during the early years of his entrepreneurial career, and his insistence that every entrepreneurial challenge is, in fact, an opportunity. This notion is compelling. As is his belief that Africa will become the world’s next driving economic force.
“So, believe me, in Africa in 10-20 years, you will have at least 10-20 Alibaba companies!”
Mutoni Karasanyi is a marketing and communications expert and a contributing writer for AfricanTechRoundup.com. He has consulted for The World Bank Group, Corporate Executive Board, MTN, and others. Follow Mutoni on Twitter at @Karasanyi.
- BUSINESS REPORT