Entrepreneurs should be supported as drivers of change and economic prosperity in Africa, Jack Ma said at the inaugural Africa Netpreneur Conference, held Saturday in the Ghanaian capital of Accra.
Reiterating one of his longstanding messages, Ma praised Africa’s entrepreneurs for focusing their businesses on the needs of their communities and working to solve problems faced by society as a whole. By starting these businesses, entrepreneurs are helping to build the high-speed internet access, logistics networks and digital payments platforms that the continent so desperately needs.
“Entrepreneurs don’t wait for the right conditions” to start a business, Ma said. “They create the right conditions.”
“I think Africa will be changed because of entrepreneurs. Let’s start to help, let’s start to inspire, let’s start to support and empower startup spirit, entrepreneur spirit,” he said.
WATCH: Jack Ma Speaks at Africa Netpreneur Conference
The conference, which served as a prelude to the African Netpreneur Prize finale being filmed Saturday evening in Accra, brought together stakeholders in government, business, education and development to discuss, debate and share best practices for promoting entrepreneurship in Africa.
During a panel discussion, Togo’s minister of post, digital economy and technology, Cina Lawson, highlighted the initiatives her country has put in place to teach and train the next generation of digital workers, including greater access to high-speed internet at schools and universities. The Togolese government also changed its education curriculum to better serve students in the digital era, increasing their chances of finding jobs, while adding courses about internet infrastructure at technical schools. However, Lawson said her team is still looking for new models of education and business to introduce in Togo.
“We want to partner with firms to find new ways to educate our people,” she said.
Martin Simela, the founder and CEO of Barstorne Enterprises, which helps small businesses in Africa to digitize their operations, called for better regulations to foster companies both in their home market and across borders in Africa. He agreed with Lawson that education was critical to Africa’s development, as was access to the internet. Much of the continent’s population still lives in rural areas, he said, leaving them without the ability to get online.
“It’s not radical or revolutionary if it’s inaccessible to the poor,” Simela said. “So that’s what we need to focus on.”
While many of the challenges facing Africa were highlighted, so too was the potential to overcome them offered by entrepreneurship.
“Entrepreneurship is a vital component of economic growth, and has been embraced globally as one of the most important drivers of development,” said Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, adding that it specifically helps to address unemployment, especially among young people.
Akufo-Adda cited United Nations figures that estimated Africa’s working population in 2035 will be equal to about a quarter of the world’s total population, while a third of the world’s youth population – those between the ages of 15 and 24 – will be in Africa. The empowerment of this population, such as through education and the regulatory environments necessary for their businesses to thrive, “will constitute very powerful tools for economic development in Africa and the world,” he said.
Ban Ki-moon, the former secretary-general of the United Nations and a board member of Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative, during closing remarks echoed those sentiments, saying that “promoting entrepreneurship and youth empowerment is critically important to secure a more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future.”
“This is not only true for Ghana but also for the entire African continent,” Ban said.
Ma called for Africa’s entrepreneurs to work together on a path toward sustainable growth, adding that the continent does not lack talent, resources or opportunity. Their success will inspire others to take up the torch.
“Entrepreneurs should be the real heroes of Africa,” Ma said.