Let 100 ‘Alibaba,’ 1,000 ‘Jack Ma’ appear in Africa – Chinese platform empowering African entrepreneurs

By Peng Sisi Source:Global Times Published: 2019/11/13 19:58:40

Sarai Afrique Fashion House CEO Caroline Kuria with Jack Ma in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Kuria

One afternoon, in Nairobi, Kenya, a courier of the clothing e-commerce company Sarai Afrique Fashion House picked up a paper bag with the company logo. 

Running directly to the third floor of the apartment building, he took out dresses, jeans and bags ordered online by the customer that morning. After the customer checked all of them, he asked the customer to sign the delivery note and then rushed to the next order.

This scene is one that Chinese people could not be more familiar with, though it was thousands of miles away.

Sarai Afrique Fashion House, one of Kenya's leading e-commerce fashion platforms, offers a wide range of the latest and best selections of women's apparel from brands across the world. In June 2018, Caroline Kuria, founder and CEO of Sarai Afrique Fashion House, participated in the two-week "eFounders Fellowship" program at Alibaba's headquarters in Hangzhou, China.

This initiative, co-sponsored by the Alibaba Group and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), is the first step to fulfill the commitment Jack Ma, co-founder and former executive chair of Alibaba Group, made to empower 1,000 entrepreneurs in developing countries, 200 of whom will come from Africa, over the next five years.

It is difficult to get good clothes in Africa at an affordable price. With a background in finance and marketing, Kuria started Sarai Afrique Fashion House. In December 2018, she opened the physical store, not only as a head office but also as a way to prove its credibility. 

"There are many concerns from customers in Kenya. They cannot easily trust e-commerce websites. But if there is a physical store, you cannot disappear the next day. Alibaba also has offline stores. That's exactly what I learned from Alibaba," she said. 

Kuria has seen a big increase in sales, both on the online platform and in the physical store. 

The imagined continent

Today, Africa has become a land of passionate entrepreneurship. 

Industries are emerging in Rwanda in recent years. Guez Show, a 3D animation and graphics company, was the first to bring Digital Cinema Packaging to Rwanda. 

Nkurunziza Mufuth, founder and CEO of Guez Show, experienced cashless payment during the eFounders Fellowship in Hangzhou, a few months ago. The visit to Taobao Village allowed Nkurunziza to learn more about how Alibaba empowers people in rural areas through technology. He was inspired to pay more attention to people in villages. Guez Show is planning to teach villagers how to do animation. 

After returning to Rwanda, this ambitious entrepreneur immediately decided to start another subsidiary company. 

"Before, we actually put two businesses in one. I was hesitating whether to create a second business. But Alibaba's history, which has been a journey encompassing e-commerce, logistics, FinTech, and offline stores, gave me a definite answer to all my concerns. Build a core business, build a big ecosystem and then use your ecosystem to expand. That's what I learned from the huge Alibaba empire," he said. 

Mufuth envisions the Guez Group having two subsidiary businesses in the near future, Guez Show and Guez Agent, which will provide B2C and B2B services respectively.

'African-style' solutions

Successful entrepreneurs are well aware of the challenges of entrepreneurship in Africa. But these challenges also provide opportunities for companies to create great value. 

There are 280 million mobile money accounts in Sub-Saharan Africa, more than the number of bank accounts in the region. This makes it possible to start successful mobile-based businesses. 

More than 80 percent of the Ugandan workforce relies on agriculture to make a living, yet less than 10 percent of commercial bank credit is channeled toward the agricultural sector. The commercial banks see lending to farmers as risky, due to lack a of collateral and financial history to facilitate credit.

Akellobanker, a FinTech Ugandan company, emerged in this context. By leveraging data and mobile technologies, Akellobanker offers easy access to tractors,  improved seeds, medical services and farm labor on credit. Their objective is to empower the poor to escape their condition. 

"The course during the eFounders Fellowship made me more aware of the mission of our company. Alibaba has so many different products and services, but almost every product or service has risen to the challenge, rather than being emotionally driven", said Onyait.

The infrastructure gap in Africa is now growing, and 600 million African people still lack access to electricity. This gap has spurred several enterprises to find their niche. 

As Jack Ma said, "Africa today has tremendous opportunities. Africa, like China 19 years ago, has no good infrastructure, but with the opportunity of digitalization, Africa will be the most profitable land around the world."

Christian Kakoba is the co-founder of BitHub Africa, a leading blockchain accelerator based in Kenya, who focuses on driving financial and energy access across Africa. The company intends to train 2,000 engineers by 2022 to support the solar access solutions ecosystem in Africa. "It's really inspiring to see some of the concepts of our company being realized in China. Alibaba keeps innovating the supply chain. We thought it would happen in Africa in the next 10 or 20 years, but I saw it happen already in countries like China. This validated lots of work that we are doing, making us feel that we are on the right track," Christian recalled.

He also mentioned, "Jack Ma is the idol to African youth. From nothing initially to the present success, his business journey always encourages African entrepreneurs to move forward."

Jack Ma once said, "I hope in the next 20 years, there will be at least 100 Alibaba and 1,000 Jack Ma in Africa."  These innovative youth are the epitome of another Africa: entrepreneurship, characterized by digitalization and technology, full swing in a land often labeled as "barren," "war-torn," "disease-ridden" and "hopeless."

This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project at the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.
Newspaper headline: Continent of Innovation


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