Those who overlook the business opportunities in Africa are missing out on a digitally connected population that has used technology to address many challenges and is eager to do more. In this interview, Strive Masiyiwa, founder and executive chairman of the global telecommunications company Econet, discusses why Africa is no different from other consumer and technology landscapes. Entrepreneurial opportunities are vast, and those who choose Africa as a place of business could benefit greatly from them. An edited transcript of his remarks follows.
Recognizing the entrepreneurial opportunities in Africa
As long as you are providing a product or a service that is consumed by people, you have to think of Africa. What we saw happen in China, there is absolutely no reason why that should not happen in Africa over the next few decades. For those who are taking a long-term view, interested in where the great consumer opportunities are, Africa has so many needs. Needs are the playground of entrepreneurs in almost anything you could consider.
I’ve been blogging on my Facebook page this week about sanitation—how much of an industry there is for sanitation. People have no running water. We need toilets. Interpret that as an entrepreneur. Those are huge opportunities. Africa has extraordinary opportunities because of its needs.
Technology’s transformative power
Africa is not an island on a planet; it’s integral to the planet. Everything that we see in technology globally is also happening in Africa. You’d be surprised that we’re ahead in a couple of ways of looking at things.
I remember wanting to buy a car that I’d had in England. When I got to Africa, I said, “Well, where is this?” They said, “We took it out because it’s not needed in Africa.” I said, “Don’t you ever do that to me again.” Because everything should be the same. The standards should be the same.
Africa’s past that condescending approach to things. Every technology and whatever you want to do, the opportunities are there in Africa. Take, for example, how we solved for financial inclusion. How we came around to the idea that our phones could become our banks when we didn’t have banks. Most people didn’t have a bank account. Today, more people in Africa bank and transact using their phones than anywhere else in the world. This is an extraordinary development. We should see a lot more of that.
Unleashing Africa’s talent
Today, everybody understands that a great football team needs talent. You understand why Samuel Eto’o has to be on your team, or Didier Drogba. But we’re not yet in a place where we feel that’s what we need in government or that’s what we need in business. I’ve sought to try to do two things.
One is trying to get children in school, because the tragedy of having [millions of] youngsters wandering around our streets, as we do today, who should be in school, who are under 16 years old, is an indictment of us. Every year, we should select 100 young people who must be the brightest, smartest that we can find, who will go and compete as Team Africa at Stanford and Yale and Harvard and so forth, unashamedly. Because Africa will need those [people]. And so that is how we approach our support of the talent pool.
The moral responsibility to help others
When you live and work on a continent like ours, what is important to understand is that it comes with extraordinary challenges, which require a responsible approach.
I’m one of these blessed people. But at a very early age, I realized I was getting more than I needed. I can only sleep in one bed, and I can only drive one car. And even if I buy a Ferrari, I can still only drive one. So why have ten parked outside? But there’s nothing that is more satisfying in life than to have a young person come up to you, as I have often had, and say, “I didn’t have anybody to turn to. You sent me to school. I have a degree. I have a family.” And that’s what we’ve all got to do.