Jack Ma foundation 9 tips for African businesses

Africa’s Business Heroes is a flagship philanthropic programme started by Chinese businessman Jack Ma to support entrepreneurs in Africa and Ms Zahra Baitie-Boateng is the Head of Partnership and Programmes. She spoke to the Smart Farmer magazine about how the foundation can help agricultural entrepreneurs in Kenya and Africa.

Tell us about yourself

My name is Zahra Baitie-Boateng. I am a Ghanaian, who is passionate about entrepreneurship and African development. For the last two years, I’ve been dedicated to Africa’s Business Heroes programme, which aims to identify, support and inspire the next generation of African entrepreneurs who are making a difference in their local communities, working to solve the most- pressing problems and building a more sustainable and inclusive economy for the future. I’m also deeply passionate about youth empowerment and so it’s a real pleasure to be working on this project.

How did Africa’s Business Heroes start?

Africa’s Business Heroes was established in 2018 following Jack Ma’s visit to Africa in 2017. During that trip, Jack was inspired by the entrepreneurial energy and the potential he saw in the young people he met. He also recognised many of the same barriers to economic development and entrepreneurship in Africa, that existed in China when he founded Alibaba in 1999.

He knew from experience, the power of entrepreneurship to drive growth and spur innovation. Jack committed his path to inspire, train and support entrepreneurs, and thus, the Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) programme was born.

That programme will over 10 years recognise 100 African entrepreneurs and commit to allocating 100 million in grant funding, training programmes, and support for the broad African entrepreneurial ecosystem.

We’re currently running our call for applications to identify African entrepreneurs making a difference in their communities and to award each of the 10 finalists with a share of grant funding ranging from $100,000 to $300,000.

Could you explain your role at the Africa’s Business Heroes?

At Africa’s Business Heroes, I help to oversee the applications, selection and engagement with a wide range of partners. It is an initiative that aims to be at the grassroots. We work with a significant number of organisations across the continent, who help us identify talent and also strengthen the programme by providing a wide range of opportunities to finalists.

I work very closely with our partners to design the scope of their support, and work alongside them to deliver their various services. Once the applications come in, I work closely with our judges to ensure that the applications are thoroughly reviewed, feedback is provided to the applicants, and that the applications are scored effectively, to help us identify our finalists.

Subsequently, I work very closely with our finalists, to prepare them for each stage of the application. The process at each stage of the competition ensures that they’re able to put their best foot forward and can fully express themselves and tell their story.

Tell us about a challenge you experienced in your current role

It’s not necessarily the most challenging but certainly the most demanding. Earlier, I mentioned that I work closely with our finalists. Beyond that, I send out tips and provide resources for the applicants. Since we are an initiative that aims to be inclusive with a focus on the grassroots, we are also open to applications from all the African countries.

I would say one of the things that is challenging is ensuring that we can cater for entrepreneurs’ needs. These entrepreneurs come from a wide range of backgrounds. They have different experiences as well as different stages of growth. Also, they are from different sectors.

We cater to their unique needs. This constantly requires some creativity and dedication to show that we can make the programme relevant to them.

What are the benefits of joining the Competition?

The most obvious reason is the access to grant funds. Our finalists can use these funds in whichever way they see fit to grow their businesses. We found out that it provides them with important capital for them to expand their teams, purchase machinery, expand their production capabilities, and launch in new countries.

Beyond the grants, entrepreneurs have many other opportunities and benefits that we think make this competition attractive. That is why we encourage all eligible entrepreneurs to apply.

Other benefits include publicity and international recognition. We document finalists’ journeys and share their stories with the world through an African TV show. The show is distributed via a range of national stations. This ensures that many more people get to learn the stories of the entrepreneurs who become our finalists.

The exposure helps them to raise funding, identify new partners and clients, and build their profile. We also provide access to training and mentorship, and more importantly, offer support for peer-to-peer learning.

Lastly, we provide feedback at every stage of the competition, anyone who submits a fully completed application will receive feedback from our judges. As you progress in the competition, the level of feedback that you receive is even more significant, more tailored. We think that regardless of whether you become a finalist or not, this feedback can help you to develop your business and to think about how to grow and scale to the next level.

What does the Africa’s Business Heroes Application involve?

The first step is to visit our website, Africa Business Heroes and register an account. Once that is done, we encourage the entrepreneurs to read the application guidelines thoroughly. Since we have only four weeks left and the application is quite extensive, it is important to begin early.

The applicants are required to fill in information about themselves and their businesses. We also ask for a reference. This could be a mentor, a colleague, or an employee who can speak about your leadership and business strengths. After that, submit a video introduction of yourself, your team members and customers.

