In Africa I Met 100+ Entrepreneurs Who Put Me to Shame

Matthew Combs June 16, 2016 About YourCause

I’m sitting in Harare International Airport, the capital city of Zimbabwe, about to embark on more than 20 hours of flying – with another 10hrs of layovers and connections – to my home, my career, my day-to-day life, and my children. And no, I don’t want to be and/or sound like one of those stereotypical “tourists” who visits Africa and proclaims to undergo a complete life transformation; dons some black, red, yellow, and green tribal gown; and is all of a sudden devoted to scaling back his life in order to simulate the life of those with whom he just spent the last week. I don’t want to be that person inspired to make drastic changes to my life today, only to be forgotten over the next 8 weeks as my “real life” involving kids summer camps, quarterly board meetings, scheduled vacation, and an assortment of other “first world” privileges set in.

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Harare International Airport

Honestly, I don’t know what or how I will be different, but I don’t see that as a requisite for returning from these sorts of trips.  It seems cliché to claim such transformation if it’s not genuine, but here I am, sitting in this airport with an enhanced mindset compared to when we first landed in Johannesburg over a week ago.  I have not come away from this trip empty handed, and I experienced many new things that I simply did not expect:

  • I have a new-found interest in supporting a new generation of entrepreneurs who are truly changing our world – and yes, trying to make money.
  • I discovered new paths from which I feel YourCause can benefit –through international expansion and great connectivity to nonprofits on the ground making a measurable difference in Africa.
  • I developed a deep appreciation for what our US embassy is doing in Africa, at least in Zimbabwe and Zambia, by promoting social entrepreneurs, which inherently makes me (again) very proud to be an American.
  • And I have found a new level of admiration for those who are able to “make something from nothing,” which I hope will help to steer me in my own leadership in my career and family.

Perhaps some further explanation is needed.

Why Did I Even Come to Africa & What Did I Do?

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The entrepreneurs at Bogohive in Lusaka, Zambia were full of passion and ideas that have a direct impact on their communities. Take Street Culture for example, they’re a startup that puts on cultural events such as breakdance competitions and skateboard competitions that are giving kids an outlet to express their creativity.

About four months ago, I received a forwarded email from a team member asking me if I’d be interested in being considered for a US Embassy-hosted program in Zambia and Zimbabwe in conjunction with two local “social entrepreneurship” nonprofits. Through this program, I would travel to Lusaka, Zambia and Harare, Zimbabwe to speak about “how to best pitch your business.”

As my inspiration for YourCause was a result of the events taking place in Uganda, my team assumed that I would have some sort of interest in such an adventure, and they were right. Despite the “this could be dangerous for you, Matt” talk from my mother, not for one second did I ever feel that this opportunity was not perfect for me. And I was right.

So it all began, starting with some pretty fundamental (and embarrassing) elements. Despite previous travels to 16 countries, I had no idea where Zambia and Zimbabwe were geographically, other than “in Africa.” I was equally unaware of: how to get there, what language is spoken, what vaccinations I needed, etc. Repairing my knowledge deficit kicked into full gear, and in the process, Google became my best buddy in doing whatever I could to bring me up to speed. (Read more about the preparation process in this post by my travel partner Dustin Joost.)

I recruited Dustin (from my team) to join me, I asked Kassandra (also from our team) to help me in the planning, I made a commitment to my mother to Facetime her often, and off we went. By the time we landed in South Africa, we had put together a full-day workshop to pass along best practices, lessons learned, and other related knowledge to aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to get their businesses off the ground.  It was no more than 30 minutes into our first workshop that I found my interest in supporting these social entrepreneurs begin to take off.

New Generation Social Entrepreneurs

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The entrepreneurs at the Udugu Institute in Harare, Zimbabwe are building life-changing companies. Their startups included 3D-printed implants, renewable energy generated from organic waste delivered to your door, and stationery created through recycled materials gathered from local villages and artisans.

In the US, we call the type of entrepreneurs that we met with this week as “idealistic,” or perhaps even “unrealistic.”  Their ideas are so profound and attempt to solve such real problems, that they just appear to be unattainable. The ideas that these young “new generation” entrepreneurs are focused on changing the lives of those around them at a very fundamental and, dare I say, survival level.  Not once did I hear ideas related to online analytics, big data, digital delivery, social connectivity for dating, group purchases, or giving others their deserved 10 minutes of fame.

The entrepreneurs (and their ideas) sought to reduce a rural woman’s daily walk of 3 miles (each way) to get fuel to cook with (aka: coal and firewood) by providing her with an ethanol-based stove and an ongoing supply of ethanol to her community. Another was a publisher of children’s classroom books that sold at a fraction of the normal cost. One individual sought to prevent students dropping out by offering student loans for half the market rate. And yet another was a woman who created aquaponics facilities employing local women and providing fresh produce.  Not only did these entrepreneurs think differently from how I am accustomed to thinking, but they thought differently from the rest of their own society.

Their interest lay in providing what we in the US would call “basic necessities.”  They’ve realized that: in order to solve their country’s problems, they need to find an innovative way to do good and then do it. They were able to be BOTH idealistic AND realistic to solve real problems for real people. And the kicker? Of the more than 100 companies we worked with, I would estimate that a company sought, on average, $10,000 in funding to make their plan happen or allow their existing businesses to expand. Those were small amounts, relatively speaking; yet they would be life-changing and business-making in-country.  And I actually think there might just be an opportunity for YourCause to participate!

Opportunities for YourCause?

