For Henry Cobblah, fashion is his business, the internet is his tool, and a Jack Ma-led initiative for budding entrepreneurs is the perfect conduit to help him realize his dream: letting the world see what Africa is truly made of.
“I want others to know Africa has no shortage of talents, and I want Africans to tell the Africa story,” said the 27-year-old cofounder and the chief technology officer of Ahwenepa.com, a start-up online marketplace that features fashion products from over 170 African designers.
Cobblah, from Ghana, is one of the 24 Africa-based entrepreneurs participating in the inaugural “eFounders Initiative,” co-spearheaded by Alibaba Business School and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The two-week intensive course, which takes place at Alibaba’s global headquarters in Hangzhou, offers capacity-building on all things e-commerce, from inventory management and rural commerce to logistics and mobile payment systems, as well as how to use data to best capture consumer preferences.
As part of his commitment as the UNCTAD Special Adviser for Youth Entrepreneurship and Small Business, Alibaba’s Executive Chairman, Ma has pledged to help empower 1,000 entrepreneurs in developing nations over the next five years. During his Africa trip in July, Ma announced as part of his pledge, 200 of the continent’s young e-commerce pioneers would be invited to visit Hangzhou to learn from China’s experience in building an e-commerce ecosystem.
The program includes on-site visits to China’s wholesale hub in Yiwu and Cainao’s logistic campus. Participants also had the rare opportunity to attend this year’s annual 11.11 Global Shopping Festival and experienced the excitement when Alibaba notched a record-breaking performance. To top it off, the participants had a private meeting with Ma and a series of senior executives who lead the company’s key businesses.
Hailing from seven different African countries, the two dozen participants were selected from over 700 applicants via a rigorous application process. All participants are current pioneers in their respective fields, varying from mobile payment, big data, retail, logistics, and others. Many of them are already the forerunners of e-commerce in their country.
Cobblah’s passion for showcasing Africa’s rapidly growing commerce sector on a global level and helping his fellow entrepreneurs to “push ourselves up to a higher standard” is precisely why Alibaba is undertaking this effort.
“The goal of the initiative is to empower the African entrepreneurs by sharing our story and the new economy story of China,” said Brian A. Wong, vice president of Alibaba Group who heads the Global Initiatives program. “By coming to Hangzhou, these young entrepreneurs can see firsthand the impact of ecommerce on people’s daily lives in China and pick and choose what they think they can use and apply in their own countries.”
These participants are identified as “future architects of the New Economy” who will become game changers, educators, enablers and opinion leaders as they promote the digital transformation of their economies through the creation and adoption of e-commerce.
Such a mandate is in line with the Alibaba’s mission of helping small businesses around the world to be self-sufficient and self-reliant in expanding capabilities and become part of the mainstream economy through the power of e-commerce and the latest technology.
“Alibaba’s global strategy is not to globalize Alibaba’s business,” said Ma in a lecture to the participants. “Our wish is to globalize e-commerce, making sure every country joins forces in building up the infrastructure.”
In fact, the term “e-commerce” could soon become moot because over 80% of businesses worldwide will establish an online presence and conducting business over the internet will be the norm. “It would just be commerce,” said Ma.
“As entrepreneurs, you should consider three questions: What do you have? What do you want? What you will give up?” Ma said to the group.
Many participants said the program has opened up previously unseen opportunities for improving their companies and reshaping their country’s e-commerce sector.
“When I go back to my home country, my focus will be educating all those involved in the business on how to leverage technology to better capture and analyze the data,” said Damilare Ogunleye, 31, managing director of Suvenia.com, a Nigeria-based company that designs and sells personalized products.
“I am already in conversations with my team on building a coupon system to boost customer engagement,” he added.
Ogunleye said at the moment, Nigeria is like the China back in 1994—with great ideas and many intrepid entrepreneurs—but faced with problems like underdeveloped infrastructure and logistics systems. “China’s transformation is inspiring.”
For Catherine Mahugu , one of the significant takeaways after the first week of training is the importance of unity and the power that emerges when you raise the overall competence of your peers, even your competitors.
“There is an African saying that if you want to run fast, run alone. But if you want to run far, run together,” said the 29-year old Kenyan entrepreneur whose company, Soko.com, is a platform for handmade jewelries by Kenyan artisans. She noted that the program provides an instant social network for likeminded entrepreneurs to share ideas.
“After all, we are the people who can transform the African economy because we are there and we are the ones who know the African consumers the best,” she added.
As part of the program, participants pledge to be the agents of change in their home country. Upon graduation, each of them will commit to applying the programs learnings to their own business objectives and to transferring their know-how to others to improve the e-commerce infrastructure of their country.
Alibaba Business School and UNCTAD will follow up with the participants and track their progress over the next two years.
“We believe these participating entrepreneurs will play a very important role in the future creation of the New Economy in their country,” said Wong. “We want them to become the Jack Mas of their own countries.”