Eligibility criteria for the competition

  • You must be the founder or co-founder of the business;
  • Must be an African citizen or the direct descendant of an African citizen;
  • Your business has to be legally registered or headquartered in an African country;
  • Your business must have at least three years of revenue, and a three-year operation track record.

The reason for the three years threshold is that we believe that it’s important for those who win to have market traction, and importantly, to demonstrate resilience.

Most businesses fail within the first two years. We believe that you have a good premise if your business made it to Year 3. That is enough data to show us, that you’re able to grow and can find solutions to problems, and that the grant funds we’re providing to you will be put to good use.

What makes a successful application?

  • Meets all the eligibility criteria;
  • Must be complete;
  • Has clearly articulated problem and solutions;
  • Clear reason on why you are best-suited to solve that problem;
  • Well-defined value proposition and competitive advantage;
  • Must have a reference from someone who can speak about your work ethics;
  • Should have competitive video introduction.

The video must be insightful giving a good sense as to:

  • Who you are;
  • What your business is about;
  • Your business structure;
  • Your team and why you are motivated to do the work that you do;
  • Who your target customer is.

What are some of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs and how is ABH addressing them especially during this Covid-19 pandemic?

One of the biggest challenges is the limited access to finance. Many entrepreneurs have great ideas with market traction, but lack access to finance. This is a major constraint that cuts across the board.

Secondly, there is a relatively weak entrepreneurial system in some countries. Meaning there isn’t a very robust ecosystem where entrepreneurs can support each other, learn from each other, meet investors, meet potential mentors, and thus, benefit from shared resources to help them grow, scale.  Supply cabinsin some cases are fragmented.

There are so many issues that an entrepreneur needs to deal with daily, and they’re often very limited resources or services that can support them to do this.

At Africa’s Business Heroes, we try to address these two constraints in a variety of ways. We’re the gods that have access to finance, the primary way we have tried to do this is by providing grant funds to our finalists- those who make it to the top 10.

Beyond this, we realise that the grant funding in many ways provides support, but certainly not everything they need to scale. Thus, we also try to provide them with access to additional finance opportunities, connecting them to investors by ensuring that their profile is widely known to make it easier for them to attract investors.

We are also building a new investment readiness programme to support our finalists and develop the skill-sets they need to raise investment and leverage on it for their growth.

That’s one key way that we aim to address the constraint around limited access to finance with regards to the weak entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Another key thing that we are trying to do is galvanise stakeholders. We do this by leveraging our TV shows. We believe that inspiring stories of entrepreneurs will motivate others to consider entrepreneurship as a career of choice and to pursue entrepreneurship.

We also hope it will spotlight the challenges entrepreneurs face and motivate policymakers, angel investors, and other stakeholders to provide support and resources to address them.

Thirdly, we are establishing the Africa Business Heroes community. We have over 40,000 stakeholders in our network. We encourage collaboration, sharing of resources, and opportunities. We think this will help to connect the dots and bring people together so that they can collaborate more going forward.

What are some of the highlights of the previous ABH competition?

Last year, we received close to 22,000 applications from different countries, which was great because it showed widespread participation. Many of the applicants were truly inspiring. Our finalists were inspiring and had encouraging stories. That motivates me and the rest of our team to do the work that we do every day.

A key highlight for me was that last year 50 per cent of our top finalists were female. That continued right up until the top 10. Again, five of the 10 finalists were female, and even better, two of the top three were female as well. Bringing in strong female representation.

Last year, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw many of our 2019 finalists leverage on the grant funds as part of the 2019 competition to scale their businesses. Our grand prize winner expanded her business across Nigeria. She even launched in Kenya. She established a new service called AirBank, which delivers oxygen to hospitals.

Anything new in the ABH 2021 competition?

In 2021, we are continuing with our call for applications in English and French. In terms of what’s new, I would say we’re looking at providing additional post prize support such as an investment readiness program for our finalists.

We’re looking for more opportunities to connect our finalists despite not being able to gather everyone physically. Last year, our program was completely virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, we will have blended online and offline events. The hybrid event will ensure that our finalists can connect safely.

What are the plans of ABH?

 We are planning to establish the ABH virtual community, which will be a platform that allows stakeholders, our applicants and finalists, judges, and mentors to connect and collaborate. Also, we will be airing 2020 and 2021 TV shows.

Any last words to African entrepreneurs, especially those who are in the agricultural sector

 Agriculture is one of the backbone industries of Africa. We saw that reflected in the number of applications we received from agripreneurs. All I have to say is ‘fortune favours the bold’.  So apply for Africa Business Heroes 2021 NOW, if you are reading this. I look forward to reading your application.


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