Jack Ma has turned his attention toward the African continent and he's intent on supporting young entrepreneurs as drivers of change and economic prosperity – and a source of hope for the future
Alibaba is one of the largest e-commerce sites in the world with 755 million active users. Its founder, Jack Ma, who retired last year, is as famous as the Chinese web giant itself. The brand, created by Jack Ma while he was a teacher and born out of the combinations of the discipline of Chinese culture, Ma's own vision and the opportunities he has encountered throughout his life, is also one of the few international companies that know how to apply advanced technology well. However, Ma does not want to settle for creating the largest international brand from China. He has set his sights on a new target geography to develop in two years: Africa.
In a recent statement to African media, Ma said "Today's Africa is like China 20 years ago." In other words, he saw Africa as a geography with great potential to become a global center, ready to flourish, and so, he decided to dedicate himself to Africa.
Ma said he set foot on the continent for the first time as a consultant of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 2017. "On my first trip, I went to Kenya and Rwanda. I met young entrepreneurs in both countries. Africa was no different from China. I listened to their stories and suddenly found myself the version I was 20 years ago when Alibaba was founded," Ma said in a statement to The African Report. "Unlike American or Chinese peers, who are growing in number, African entrepreneurs were looking for opportunities in sectors such as banking, energy and mining, where they could take more confident steps, rather than obsess about pursuing a successful career."
Ma has outwardly shown his admiration for this continent by organizing the Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative, supported by the Jack Ma Foundation he established five years ago, to help the voices of entrepreneurs engaged in technology and innovation in Africa to be heard.
Over 100,000 applications
We discussed Ma's relationship with Africa with Jack Ma Foundation Secretary-General Beth Yu at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar in November. "As the foundation, we started with training in rural areas in China prior to our work in Africa. You know, Jack Ma is a very passionate person for education. He is also a former teacher," Yu said. "We first started in China by training not only students but also teachers and school administrators. We developed a program in boarding schools. We investigated what we could do about the children staying here because the managers in every boarding school in China are not educated."
Beth Yu noted they later headed for Africa and created the Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative, which supported entrepreneurs and later turned into a television show.
"Our entrepreneurship program in Africa is still new. We held our show for the first time last year. We try to support heroes of the business world by supporting young entrepreneurs. We want to show that an entrepreneur from Africa can also be a star. We aim to support their success," Yu said. "Although this may seem like an award and a competition, it is actually an educational program. The criteria we look for in this entrepreneurial training program consists of basic topics such as: What is your mission? What kind of business model do you have? How will you finance yourself? What we really want to achieve is that those who work hard and fail will make a profit. If we can train them, we can make them earn more and create more employment. They can contribute more to the communities in which they live."
Yu said that this year there were more than 10,000 applications from 50 countries in Africa, adding that the applicants were narrowed down with the help of mentors, and different competition formats were applied for each sector and business model.
Stating that even if they do not enter the competition, entrepreneurs can get investment or support from local technoparks or incubation centers, Yu said that mentors and jury members who eliminate entrepreneurs at the first stage try to ensure that entrepreneurs reach their goals by establishing the necessary connections both in the north and south of Africa.
Yu pointed out that they think of education as a tool to develop Africa. "We see companies in China as a charity at the same time. We want to develop societies lacking resources or those that have not developed enough. For this reason, we focused on education. Jack always underlines that companies should do good. What we did with this project was to strengthen the society, so we did not intend to build a factory, for example, and hire people," Yu added.
Health care takes the lead
Yu said that the LifeBank project from Nigeria won first prize in 2019, when the Africa Netpreneur Prize competition was held for the first time in Ghana, noting that this project was a life-saving startup that provides hospitals and clinics with needed medical supplies, including blood, and thereby saves lives. The top 10 startups split $1 million. Yu reported that only one of the entrepreneurs that won the first year was from the field of technology.