Kenyan entrepreneur Evans Wadongo , the Founder and Executive Director of Sustainable Development for All (SDFA), conducted a seminar with the MIR class on Tuesday 21 October. Mr. Wadongo discussed his entrepreneurial journey from rural Kenya to the world stage, as an accomplished social entrepreneur recognized as a CNN Hero and Schwab Foundational Social Entrepreneur of the Year for the widespread impact of his solar lantern enterprise. Building off the MIR’s Base of the Pyramid workshop, the session addressed the power of innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa and discussed the changing relations within Africa and between Africa and the world. The session concluded with interactive Q&A on recent course topics, and MIR student Matt Pelton provided context based on his previous work experiences at the African Leadership Network .
Innovation and Opportunities
As economic growth continues, and the “Africa Rising” story garners attention, there are questions whether social development is following closely behind. The UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI)  might provide a different perspective. The continent’s largest economy, Nigeria , ranks very low (#152 out of 187) based on the most recent HDI data . As such, there still is a need for African entrepreneurs to create social impact through their businesses. With foreign aid and government initiatives further removed from the needs and opportunities in local communities, Mr. Wadongo emphasized the significant opportunity to build innovative, local solutions from the bottom up. Using savings from his student loan, Mr. Wadongo developed a simple solution to a widespread problem. He grew up in rural Kenya and developed eye sight problems at a young age due to kerosene oil. His solar lanterns are made from recycled materials and provide a sustainable and healthier alternative to more expensive kerosene lanterns. SDFA’s innovative business model provides solar lanterns on loan to women, who then use their kerosene savings to start businesses that support their households. SDFA provides capacity-building support to the women entrepreneurs and to the unemployed youth that are trained to build the low-cost lanterns. Africa has become a growing hub for technology entrepreneurs in recent years (World Bank blog ), but innovation can be found in sectors beyond technology and energy, such as financial services, agriculture, and education. Examples provided in the seminar included a nano-lending mobile platform based in Kenya, an organic fertilizer made from bat droppings found in Madagascar caves, and an innovative chain of low-cost African universities, among others. The continent’s population is rapidly growing, and UNICEF believes the youth population (under 18 years) will grow to nearly 1 billion by 2050. Entrepreneurship and related education initiatives will play a key role in ensuring that unemployment is minimized through sufficient job creation. With proper education and job opportunities, youth will be less likely to join rebel groups and extremist terrorism organizations, which recently has become a threat to local and international security.
Changing International Dynamics
From a global perspective, Africa has been termed the “final frontier” with scores of investors and multinational corporations looking to opportunities on the continent. Africa has become China’s largest investment destination with increased trade and direct investment . Simlarly, the European Union (EU) and United States have made pushes to grow their influence and trade in the region, evidenced by the recent EU-East Africa Community (EAC) Trade Deal  and U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit . Thus it seems these global powers have shifted focus to Africa not only to maximize economic opportunities but more importantly to maintain a geopolitical influence in the region. Internally, the African Union (AU)  aims to create an integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa. Mr. Wadongo acknowledged that, while the AU could provide more support to entrepreneurs, the AU’s impact can be seen through its integration agenda and joint initiatives, such as its peacekeeping mission in Somalia . Traditionally operating in siloes, Mr. Wadongo reinforced the importance of regional trading communities, such as the EAC, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and Southern African Development Community (SADC). Through regional trading blocs, African countries can leverage a growing interest in African markets to negotiate for more competitive deals with independent states, multinational corporations, and international organizations such as the EU. Regional integration is also a key initiative of non-governmental African platforms (like the African Leadership Network), which view regional collaboration as the first step to intra-African trade and pan-African partnerships, two essential drivers of socio-economic growth. Mr. Wadongo will attend African Leadership Network’s fifth annual gathering in Kigali from November 5-8, 2014. The event will celebrate Lessons of Leadership that African entrepreneurs and leaders can learn from Rwanda’s reconciliation and impressive development since the 1994 genocide.
Africa represents 54 countries with diverse cultures, histories, and challenges. As Mr. Wadongo explained, entrepreneurs must embrace the problems that they face in their communities and develop innovative solutions that can have a real impact on the lives of African people at the base of the pyramid.