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Africa's Next-Generation Social Entrepreneurs Are Ready. Are We?

2014 Climate Fellow Tom Osborn, founder of Greenchar, showing charcoal briquettes to prospective clients.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

Last week, I joined President Obama and leaders from around the world to shine a spotlight on the importance of entrepreneurship to global development at the sixth Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) held in Nairobi, Kenya. This year’s Summit in Kenya was poised to showcase the vibrancy of innovation across Africa, and call for greater investment in the region. While it is exciting to see the growing interest and investment in entrepreneurship more broadly, there is a specific need to emphasize the possibility and promise around supporting entrepreneurs who have a social mission.

We know that entrepreneurship can have a huge impact on reducing unemployment and growing economies. But, at Echoing Green, where we have helped launch nearly 700 social entrepreneurs around the world, we know that supporting emerging leaders who are driven by a strong sense of purpose, and are ready to challenge the status quo, can have a truly transformative impact on communities and countries.

The good news is that momentum is growing. President Obama elevated entrepreneurship to the forefront of the United States’ agenda during his historic speech in Cairo in 2009, and at last year’s Summit, the Obama Administration announced the SPARK initiative to generate “more than $1 billion dollars in new investments in the next generation of entrepreneurs around the world—to help them open a new business, expand into new markets and ignite the next era of innovation and growth.” The Summit also comes on the heels of a “bootcamp” for 1,000 emerging African entrepreneurs from 51 African countries, hosted and supported by the Tony Elumelu Foundation who committed $100 million to empowering African entrepreneurs.

Over the last few years, at Echoing Green, we have also seen this momentum and a significant increase in innovative enterprises focused specifically on social change throughout Africa. About a third of the more than 3,000 applications we received this year for our Fellowship program proposed work in Africa, and, since 2010, social entrepreneurs working in Africa have made up a third of our funded Fellow portfolio. Behind the U.S. and India, the top three countries for applications were from Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. What we’re seeing is that these countries are becoming social innovation hubs – with social entrepreneurs connecting, coming together at events and co-working spaces, and learning from each other.

Through our almost 30-year history, we’ve learned that it’s not enough to just provide seed funding to these emerging entrepreneurs to create lasting change. Our perspective on how to have the biggest impact is to invest in people, particularly at key inflection points in their lives and careers.


To see what happens when we invest, funding and support, in promising, emerging leaders, just look at a few examples of Echoing Green Fellows.

  • Tom Osborn: Tom was 18-years-old when he received an Echoing Green Fellowship in 2014. Now, he’s running GreenChar, an organization that provides affordable, safe and eco-friendly fuel cooking alternatives in his home country, Kenya. His project aims to reduce the devastating effects of deforestation (trees are cut down to provide fuel for cooking) and improve the health of women and children who combat harmful effects of indoor smoke during cooking. To date, GreenChar has produced 20 tonnes of briquettes from their one factory in Migori County.
  • Misan Rewane: Misan is a 2014 Echoing Green Fellow who was born and raised in Nigeria. After completing secondary school, she had the opportunity to pursue her higher education in the U.K. and the U.S. Compelled by the contrast between her educational opportunities and the untapped potential of millions of young people in Africa, Misan returned to Nigeria, moving to Lagos to launch West Africa Vocational Education (WAVE). WAVE bridges the opportunity divide between unemployed West African youth and stable jobs in the high-growth industries, including the hospitality and retail sectors, changing the paradigm of youth employability in West Africa.
  • Chris Ategeka: Chris, a 2013 Fellow, is a perfect example of an emerging leader who shows a key characteristic of entrepreneurs: resilience. When Chris was about 7-years-old, he lost both of his parents to HIV/AIDS, and took on the responsibility of looking after his siblings. But Chris persevered, and received funding to attend UC Berkley, later getting his master’s in mechanical engineering. In 2013 he created Rides for Lives, an organization that builds and brings mobile hospitals to those in need of medical aid in Uganda.

At Echoing Green, we’ve definitely made progress in supporting local leaders like Tom, Misan and Chris, but we’re not there yet. As a global community invested in social entrepreneurs, we need to improve our ability to identify, develop and connect talented individuals, particularly from across sub-Saharan Africa. In partnership with USAID, we’ve increased our efforts to support more social entrepreneurs in developing countries, and over the next few years, we hope to continue to build our partnerships in Africa so that we are able to attract more promising leaders who have the experience to solve the unique challenges facing their communities. We also hope to leverage these partnerships to provide the tailored support and networks that will not only launch these innovative organizations, but help these organizations and leaders thrive.

At the Global Entrepreneurship Summit last week,  governments and organizations pledged to support entrepreneurs. But more than pledges of funding, I hope there are pledges of partnership.  By not only investing in entrepreneurs, but by building and nurturing a community of social entrepreneurs living and working across Africa, we can unleash the next-generation of innovators and be ready to support them to have the biggest impact.

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