We need to recognise and celebrate that African entrepreneurs are leading the world when it comes to business innovation with a social and environmental impact. Take, for instance, Kenya’s Lorna Rutto, who was born in the Kaptembwa Slums and as a child gathered plastic litter and then melted it down to make ornaments. Today, her company Ecopost, which she founded in 2009, makes use of waste plastic by turning it into an alternative to wood. Rutto has sold more than 20,000 posts, made from more than one million kilograms of plastic waste and has saved over 250 acres of forest. The company generates over $120,000 in income per year, has created over 400 jobs so far, and is growing at such a rate that it is expected to create another 100,000 jobs in the next 15 years.
Hers is a great example of the new African zeitgeist of business making a difference. Ecopost is a business innovation that is not simply filling a gap in the market, but is meeting multiple needs and solving problems – environmental and social – at multiple levels.
And the continent is brimming with such examples. Often born out of necessity, green and social business is thriving in Africa. African entrepreneurs want to do more than just earn an income – they want to make an impact. More than that, they recognise that there is a need for an impact to be made.
Now, many commentators on innovation will tell you that having the right mindset and culture is 99% of the challenge in building an innovative organisations or system. As IBM Lou Gerstner famously said: “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game.”
In Africa, the social and infrastructural challenges we face can’t help but foster an innovation mindset. We don’t need to consider if our businesses should have a purpose beyond profit. Here, surrounded by social and environmental degradation, we know there is no choice. This takes some of the noise out of the system, allowing us to focus on the task of creating sustainable products and services and business model innovation – finding novel ways of delivering and capturing value that will change the basis of competition.
How the continent capitalises on this advantage is up for debate. Clearly we still lack the enabling framework that can fan this spark of wanting to make a difference through business into a roaring flame. Innovation and collaboration can be encouraged and rewarded, or – in many formal and subtle ways – discouraged. The question is which do we want to choose?
At the moment, too often the answer is to discourage. While education level and type is shown repeatedly to be strongly correlated to entrepreneurship, education levels in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are still appallingly low relative to the rest of the world. In fact, according to the latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report on global youth entrepreneurship, youth in SSA have the lowest level of education in the world with one quarter having less than a primary school education while 55% have not completed their secondary education.
Added to that, our business schools, in many ways the custodians of the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs, are often stuck in a rut – emulating established western models and teaching and rewarding a limited set of behaviours and outcomes.
But this is changing. There is a new drive among African business schools to create an impactful and relevant model of business and entrepreneurship on the continent. And a tangible output of this is a new African accreditation system being mooted by the African Association of Business schools (AABS). This will complement the existing and highly influential European and American accreditation systems and will seek to find new ways to shape and reward a uniquely African style of business and leadership.
According to a recent report from AABS, African business schools, not being rooted in years of tradition, are inherently more adaptable and flexible than the European and American models on which they are based. They are therefore uniquely placed to drive innovation in business education to support the new African mindset of impact.
An African hallmark and quality assurance process is sorely overdue. It is also a mark of the continent’s coming of age that we begin to recognise in ourselves that quality is not foreign. We can, in fact, define it. African entrepreneurs like Lorna Rutto are setting the pace for the rest of the globe in terms of green and social innovation. Let’s recognise and celebrate that.