An Interview on Youth Development in Africa with Claude Borna, MD & Chief Innovation Officer, Sèmè City
A self-described entrepreneurial-minded strategist, Claude is passionate about creating and leading disruptive businesses. With an MBA from UCLA and a bachelor’s from McGill University, she started as a senior consultant with Deloitte in London, then joined Amazon to drive highly strategic categories, and eventually moved to Sony Pictures where she was appointed Senior Vice President for Global Customers and Worldwide Commercial Strategy.
In 2016, Claude joined the Presidency of the Republic of Benin to conceive and implement the International Knowledge and Innovation City called Sèmè City, a unique and vibrant environment for developing talent and promoting innovation made in Africa. She strongly believes that this type of collaboration between academia and entrepreneurship is the key to transform Africa.
What part does the youth play in the development of the African continent?
A World Bank study shows that even though high-growth entrepreneurs account for less than 10% of the pool of entrepreneurs in Africa, they are responsible for nearly 40% of the jobs created. This is a strong indication that with proper coaching, financial backing, and public support, African youth have everything it takes to alleviate unemployment across Africa.
At Sèmè City, our mission is to empower the youth with the skills and competencies to thrive in such fast-changing and dynamic African work environments.
What key initiatives have Sèmè City deployed in recent years to improve youth contribution to the overall development of the African continent, and how has the government supported this ambition?
The government of the Republic of Benin’s Action Plan is made up of 45 flagship projects in key sectors of our economy. It involves an unprecedented level of investment and relies in part on the development of a thriving knowledge-based economy to offer new employment opportunities with increased productivity.
Sèmè City is one of these flagship projects, and thus we have the full backing of the government.
Since 2017, we have deployed numerous initiatives to support the launch and accelerate the growth of innovative enterprises. Our approach is comprised of 6 components.
We (1) identify innovative projects and entrepreneurs, (2) offer high value-added incubation programs, (3) provide instruments for financial support, (4) encourage collaborations with public and private companies, as well as development partners, (5) make available our open innovation lab for experimentation and finally, we (6) strengthen and promote the African innovation ecosystem.
What would success look like regarding youth development and entrepreneurship on the continent?
For Sèmè City, youth development and entrepreneurship success on the African continent would translate into an improvement in the employability of young graduates, brain drain reduction, job creation, and an increased number of SMEs that positively impact their communities and living environment.
More specifically, at Sèmè City, our goal is to create more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2030, with 1/3 being self-employment, and at least 40% held by women. We equally strive to contribute to the Republic of Benin’s GDP through the development of a knowledge-based economy, improved living conditions, and increased productivity.
What are the key challenges on the route to success?
The number of startups is growing rapidly but the challenge is to ensure that a much greater number of entrepreneurs have the skills to build sustainable and profitable businesses. Funding remains a real challenge for early stages ventures but it is also critical to provide adequate training and mentoring to young African entrepreneurs.
Are there real-life stories of impact you could share in this area?
Although COVID-19 has been a devastating international crisis, for us at Sèmè city, it has been a positive affirmation of how impactful our entrepreneur and youth support mechanism has been.
Through the Task Force Innov COVID-19, which Sèmè City set up in partnership with UNFPA and UNICEF, we have been able to gather over 120 innovative actors across the Republic of Benin to create, prototype, and launch innovative and ingenious solutions in the fight against COVID-19. (www.asuka.bj)
To date, entrepreneurs within our ecosystem have, in little to no time, successfully created and deployed solutions which include: handwashing systems, face masks certified for general public use, 3D printed face shields, patient tracking devices, medical professional support applications, food and essential needs delivery applications, educative content for children and much more.
Several of these entrepreneurs have also been able to assist the Ministry of Health, alongside other ministries and agencies, in developing and producing large-scale innovative solutions against COVID-19.
How does the partnership with the Tony Elumelu Foundation align with the purpose of empowering young Africans?
With the Tony Elumelu Foundation’s position as Africa’s foremost organization in support of entrepreneurship, this partnership is vital in our quest to develop and empower youth in the Republic of Benin. In terms of TEF laureates in 2019, we were extremely proud to rank first in French-speaking Africa and second in West Africa after Nigeria.
How do you think the public and private sectors can work more collaboratively to achieve sustainable growth and development in Africa?
Sèmè City is a public institution placed under the supervision of the Presidency of the Republic of Benin. It is fully committed to facilitating cooperation between academia and the private sector through various initiatives:
- putting in place a skills development framework allowing learners to gain practical experience through entrepreneurship and project-based experimentation;
- playing an advocacy role to ensure administrative, legal and fiscal reforms support high-growth entrepreneurship;
- developing and implementing innovative tools to improve access to financing such as seed funds, innovation guarantee funds and zero-interest loans.