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Covid19: Supporting Africa’s micro businesses to help them survive

Somachi Chris-Asoluka
By Somachi Chris-Asoluka

Director, Partnerships & Communications, The Tony Elumelu Foundation

Posted on Thursday, 11 February 2021 16:01

Rethinking Africa Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurs have been badly hit by the pandemic; making support for startups more vital than ever. (AP Photo/Olivier Asselin)/

Africa is full of talented people who, with capital and training, can deliver outsize returns and drive the economic change that is needed.

The past year has not been a complete catastrophe for entrepreneurs.

The diverse and dynamic alumni network we have at Tony Elumelu Foundation have reached remarkable heights across Africa in the wake of the pandemic, with inventions like Pad Up – a social enterprise that has produced and distributed over 100,000 breathable sterile face masks to medical personnel in Nigeria; and in Sierra Lone, Lili Tap by Light Salone Innovation – a safer way of opening and closing water taps with a foot working down a lever system.

In 2020, a Uganda fashion designer, Juliet Namujju, was featured on CNN African Voices as a “Changemaker” and she has since then manufactured reusable, washable and biodegradable anti-viral face masks as an alternative to single-use face masks which are made of plastic.

Nigerian-based KompleteCare is another TEF beneficiary initiative, this time helping people to get tested for the Coronavirus from the comfort of their homes, while also providing real-time data to government agencies for contact tracing and data accuracy.

But these successes remain a drop in the ocean.

Many African entrepreneurs have been simply been trying to stay afloat. The combination of this with the employment challenges already posed by Africa’s rapid demographic growth, and its lack of social safety nets, is a recipe for economic devastation.

This existential threat to small businesses in Africa is a dire concern for us at The Tony Elumelu Foundation. We are working to support young African entrepreneurs from all 54 African countries, and hope to execute the largest Covid-19 economic recovery plan for African SMEs.

This year’s intervention prioritises the economic recovery of small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs) and young African entrepreneurs, following the Covid-19 disruption to economic activities. The Foundation continues to lead the path to economic recovery by supporting thousands of SMEs across Africa through a comprehensive entrepreneurship programme with ongoing applications now open.

Bigger challenges, greater reward

To address these unique challenges arising from the pandemic, and to lift thousands out of poverty and create sustainable employment across the continent, the Foundation’s $100m Entrepreneurship Programme, which began in 2015, will empower over 3,500 young African entrepreneurs from across the entire continent. This figure is much higher than the annual average size of beneficiaries from previous years.

The Programme is open to entrepreneurs across Africa, both new start-ups and existing young businesses, operating in any sector. Successful applicants receive world-class business training (likened to a mini MBA by TEF alumni), mentorship, non-refundable seed capital up to $5,000, market linkages and global networking opportunities. The Foundation hopes to unleash the potential of young African entrepreneurs, which it dubs “the key to Africa’s long-term economic transformation”.

This initiative restores hope for African SMEs through integrated regional and global partnerships and supply chain opportunities that will increase the scale of their operations. It directly addresses some of the most endemic challenges to African start-ups – skills and capacity gaps, financial constraints and lack of access to mentoring, networks and market linkages. Following completion of the programme, the entrepreneurs stay connected to the Foundation and to each other through their lifetime membership on TEFConnect. TEF has also set up Country Chapters in 54 African countries to support the entrepreneurs as they grow and expand their businesses.

The SME sector is a crucial lever for growth, and TEF continues to advocate for the economic inclusion and empowerment of small and medium-sized enterprises to thrive and succeed, in order to create more jobs and generate higher revenues to sustain their livelihoods.

For years, the programme has brought entrepreneurs from across sectors, national borders, languages and sectors with the goal to seed their businesses and drive SME longevity across the continent. Through its digital networking hub, entrepreneurs and alumni connect year-round, exchanging value and expanding business possibilities. Such knowledge transfer helps to further unlock the potential of established or emerging SMEs.

The pan-African ambition: connect and grow

The pandemic and its global economic impact have put entrepreneurs at the centre of attention. We must also seize this moment to spotlight low levels of intra-Africa trade and discuss how regional inclusiveness can be an imperative for businesses operating in Africa. The work the Tony Elumelu foundation continues to do through its digital hub, TEFConnect, demonstrates that there is a growing appetite in small businesses for greater between African states.

Africa is full of talented people who, with capital and training, can deliver outsize returns and drive the economic change that is needed. TEF entrepreneurs, with their energy, expertise, initiative and sense of responsibility, are creating products, opening new markets, and utilising innovation creating opportunity, markets and solutions to social and environmental challenges. TEF holds the belief that Africa’s problems are best addressed with African solutions, implemented by Africans, and it is entrepreneurs like these that will rebuild the African economy, post COVID-19.

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