In Ethiopia these days, we talk a lot about youth. In fact, we talk a lot about youth all over Africa. And rightly so. Africa has become a very young continent. Like elsewhere in Africa, 64% of Ethiopia’s population is below the age of 24. An astounding 20 million people, or nearly the population of Ghana and twice the population of Rwanda, are between 15 and 24, and 20% of these are unemployed. What has come to be known as the youth “bulge” has become an urgent priority for Ethiopia’s economic welfare, but even for Ethiopia’s social welfare.
Youth economic participation and youth entrepreneurship are key. Crazy big ideas and wild dreams are part and parcel of being young. In fact, they are the best part of being young. Young people must aspire to do great things, they must lose themselves, and find themselves in their dreams, they must fight, and sweat, and cry and shout and dance, and grow up in those big dreams. Young people must feel that the world belongs to them, that their lives can be as big as their dreams, and that the sky is literally the limit. And from those wild ambitions and crazy ideas, good things happen. New leaders emerge, new ideas are born, new solutions are found to big problems, new industries are invented, new ventures are launched, new books and films and plays are written, new companies are created that may grow to multi-billion dollar enterprises, and eventually employ tens maybe even hundreds of thousands of people. That is the stuff of crazy ideas.
And where do crazy ideas go in Ethiopia? We talk a lot about entrepreneurship, and increasingly, youth entrepreneurs, youth as job creators, youth micro and small enterprise development, and so on. And we are worried that youth must engage in agriculture and stay focused on the rural sector in order to grow our economy out of agriculture and springboard to agro-industrialization and from there to a fully fledged industrial and services based economy. This is all good. But what are we doing about this in Ethiopia today?
In recent years, a wave of publicly sponsored entrepreneurship development programs have emerged. These programs target tens of thousands of youth, providing two to three weeks of skills training administered locally by junior trainers, with support to enable youth to set up micro-enterprises all over Ethiopia. Training is followed by interaction with relatively junior business advisors for several months. This is usually accompanied by links to some form of donor grants or micro-finance short-term loans. This broad-handed approach results in thousands of young people getting enough support to start micro-enterprises, hiring at least themselves and possibly a few others. And that is a good thing.
But there are limitations to this broad approach. First, the training given is fairly generic and delivered at a junior level and likely does not have much depth. Similarly, the business advisory is also light touch with limited capacity to delve into any unique or complex business problems. So the tendency is for the businesses to be low-risk in nature, that is, in fairly traditional business areas. In rural areas, this would be in tried and true activities like animal fattening, dairy, vegetable farming, retail trading, etc. Second, the type of financing given to those micro-enterprises, usually in the form of micro-finance loans, is also low-risk, in that the loan is likely to be given for fairly traditional low-risk activities which can be repaid in a short time period.
So from end to end, the structure of these broad-based entrepreneurship development programs caters to the law of the safe average, and are set up to encourage low-risk micro-enterprises that are matched with low-risk capital. And the measure of success for these projects and micro-finance institutions is that nearly all the program participants establish some type of viable business and become self-employed and receive micro-financing, and embark on business activities, and do well enough to sustain themselves, repay their loans, and hopefully slowly scale up from a micro to a small enterprise. And success for the safe average means 95pc participation in programs and 95pc repayment of loans, as a condition for funds to be replenished and programs to continue. And that is a good thing.
However, are all of us satisfied by the safe average? Or do some of us have exceptional, out-of-the-box, possibly crazy ideas, more than average talent, super-sized determination, and possibly the ability to maybe, just maybe, go far beyond a micro or a small enterprise to a wildly successful mega outcome? And aren’t there always some who just see the world differently, no matter what? And who are willing to take exceptional risks and push themselves farther and higher than the rest? And shouldn’t many more of us aspire to such a crazy and wildly successful possibility? Shouldn’t many, many of us dream of changing the world, so that, just maybe, one of us actually does?
As Steve Jobs, the iconic founder of Apple put it: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the only ones who do.” So again, where do crazy ideas go in Ethiopia?
Surely, crazy ideas have a place in our Ethiopia, just as the safe averages do too. And if we are to create a home for those crazy ideas, then we must have different structures for those ideas, and the exceptional dreamers that are behind them. We know that that crazy ideas, ideas which are big and bold and innovative and transformational, are highly risky. And so we must be willing to forgo our 95% performance metrics and accept that a failure rate of 80% is okay too. And we must find and match those high-risk ideas to high-risk capital that is willing to take a bet on investing in those ideas and the dreamers behind them, who may well be the next Mark Zuckerberg, or Jack Ma or Aliko Dangote, or Ashish Thakkar.
So what do we do differently? The world has shown us that innovative, big ideas are best nurtured in intensive, small programs, with lots of coaching and mentoring by high-level entrepreneur-advisors who themselves have gone down the same path, surrounded by equally ambitious and exceptional-minded peers, and linked into high power networks where things happen. This is the incubator approach that we see now taking off all over the world, led in the tech world by Silicon Valley and Boston, and spreading across the globe to places like Tel Aviv, Mumbai, Shanghai, Nairobi and Lagos, where startups are springing up, changing the world.
Incubators in the scientific world are literally containers where heat and light are provided to optimally hatch eggs. So what are business incubators? An incubator is the home for ambitious, exceptional, high potential ideas. Crazy ideas. Incubators are where great startup founders are given coaching and training, and good coffee, and comfortable chairs, and hi-speed wifi, and peers to bounce ideas off, and access to venture capital investors who are willing to take a big risk on game-changing, innovative, high-potential ideas. Nobody talks about micro-enterprises in incubators, or about graduating from micro to small enterprises. In incubators, founders talk about giant outcomes and how many great businesses they will build in their lifetime.
Incubators are where young people feel comfortable aiming to build the world’s coolest mobile app, to figure out the best way to deliver services to millions of people, to make agriculture more efficient for tens of millions of farmers, to create better logistics to move goods faster and smarter, to solve problems that make people’s lives better. Incubators are where things that we didn’t know we needed, until we can’t imagine living without them, are hatched.
Do we need crazy ideas to transform Ethiopia, to turn us into a knowledge powerhouse, to transform lives, to give hope to millions, to shape the future? And can we let young people have those crazy ideas and find a way to push their dreams to their limit? Surely we do and surely we must.
In agriculture, a new incubator where youth can aspire to transform agribusiness is on the horizon. Our incubator, blueMoon (www.bluemoonethiopia.com) is Ethiopia’s first youth agribusiness incubator. We discover, nurture, and invest in innovative, scalable, and transformational ideas to build the new Ethiopia, one dreamer at a time. Crazy is good.
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