Time to recognize Africa’s successful companies

What better way to support SME development in the African space than by celebrating the entrepreneurs who have already achieved remarkable success. This is exactly what the Africa Awards program is doing and VC4Africa is pleased to partner and support this effort again this year. Recently we had the chance to connect with Hamish Banks, one of the key champions behind the program, and ask him a few questions about this year’s competition.

Why was the AfricaAwards program created?

The Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship program was created to promote the value of entrepreneurship; as we are all aware, SMEs and the entrepreneurs who lead them are the lifeblood of any economy and major contributors to any nation’s prosperity. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 90% of business operations are conducted through SMEs and they contribute around 50% of GDP.

Simply put, the more we can encourage entrepreneurship, the better off we all are. By focusing attention on the amazing stories of these entrepreneurial leaders and creating a platform to tell their stories we want to set them up as role models for aspiring entrepreneurs; these leaders demonstrate the level of business excellence that helps to negate the more negative stereotypes of business in Africa. When we showcase these leaders and the fact that their businesses are the match of any around the world, we create a picture of Africa as a continent of opportunity and an attractive destination for investment capital.

Furthermore, there is a lesson here for policymakers: it is their responsibility to legislate wise policies that make it easy to establish a new business and to ensure a level playing field for all business that encourages growth, free from bureaucracy and corruption.

Lastly, the Awards will support networks of business people that will benefit from improved collaboration, the sharing of best practice and the realization of fresh opportunities – and while every winner has told us that the prize money of $350,000 is attractive, of course, they also tell us that the networking, connections and prestige from being a winner is even more important to their future business growth.

Can you reflect on last year’s event?

Last year was our third year of the competition and by far the most successful to date: we attracted more than 2,700 entries from all of the 15 participating countries, with our first finalist from Ethiopia. We received entries from 18 different industry sectors with a high number from infrastructure development areas – mechanical and electrical engineering, and construction, for example – reflecting the rapid growth in infrastructure projects across the continent. But we also had strong representation for ICT companies (two of which were winners) and an increasing number of entries from business and professional services. We were disappointed not to see more women-owned businesses among the finalists and this year we are making a concerted effort to reach those groups more effectively. The Gala Awards Banquet in Nairobi was a bigger affair than ever before; hosted by Komla Dumor of the BBC’s Africa Business Report and with a keynote speech by legendary Kenyan entrepreneur Manu Chandaria, we brought together entrepreneurs, business people and policymakers in an inspiring showcase of business talent.

What can you tell us about last year’s winner Craft Silicon?

The Africa Awards is about more than just the numbers and last year’s winner, Kamal Budhabhatti of Craft Silicon is a perfect example. In choosing a winner, we look for business excellence – overall profitability, ROI, innovative strategies for growth and flawless execution – but we also place great emphasis on personal leadership, culture and value. Kamal brings all of that together: within Craft Silicon’s core business of customised software solutions for the financial sector, the company’s management is always thinking ahead and has developed innovative solutions in microfinance and Islamic banking, for example, that are fuelling the company’s global expansion.

Craft Silicon is a model of employee engagement both in outreach to university students and in a wide range of benefits to existing employees – such as flexible working hours – and in pushing staff to higher levels of responsibility than they might expect elsewhere. Kamal and his team also demonstrate a deep understanding of the responsibility they share for supporting the communities they serve – from providing free software to microfinance institutions to the computer – equipped Craft Silicon Foundation Bus which travels to Nairobi’s slums and conducts practical training for young people.

It is this complete package that made Kamal and Craft Silicon stand out: a great business run by great people.

This year you take a pan African approach, why was the scope expanded?

It was always our intention to expand across the continent – we just got there a little sooner than we expected, having started with just five countries in 2007 and fifteen last year. The reality is that entrepreneurs are essentially the same everywhere – not just in Africa – and it doesn’t matter the size of your country or the sector in which you compete, entrepreneurs share a DNA that’s hard-wired into their brains. It’s not unusual to hear of a history of start-up, failure, start-up and success and in a sense this defines many of the entrepreneurs we meet: not only are they inspired and inspiring, but they have a resilience about them. And you’ll find that resilience everywhere from Sierra Leone to South Africa to Sudan.

Once we thought about it, not only was there no reason not to expand to the whole of Africa, it is critically important that we did – we want to make the point that Africa is alive with entrepreneurs everywhere, not just in the more developed places you might expect.

How does a program like this help support entrepreneurship development on the continent?

The Africa Awards is built upon teaching by example. One of the reasons we target businesses which fall outside what would be traditionally regarded as being “small” or “medium-sized” is because the leaders of these bigger businesses (with more than $1MM in revenues) have a track record and personal stories that can serve as a practical example and an inspiration. Our first task is to inform and inspire – we will show what homegrown African entrepreneurs have, and can, achieve. On another level we can provide real practical support by brokering connections between the entrepreneur community and the sources of funding which are so critical (and challenging) for them. For example, this year we will organize a one-day conference on entrepreneurship: CONVERGENCE: AFRICA is the platform that brings together the entrepreneurs, investors, policy-makers and businesspeople who will continue to fuel the continent’s burgeoning growth. This one-day conference is designed to be informative, practical, and above all actionable. In addition to headline speakers who are themselves role models of entrepreneurship, the heart of the conference is a series of six Master Classes, conducted by experts in their fields, covering the topics that matter most to entrepreneurs and investors.

The conference will conclude in an exclusive session designed to match enlightened investors and a selection of the brightest entrepreneurs in a series of rapid-fire presentations – what we call Investor Speed Dating – in which we will invite 15 VC and Private Equity firms from across Africa and overseas to hear back-to-back pitches from pre-qualified potential investee companies.

How do you see VC4Africa and its role in the space?

We share the same goals, of course, and see VC4Africa as an energetic and practical resource for entrepreneurs and investors which complements what we’re doing. There’s always a need for a platform for sharing best practice and a space where entrepreneurs can congregate. Like the Africa Awards, such programs are most successful when they become self-sustaining – which happens when members take ownership and see real value in participating. With over 4,000 members, I think VC4Africa is there already- I would just encourage the members to continue to engage in productive discussion and sharing good ideas and experiences as much as possible: this is a great platform for learning.

A final message for all of those entrepreneurs out there?

There’s not much I can say that hasn’t been said much better by the entrepreneurs themselves, so I’ll just encourage them to check the website at www.AfricaAwards.com and submit an entry. Someone asked me the other day why so many Kenyan firms had been finalists and winners in the past, and the answer is pretty simple – they submitted a lot of entries. We want to see applications from every country in Africa – we know there’s a potential winner in every one of them.

Anything else you feel is important to add?

We’ll have a couple of big announcements about the Awards during the course of the next three months, so watch this space. And we’re always open to suggestions and comments as to how to improve the Awards – please let us know.

Great Hamish….. we look forward to seeing this year’s selection come together and to celebrating Africa’s great success stories!