African Entrepreneur Statement
Delivered at U.S.-Africa Trade and Investment Forum
Delivered by Selam Wondim
Excellency Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
My name is Selam Wondim, and I am young, ambitious, and ready to transform my country Ethiopia, and the African continent. I am the CEO and co-founder of GroHydro, a company that is manufacturing hydroponic systems with the potential to dramatically transform farming. My company has been incubated at blueMoon, a youth agri-tech incubator and seed investor here in Ethiopia.
Yesterday, in partnership with blueMoon, the U.S. Mission to the African Union held the first ever African Entrepreneur Forum. The AEF brought together 24 YALI Mandela Washington Fellow Alumni from all across Africa. Together with 10 blueMoon startups and half a dozen angel investors, we discussed the state of entrepreneurship in Africa.
This is important because Africa has one of the highest concentrations of young people in the world. Africa’s population is projected to double to over 2 billion people by 2050. So the big question is:
Where will all of these jobs come from?
While governments and corporations certainly have a critical role to play, we believe that young entrepreneurs are best positioned to meet this challenge to achieve “The Africa We Want.”
Through our exciting discussion yesterday, we identified key issues that I would like to highlight today.
First, we urgently need to promote vibrant startup ecosystems across all of Africa. When we say startups, we mean companies that solve important problems with innovative solutions. They are scalable, and have the potential for big impact. But they are also high risk. Startup ecosystems involve universities, research centers, incubators and accelerators, seed and angel investors, venture capital funds, advisors, and more. And, as Africa opens up, we should have ways to network with startups across borders.
Second, in order for all to participate in the startup ecosystem, all of us need to speak the same language. This includes government, universities, civil society, investors, development partners, and we startups, of course. Thus, we need to build up our investment literacy. To do this, we need mass media programs, startup competitions, and national organizations that encourage dialogue among all of the above actors.
Third, we need to build capacity. We need education programs not only at university level but also much earlier that encourage young people to engage in entrepreneurship and innovation. We need stronger university research and development, and need to encourage incubators and accelerators. And, we need to build the capacity of government actors to understand the startup ecosystem.
This leads to my fourth and final point. Enabling government policies are key. Among these are:
- a requirement for government to procure a certain percentage of goods and services from startups;
- tax exemptions for startups at their initial phase;
- tax incentives for angel and seed investors to help manage their risks;
- a separate regulatory framework for startups; and,
- government guarantee schemes that de-risk private financing.
The truth is, our governments must embrace a “sandbox” approach to encourage startups. That is, by creating safe places for us to experiment, fail, and succeed in this startup game.
In conclusion, we are not trying to replicate Silicon Valley or any other place. We cannot. Rather, we can and must create our own African model of a startup friendly economy that is best suited to our own conditions and context.
We entrepreneurs are ready. We are passionate. We have energy and bold ideas.
And, most importantly, we believe this is Africa’s time – and our time!