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While in Zambia and Zimbabwe, we met with two technology hubs that were formed as nonprofit organizations supporting the entrepreneurs we worked with during our visit. The hubs provide guidance, support, and other related resources to budding and aspiring entrepreneurs. In essence, these organizations are building the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem from the ground up, serving as a community magnet for entrepreneurial talent, and bringing together ideas, people, knowledge and funding. Their work is essential, as these are both countries where the “venture” or “startup” scene is non-existent (an idea which seems so very foreign to us Americans). These entrepreneurs have a social or societal purpose behind what they do, and therein lies a big opportunity for YourCause to work directly with these technology hubs to support the ongoing launch and growth of the innovative and life-changing ideas pursued by these young innovators. Furthermore, the technical hubs we visited are attracting the interest of local nonprofits who are also seeking to solve critical societal issues through technology and innovation.

During a time when our clients and their employees are increasingly seeking direct impact opportunities through our platform and a growing interest for tangible global opportunities, the relationships we formed in Zambia and Zimbabwe may very well serve as a template for moving us forward to channeling support and attention to international products, nonprofits, social enterprises, and social entrepreneurism. And previously unbeknownst to me, it appears as though the US – through our US Embassy network – has very similarly aligned interests in spurring social innovation and entrepreneurism, evidenced by our invitation to Africa this past week.

What About the US Embassy?

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I have never been to a US Embassy, and up until this point, I had very little knowledge of what our Embassies do other than open their gates at the very last minute to allow the troubled and running American to barely make it through and escape the international police. Safe to say, again, this trip was a bit of an eye opener for me in understanding a little more about what our diplomatic system does.  And I must admit, that it makes me feel an enormous sense of pride in being an American.

The embassies in Zambia and Zimbabwe launched local programs bringing in US talent to conduct all-day “boot camps” for local entrepreneurs. They have structured a 6-month program including a diverse set of classes from finance, marketing, and execution, to the topic we hosted: “how to pitch your business.”

The embassy realized that you can’t simply throw money to the problem, rather you must first grow and develop the solution, and then cultivate and groom the entrepreneur in order to achieve sustained, measurable, and real impact. In meetings with both embassy’s officials, their sincerity and genuineness in the pursuit of these programs was evident, and from what I was able to witness, their impact is real.

Initially I questioned the sincerity of the US Government, as the altruistic cloud that surrounded these programs spurred the American in me to snap to judgment and deem these programs far too idealistic and, therefore, unrealistic. Though when confronted, the embassies’ responses were pretty simple: “We’re investing in each country’s entrepreneurs and seeking to solve their societal issues through locally developed solutions and innovation, not by just tossing dollars and products at the problem.” And the investment is real – I am proof of that. What I was able to share with the 100+ companies I met with cannot be learned from a textbook, and is not something that can be purchased. It is far more valuable than a mass influx of cash and a bunch of wishful headlines in the news.

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The US has intelligently deployed a strategy working with innovators who are able to make something from nothing, knowing that it will be these solutions that will mold the future.  And now there is an opportunity for the US to support and develop that “something” into actions and activities that can truly change their society.  Simply being a part of that process was amazing.

Making Something from Nothing

Perhaps we have just become too spoiled in the United States within our start-up community. Even when I reflect on the creation of YourCause, I can’t hide from the truth that the company got off the ground with nearly $500,000 in angel funding.  Sure, some prototyping and basic concept development were done earlier, but for the most part, YourCause was created from something:  money.  In US terms, and more specifically from a venture capital and/or start-up perspective, $500,000 is considered a small amount of money to get a business off the ground. Nonetheless, it was 100 times what I saw being asked for by these social entrepreneurs.  And for those who were already executing their vision, they had done so by making something out of nothing.

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Meet Chmunorwa, who we nicknamed “Honey Bear.” This guy will get you so excited about honey that you’ll want to start your own bee farm. He’s training villages to manage their own bee farms and creating a product line with the output, providing hundreds of sustainable jobs for people in rural areas of Zimbabwe.

These entrepreneurs are taking being scrappy and resourceful to an entirely new level, and it completely amazed me.  They were moonlighting from jobs that barely paid them to begin with – and when I say barely, I mean around $100/month.  So instead of picking up that second job to help them live what we might call a “more normal life,” they used that time to pursue their passions and their dedication to making a social impact.  The groups we worked with were engaged, interested in learning, and committed to doing whatever it was they needed to do in order to succeed.

All this is taking place in areas where every excuse in the world is available to them as to why the uphill climb could be considered too steep.  Giving up and relying on nonprofit aid has largely defined the status quo and formed the way entire generations think and feel within this region.  So as we were able to interact and participate with these groups throughout the week, I found myself continually humbled by their stories and visions.  In many ways, I found myself feeling unworthy of being there and far over-credited for what I have done with my career to this point.  I am spoiled, privileged, and just flat out lucky.  I am American.

En Fin

So, no, I’m not landing back in the United States as a reformed individual with some new-found commitment to saving Africa, pretending that I truly understand what life is really like over there.  I learned this week that doing so is just foolish, unproductive, and ultimately a big waste of my time and theirs. However, I land back in Dallas with two new feelings swirling within my mind and heart:  1) Inspiration and 2) Challenge.  I am inspired to work a little bit harder and more effectively with my own business so that I can be in a better position to do more to help the entrepreneurial scene in southern Africa.  Without my own success, I am unable to pass along the type of support they are so desperately seeking.   I am personally challenging myself to find more creative and innovative solutions that will allow me to utilize YourCause, our technology, network, and connectivity to drive ongoing change and support for the very type of people we worked with this past week.

So now the real work begins.

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