Ten Lessons from 30 African entrepreneurs
Every year Forbes Africa identifies and interviews the top 30 entrepreneurs under 30 years of age who own successful businesses in Africa. When they say successful, they mean 6-figure businesses or businesses on their way to earning a million USD annually. Woo!
Now before you think that is out of your league. Stop! Everyone starts small. The majority of these amazing individuals started small and it was difficult for them to believe they would one day be where they are now.
You should read their stories in the full article here. Be inspired by them! Be proud of what they’re telling the world about Africa. Don’t hate on them. Learn from their success. Imitate their success.
I want to give you 10 lessons to take away from their success stories – based on the 2018 award winners. My objective is not for you to become a millionaire – although that wouldn’t be bad – but to motivate you to start small. Give it a go. Keep on going.
These amazing individuals under 30 years of age show that you’re never too young to start! No matter when or where you were born. Whether you’ve had everything handed to you on a plate, or not – you can make your BIG dream happen and move forward to live the life you imagined!
Here are the ten lessons. Let’s get into it!
Lesson 1: Africans can innovate and succeed.
It’s not true that success is only for people in the States or Europe. It’s not true that you can only succeed if someone gives you a hand up or a hand out. These 30 African’s are on their way to being millionaires.
There’s nothing small about that, and while some of them inherited businesses, most of these women and men are self-made – they built their success from humble beginnings with their own skills, persistence and courage. Africans can innovate and succeed.
As Emmanuel Ademola Ayilara said, “Once I had a taste of success there was no turning back. … I always believed opportunities would come to those who were most prepared so I put in the hard work even when no-one noticed.”
Lesson 2: Africans are in the best position to address African problems.
Take the example of Vere Shaba the South African who is co-owner of Shaba & Ramplin Green Building Solutions. In her own words she describes how when she was a student she saw how the “rolling blackouts and load shedding affected their productivity. When the power went off, the machines would come off and thousands of workers would sit in the sun.” That example inspired her to find solutions.
With her education and training she worked hard to find sustainable green solutions that would enable businesses to keep operating even if the power grid failed. She’s not alone in wanting to create a business to tackle African problems. Yannick Nzonde proudly notes that his is the second business to bring solar power to the DRC and enable some villages to experience electricity for the first time.
Lesson 3: African business success is possible for African women.
We are not unaware that the majority of successful entrepreneurs are men. African business success is still dominated by men and it is definitely harder for African women to succeed, however, ten of the top 30 successful African enterprises are run by women. This shows that women can make it as entrepreneurs in Africa.
Women often follow entrepreneurial ideas that are along the stereotypical lines (beauty and fashion, agriculture or food production) however four of the ten women in the top 30 group gained their success by following non-typical fields. That is something we should celebrate.
Kene Rapu notes the obstacles faced by entrepreneurs in the African context, (such as higher costs, infrastructure limitations and lack of skilled workforce) and she comments that “The odds are against us” adding that “it’s harder for women”. Entrepreneurial success might be harder for women to accomplish, but keep believing, sisters!
Entrepreneurial success might be harder for women to accomplish, but keep believing, sisters!
Lesson 4: Having a passion or a role model is important
Many of these 30 successful entrepreneurs had a head start because their parents were entrepreneurs and they had a role model to follow, however the need or desire to follow their passion was the decisive factor for several of the award winners.
Anita Adetola Adetoye spoke about the moment when she realised that what had been her hobby and pleasure could become a viable business. “My move to Nigeria was the defining moment for me in the beauty industry. It was the moment my hobby became a livelihood and then became a business. I didn’t chose this path by faith, this path chose me.”
Lesson 5: Failure is not permanent when you have an entrepreneurial mindset.
It was not unusual for the top 30 young Africans to refer to past business failures. Failure did not stop them but it gave them valuable lessons that became a step in their eventual entrepreneurial success. Emmanuel Ademola Ayilara is extremely wealthy today but his first business failed.
For others like Adam Amoussou, the lesson they pointed to was to have several gigs on the go at once so that you can test what works before putting energy into the idea that will be feasible. He had several small business ventures on the go at once (tutoring, online clothing store, street restaurants) and now is very successful. Neither success or failure are permanent.
When you have an entrepreneurial mindset and approach you see opportunities everywhere.
Lesson 6: A meaningful product or service can be profitable.
Follow your desire to create something meaningful or impactful. As Yannick Nzonde reflected when he referred to the American marketer Guy Kawasaki “The best reason to start an organisation is to make meaning; to create a product or service to make the world a better place.”
Sometimes as Africans we only think about the profit because our need to pay the bills is so real and our desire for the ‘good life’ is such a strong temptation. There’s nothing to stop you from making a profit by doing something meaningful. Many of the businesses in this list are making a positive, meaningful contribution to African society and the owners have established successful, profitable business models.
