Scaling and growing successful businesses in Africa the entrepreneurs perspective

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Africa, the second largest continent in the world, is known for its rich endowment, abundance, and opportunity. Just as the continent is attracting increasing interest from the international business community, a number of Africans have risen up to the occasion of building a home-grown business community of their own, birthing a new crop of entrepreneurs imprinting their mark in Africa and across the globe.

The budding entrepreneurial community in Africa and its breed of Entrepreneurs were one of the focus areas of the 17thAnnual Africa Business Conference organized by the Harvard Business School in Boston. The Entrepreneurship Panel titled ‘How I started my business(es)’ was an avenue to shed more light to people, particularly in the diaspora, on how to successfully make an impact with their businesses by creating the right ideas, localising, scaling and growing a business with a mission in Africa. The quality of the panelists, as well as their experiences starting and running their respective businesses, gave the Panel the much-needed boost to such an invaluable topic.

The Panel included individuals from a variety of cultures and experiences and were made up of Njeri Rionge, a Kenyan serial entrepreneur who founded Wananchi Online and Ignite; Patrick Ngowi, a Tanzanian social entrepreneur and Founder, Helvetic Group; Tunde Kehinde, Nigerian Co-Founder and Managing Director, Africa Courier Express (ACE); Brooks Washington, a Kenyan, Founder and Managing Partner, Roha Ventures; and Elo Umeh, Nigerian, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Terragon Group.

All the Panelists provided interesting insights from their experiences and how their businesses have grown over time within the continent. They are living proofs that indeed the African business soil is rich for businesses to succeed if the navigators have the right vision and towing the right path. Of all the stories, one that stood out was the story of Terragon Group – a Nigerian-based digital media company founded just 5 years ago which has expanded to have three independent businesses within it, which offer vertical and horizontal innovations to one another.

According to Elo Umeh, a Technology Entrepreneur whose passion and foresight birthed the company, he told the story of how the company has risen to great heights in such a short time, about how he started the business with just himself and then employing one additional staff and how the company now employs over 60 people across the continent, and still counting. “I must tell you that the journey has been a remarkable one, not with song and dance, but with perseverance and passion for our mission as a business and the people behind the business. Did we start off knowing exactly where we would be today? I cannot tell you for a fact that that was the situation. But as we scaled and grew as a business, the vision and mission was much clearer. The challenges at every of our scaling and growing stage differed. The challenges we had as a business when we were at zero to one, and one to ten, are completely different from where we are today at ten to hundred,” Umeh said.

International Start-up Project, Start-up Genome, in 2011, in its ‘Report Extra on Premature Scaling: A deep dive into why most high growth start-ups fail’ identified that start-ups that scale properly grow about twenty times faster than start-ups that scale prematurely, while pointing out that the team size of start-ups that scale prematurely is three times bigger than the consistent start-ups at the same stage. Premature scaling is putting so much attention on one side of the business leaving other aspects hanging. An example of this is hiring a lot of people without planning a stable cash flow strategy. Most entrepreneurs chase ideas and no matter how much they believe in them, if the product isn’t introduced into the market in the right way to enable customers to see it as a means to an end, it will remain an idea.

This may be where Terragon Group got it right. According to Umeh, the ingredients the company used at every stage of its scaling and growing phases were tailored to the business needs at the time: “At our zero to one stage, we were very simplistic but applied strong virtues like humility. This has worked for us throughout the years our business has existed. We do not think there is a time for arrogance whether you are in business to make money or as a not-for-profit organization.”Umeh also noted that thinking very hard about business, is what keeps the business ahead, making it proactive rather than reactive.

He also identified how people make or mar a business, stating, “For our kind of business, digital media, the terrain is relatively new locally hence it sometimes is difficult to find the right people for certain roles. This is a structural issue and is much deeper than what entrepreneurs can handle. I encourage Africans in the diaspora who have the necessary skills needed to groom Africa and Africans to come home and impart some of the knowledge they’ve gathered in more developed countries to others who have local knowledge. This will be invaluable to all parties involved – those who have lived in diaspora for a long time imbibing the necessary skills, and those living locally showing them how the locals prefer things to be done. I must, however, state that when you have passionate people behind any business, the sky is only the starting point as there are no mountains that cannot be surmounted. That is the success story of Terragon Group.”

American Business Advisor, Jeffrey Gitomer, in his book titled ‘Little Teal Book of Trust’ buttressed the point of Trust of the internal audience – the people – in business as he states, “Trust begins the same place loyalty begins, at the top”. According to Gitomer, truthful open communication about every stage of the business is important to earn trust and loyalty with the People within the business.

Umeh also hammered on sustaining a business, using his company as an example: “An approach that ensures that the business is sustainable is taking baby steps and large steps with a razor sharp focus on sustainability. It is important for a start-up to spend less wherever possible because it gives more chances to try and get the fit between the product and the market. It often takes 2-3 times longer than planned to really get the product before scaling the business really becomes appropriate.”

The Entrepreneurship panel at the 17th African Business Conference was power-packed. One major point that will stick with all attendants for a long time to come was the specific similarities the individual entrepreneur panellists had to go through even from different countries with diverse cultures across the African continent. It only goes to show that business growth in the African terrain will not be a walk in the park as challenges spring up unannounced, but overcoming these challenges will make the company stronger and better for it.

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