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[Interview] Zahra Baitie-Boateng, Head of Partnership and Programs, Africa’s Business Heroes

Story Highlights
  • Africa’s Business Heroes, Jack Ma Foundation's flagship philanthropic program in Africa to support entrepreneurs. 
  • Zahra Baitie-Boateng serves as the Head of Partnership and Programs for the competition
  • The central theme of this year’s competition is “It’s African Time”

Zahra Baitie-Boateng, is the Head of Partnership and Programs, Africa’s Business Heroes, Jack Ma Foundation’s flagship philanthropic program in Africa to support entrepreneurs.

Kindly introduce yourself and your role at Africa’s Business Heroes” (ABH)

I serve as the head of partnerships and programs for Africa’s Business Heroes prize competition. In this role, I am responsible for developing and managing our partnerships with key stakeholders and organizations from across Africa’s entrepreneurial landscape. I am also deeply involved in the overall management of the program – from overseeing our rigorous application and selection process to implementing mentorship and learning programmes for our applicants.  

Africa’s Business Heroes” (ABH) Prize competition was unveiled back in 2019. Tell us about this competition

ABH is the Jack Ma Foundation’s flagship philanthropic program in Africa. With this program, we aim to spotlight and celebrate the tremendous entrepreneurial talent across the continent. We recently opened applications for our third annual edition, and are calling for all those entrepreneurs that are driving innovation and change in their local communities to apply. 

Every year, 10 outstanding finalists come together in a grand finale to pitch to a panel of business legends and win their share of a US$1.5 million grant. Applications for this year will close on June 7th, and I encourage all entrepreneurs in Africa to not miss this opportunity. 

Why was it so important for you to create this competition?

We’ve seen first-hand the incredible impact that digitization and entrepreneurship can have in creating positive growth. We also know that African entrepreneurs today are at the forefront of economic growth on the continent and are significant job creators. We want to do everything we can to identify and spotlight these innovative and passionate entrepreneurs and give them a platform to shine. 

We have a long-term commitment to help strengthen and foster a vibrant and strong entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa. Over a ten-year period, ABH will recognize 100 African entrepreneurs – allocating grant funding and providing access to training, mentorship, and a community of like-minded African business leaders. 

The first edition of ABH was in 2019. What success stories can you share from the startups that took part?

It’s been tremendously gratifying to see our past finalists go on to achieve more success. Take our two grand prize winners for example. Our 2020 grand prize winner, Chebet Lesan, is the founder & CEO of BrightGreen Renewable Energy in Kenya. She has invested her winning grant to scale her operations, expanding her energy solutions across East Africa, an incredible achievement in a really difficult year. 

Our 2019 grand prize winner, Temie Giwa-Tobosun is the CEO & founder of Nigeria-based LifeBank. With her grant, she has grown her business to new states in Nigeria and Kenya. In response to Covid-19, she also expanded LifeBank’s services to include the delivery of medical oxygen and facilitated COVID-19 testing. She’s been able to secure further investments and just won the Global Citizen Prize for Business Leader, a testament to her extraordinary leadership.

What’s new about this year’s competition?

The central theme of this year’s competition is “It’s African Time”. We see this theme as a bold call to action for all the talented African entrepreneurs who are challenging stereotypes associated with “African time” through their businesses. We hope they can leverage ABH as their chance to scale their businesses and share their stories. 

We are also looking to be creative and flexible to provide the best possible experience to the participants of the 2021 competition. In 2020, we had to completely rework the format of the prize to be fully digital. We were thrilled to garner over 22,000 applications from all 54 African countries last year and hope to attract even more applications from entrepreneurs across Africa for our third edition. 

What makes you so excited about the ABH competition?

With ABH, we aim to be as grassroots and inclusive as possible. Our competition is open to all African entrepreneurs, no matter their sector, age, or gender. I am also really gratified to be able to work with our incomparable network of partners, including the African Leadership Group, Ashesi, Dalberg, Janngo, SA Innovation Summit and RiseUp. We are also thrilled to have recently confirmed Bogolo J. Kenewendo, former Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry of Botswana, as a Special Advisor. 

What also helps set our competition apart is the mentorship that is baked into the prize. We provide training and learnings throughout the application process but each year the grand finale is also aired in a television show to showcase how our top 10 finalists pitch to legendary business figures. We hope that the show can serve as a masterclass in entrepreneurship for aspiring entrepreneurs. The 2020 show will air later this year. 

Startups have emerged as key drivers of economic growth and job creation and are often a catalyst for radical innovation. How would you describe the startup landscape in Africa right now?

Despite the challenges that entrepreneurs have faced over the past year, I am heartened to see the upward trajectory of Africa’s entrepreneurship. Recent figures from the African Development Bank indicate that 22% of Africa’s working-age population are starting businesses. This is the highest rate in the world. It’s even more encouraging that African women are twice as likely to start a business as women elsewhere in the world. This is reflected in the high level of female representation in our competition – in 2020 50% of our Top 10 finalists were female. 

The penetration of home-grown technology and business-model innovations, mostly driven by mobile applications and the internet, have also made it easier than ever to start a business or access products and services. Because of this, I believe that entrepreneurs will make it possible for recovery and new growth as we come out of Covid. This is a really exciting and important time for entrepreneurship in Africa. 

What role is ABH playing in supporting these startups?

The ABH prize is a purely philanthropic program. We provide grant money to our top 10 finalists with no expectation of equity or payout. Our applicants are also offered exclusive mentorship and training throughout the selection rounds. They also have the opportunity to attend courses, webinars, and bootcamps hosted by representatives of ABH and our vast network of partners. We hope that entrepreneurs can tap into the ABH prize to grow their business, learn from the best, and continue driving impact. 

During this COVID-19 crisis, African startups and entrepreneurs have continued to play a critical role for economies. Some innovative young firms have reacted fast and flexibly to the pandemic. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing these entrepreneurs right now?

The only way entrepreneurs can live up to their full potential is if they have adequate support and access to opportunities. Our broader vision is to ultimately help foster a community of like-minded entrepreneurs and business leaders that can join forces with a variety of stakeholders – including investors, educators, policymakers and civil society – and work together to remove barriers and create better opportunities for the future.

Any closing remarks? 

Now, more than ever, we need entrepreneur “heroes”. It’s African time and it is their time to help our communities overcome the Covid-19 crisis and drive solutions to solve pressing social challenges. I encourage all change-makers to apply today. We believe there’s so much to benefit from applying and becoming a part of the ABH community – the first step is to visit africabusinessheroes.org, set up an account and apply! We look forward to receiving applications from all change-makers! 

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Nixon Kanali

Tech journalist based in Nairobi. I write about tech, business and African startups. Founder and Editor For TechTrendsKE. Nixon is also the East African tech editor for Africa Business Communities. Send tips to nkanali@techtrendske.co.ke.

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