As Nomvula Mhambi describes pragmatically, “I tackle urban hygiene and sanitation issues using market-based approaches improving public amenities through social innovation initiatives…” She makes a profit while also helping to address an important social issue.
Lesson 7: Start humble and then hustle your way to success
Start up costs for a successful business don’t have to be enormous. Look at the stories of how these businesses began and you will see that more than half of them were boot-strapped, grassroots hustles which became successful because of the persistence of the owner. First you need to dare to dream, test your idea and if it works, be willing to to do the hard work that can result in success. Yannick Nzonde, for example started with $500 and now heads a large construction company.
The story of Gilbert Eugene Peters tells how he started out buying and selling satellite dishes in Harare before he moved on to graphic design and other dreams. He started with $300 when he was 21 years age. “I would go where I was needed to design since I had no office and only a laptop and business cards. I became a CEO, finance manager, marketer and salesman.”
Or listen to Bidemi Zakariyau from Nigeria who used the internet to start her business. “I would visit different blogs in Nigeria and look for contact numbers in the article credits and call the designers requesting to work for them for free.” The start up grind was slow and difficult but it gave her all the experience she needed to deliver good service to satisfied clients.
Lesson 8: Preparation and research can lead to innovative ideas and opportunities.
Success doesn’t come by accident! Behind the glossy image, each successful entrepreneur had a solid plan. In addition it was often their research and openness to new ideas that helped them to identify gaps or business opportunities.
Something caught Adam Amoussou’s attention in Benin when he started to explore the potential of agriculture. As he describes “I went on and did research and found out Benin could supply one of the highest quality tropical fruits and products and they were in high demand.” Taking strategic action on what he learned has resulted in a highly profitable business for him.
Take strategic action on what you learn from your research can result in a profitable business.
Lesson 9: Entrepreneurship in Africa is difficult but not impossible.
No-one says that entrepreneurship in Africa is easy. Government regulations are not always easy to navigate. The risks are high and it takes persistence to fight your way through to success.
As Zuko Tisani observes in South Africa, the statistics from ANDE show that there is a “86% failure rate of start-up businesses within the first 18 months of starting.” That high failure rate reinforces the limited availability of good advice, resources, information and access to capital in many African countries. There are many Non-Government Organisations running start-up programmes but as soon as they conclude their funding period, the benefits fade away too. I saw for myself the lack of sustainable assistance, guidance and impact in Liberia.
However, despite the grim statistics, 14% of start-ups succeed. This is usually due to the persistence and determination of the start-up owner. Alexander Knieps hit a low point but decided to persist. He describes the decision to continue.… ‘I decided I am going to do this – no matter what – with investors or without. This was one of the most difficult times of my life: very little money, no support system in RSA and numerous business hurdles.” Despite the obstacles, his perseverance resulted in success.
Lesson 10: Winning an international award helps positive growth and scale.
For many entrepreneurs mentioned here, being named among the Forbes Top 30 African entrepreneurs (2018) is not usually the first time their potential or success has been noticed. Leroy Mzasaru won the ‘Innovate Kenya’ award in 2013 for his innovative biogas product and that definitely brought him to the attention of Forbes.
Many of those identified have won scholarships, grants or awards previously, and their past accolades assisted them to gain further traction and publicity. Credits and awards increase ‘social proof’ and the list of accomplishments and recognition is important step to scaling for greater success. Even so, attention follows hard work and success, it is no substitute for a solid plan and hard effort.
Forbes identified 30 successful African entrepreneurs under the age of 30 years (2018). There are encouraging lessons to be learned from reviewing the 30 stories and probably more to learn if you had the chance to interview them one to one.
In closing, I want to highlight Nataliey Bitature as the epitome of what these lessons say is possible. Nataliey’s ‘Musana Carts’ are solar-powered street vending carts designed for micro-entrepreneurs in Uganda. They are all equipped with power sockets, fridge, and mobile money terminals. Amazing! Nataliey is a woman who has led the way to bootstrap an innovative solution to a specific problem in the African context. She did it with green technologies, crowd-funding and after two failed businesses she is a role model of the modern successful African woman. Shout out to her!
Be inspired! Oh and by the way, Nataliey Bitature continues to work with girls in Uganda and she was named World Economic Forum Top Woman Innovator in 2016.
Keep going and at the right time your reward or recognition will come!
The ten lessons learned are summarised for you here:
1 Africans can innovate and succeed.
2 Africans are in the best position to address African problems.
3 African business success is possible for African women.
4 Having a passion or a role model is important.
5 Failure is not permanent when you have an entrepreneurial mindset.
6 A meaningful product or service can be profitable.
7 Start humble and hustle your way to success.
8 Preparation and research can lead to innovative ideas and opportunities.
9 Entrepreneurship in Africa is difficult but not impossible.
10 Winning an international award helps positive growth and scale.