By Iselle Akwoue, Gabon.
Mentor, Class of 2016.
As I boarded flight KP-0025 from Libreville to Lagos on October 27th, my stomach felt a sting: some new and profound awareness: taking part to the gathering seed of the century, Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Forum.
During my years spent working for majors as operations manager and contracting and procurement analyst, I realized that many entrepreneurs were as alone in the market as a rose in the desert: destined to dry because they lacked business competency, negotiation leverage, and financial support. This lose-lose situation for all parties, an economy-killer, particularly affects francophone countries like mine.
I decided to quit, like many other entrepreneurs, the comfort of a well-paid job for a well-informed passion.
Last year, I heard of a businessman who was crazy enough to launch a foundation that would spend $100 millions on a ten years project. The project would provide africanpreneurs with competency package and seed capital to create long-lasting economic and social development!
I applied to be a mentor on this program and eagerly prayed until the day I was confirmed. For 12 weeks, I helped people I would have never met otherwise; people whose dreams match my purpose.
Being a mentor is not a charitable act, but a true mark of leadership conscience. It is not a bonus on my resume, but a unique opportunity to coach and challenge the next generation of nations builders. It is like writing a chapter on the book of those history makers who will create wealth for Africa.
The program triggered in me a search for a higher sense of excellence. In spite of a 19 years strong working experience, I learnt so much about business thanks to the learning content. Mostly, I learnt about myself, as an entrepreneur.
From the Programme, I learnt how to give advice that goes beyond a business’ experience to reach a higher purpose: Africa’s independent expansion.
From my mentees, I learnt about persistence. One of my mentees had never used a computer before joining in. She worked hard on the Programme; she was then taught about business economic model, market study, cost price analysis and more, and got confident enough to approach distributors, alone. She will soon see her ready-to-cook mango sauces on the shelves of the biggest supermarkets of Gabon. The mangoes come from her farm, and production to distribution is managed by her women-filled cooperative.
She had never taken a plane to travel outside of her country, but this year, she came to Lagos, the capital of entrepreneurship!
How could I miss the opportunity of taking part to such a destiny-enabler initiative? In fact, if I had to do it again, I would pay to be part of this journey!
Economist Lionel Zinsou said this weekend: “What Tony Elumelu is doing is not the norm. It is the exception”. We all indeed took part to the exception.
Cindy Pearl Maphumulo once said: “Much sacrifice is required from this generation in reaching this goal of restoring Mother Africa to her promises of abundance, wealth and diversity”. In an exceptional way, TEF is helping us reach this goal. Uganda is already the first entrepreneurial country in the world, followed by other African countries like Burundi, Cameroon. Let’s keep the momentum going.
Every speaker gave sound advice during the forum, and the entrepreneurs got the opportunity of networking. CEO Parminder Vir made a powerful statement: “ Entrepreneurs don’t always need funding, they need the resources to enable them to thrive”.
Somachi Chris-Asoluka, head of research at TEF, said “We cannot leave Africa’s development up to governments. We are the answer.” Getting to hear women like her made my shoulders stand straighter with joy this week-end.
Lawyer, social activist and businessman Audu Maikori exhorted us all to stop complaining and start building something, while Samuel Nwanze, Chief investment officer at Heirs Holding Ltd, gave a true Masterclass on Access to Finance, including the 5 keys to convince investors. We need 10 more like Sam, and Africa will be transfigured!
With addresses and TED-style talks on topics like Building successful businesses in Africa, merging innovations or sales and marketing for SME’s, the forum got praises from many, including Guinea government minister, Mr Naite, president Obasanjo, who exhorted to make “agriculture glamorous again”, or Bai Koroma, Sierra Leone president, who affirmed his determination to promote SME-supporting policies.
Most importantly, the participants were deeply enriched: Gaspard, from Burundi, whose radio broadcasts messages of peace, and promotes entrepreneurship, for socio-economic, cultural and scientific development. Didier, from Ivory Coast, with nothing but determination and hope in his eyes, whose surveillance system company provides schools with health and safety training. Denodji, from Tchad, a bold little woman, ground nut and arachid oil producer. And all the others I spent hours talking to late at night, sitting on the floor of Nigeria Law school’s park, and telling the sky he is our only limit.
Fierce Folorunso Alakija’s closing remark says it all: “Never ever take no for an answer!”
Tony Elumelu concluded: “We have confidence that you will surpass our expectations”.
When you decide to take a leap into the unknown, some will ask you if it is the right time.
It is never the right time.
But it is certainly up to you, to make the right decision.
My message to entrepreneurs?
“Entreprendre” comes from the latin “inter prehender”, which means “taking by the hand”, “mastering”. It is an adventure only the bold can live. Those with a community-leadership mindset, innovative ideas, willing to grab it by the collar and go from common ground to compelling business case. Those are the ones who will attract value. Supersize your dream. As soon as you have in your head a clear picture of what you want to achieve, you have no other choice than preparing to make it happen.
This picture in your head is an important piece of the puzzle that helps Africa take a new shape.
It is the appointed time for Africa.
We are condemned to succeed.