Eleven years ago when I told my friends that I was going to build a business, they doubled up with laughter. Once they had finished wiping their eyes, they gave me their reasons for the scepticism: Since I had no business skills and no money at all, I could as well count my plan as a fat chance.
However, their amusement turned into amazement after I pioneered the first private public payphone (card operated) business in Southern Africa, the first cyber caf, and several other ventures.
And I did not stop there. Three years ago, my first Pan-Africa online currency trading platform - enabling individuals and institutions all over the continent to buy and sell foreign exchange and profit from constant price fluctuations - debuted. A simple concept and the flood of orders haven't stopped.
So where did I get all the energy and enthusiasm to take the plunge? Well, in 1991 during a television presidential debate, US presidential candidate Bill Clinton made me remember something my father had said to me when I was a boy growing up: "America was built by entrepreneurs, I know Africa can be built in the same way". Amazingly, Clinton used the same catch-phases my father had used. The challenge fired my drive, and from here, there was no turning back.
If you don't believe that entrepreneurs built the US, please visithttp://www.fortune.com and take a look at the profiles of Fortune 500 companies. Let me also help you by mentioning a few multi- billion dollar corporations that were started by individuals just like you: General Motors, General Electric, Microsoft, J P Morgan, Merrill Lynch, Walt Disney, J C Penney, Morgan Stanley . . ...... the impressive list goes on.
"So what does this have to do with me?" you might be asking yourself. A lot actually. If you believe in Africa and know the potential of our continent, you will agree with me that you have more opportunities in Africa than anywhere else.
If you don't believe me, go to your nearest African international, airport and count the number of people from overseas arriving to do business.
My heart actually breaks when I read or hear about Africa's youth trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to get to the rich West to wash dishes in restaurants, clean toilets and look after elderly incontinent people. Were these fine daughters and sons of Africa to have a second thought, they would put themselves into better use and in their own motherland.
If you want to know how Africa can be built by entrepreneurs the same way the US was built(and even in a much shorter period given the technology available today), then read the following.
Perhaps the first question you can ask yourself is how to get off the ground in your entrepreneurship bid.
Most certainly, you think a good business plan is the starting point. Well you are wrong. In fact, you should forget just about everything you've heard from other business "experts". What you need is a practical approach based on an African setting. Here is your road map:-
If you are the type that waits for the government or some donor agency to give you free grants and handouts, then you are on the wrong thought pattern. Sounds old-fashioned? Maybe but it is still a universal principle that the way you think and feel about yourself is very important. Don't let the disillusionment of lack of free handouts block the unleashing of your potential if you are really bent on starting that business. With or without a financier, take the plunge.
Change your perception and rid the misconception of entrepreneurship. There is a tendency to ridicule entrepreneurs especially beginners. In African countries, business starters are variously demeaned with titles like "briefcase businessmen" "jua kali artisans" and "wheeler-dealers", among others. But do you know that those simple individuals who started many successful corporations in the US did so with a single idea in a briefcase? What you need to remember is that entrepreneurship is about making money and having fun doing so.
Be creative. Do not go into a business venture just because someone else seems to be doing well in that type of business. Innovating, differentiating and finding something unique are the buzz words here. After you have identified a viable and creative concept, you can now start writing and planning your business strategy.
If you have to, find reliable people or organisations that will help push your venture. I am proud to say that all my ventures have been partly funded by African investors from Congo, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria and South Africa. Somebody believed in my project. Stay away from people who don't believe in you or your project.
Learn to overcome fear. In developing my projects, I had to learn how to overcome my fears. I had to learn how to talk in front of groups, how to market my business and even approach creditors. In other words, develop good communication skills.
Overcome procrastination. If you decide to do something which you strongly feel will succeed, act rather than procrastinate.
Give your customers priority and polish up your public relations skills; you will be amazed at the way your business will grow. Customers want to believe you are in business to help them. They don't mind if you make a profit by helping them. But they won't buy from you if they believe you are only in the business to get their money rather than for their welfare. Demonstrate your commitment to helping customers by building a friendly relationship with them.
Some of my customers became my investors because strategically built a relationship with them. You too can leverage your relationship with customers to raise more capital.
Capital can be split into liquid capital (cash) and no-funds involved capital (initiative). This means that you can start a business with very little cash or better still, without any at all. I started with very little cash and a lot of initiative.
If it comes, handle failure but don't let failure handle you. Well, I am sure you must think by now I am a millionaire. Not yet, but I am very close. Some of my earlier projects ended in complete failure. But I learnt from those failures. Local and overseas investors now also benefit from my failures for I provide them with the "ins" and "outs" of doing business in Africa apart from reliable contacts.
So don't take a leap from a skyscraper when your business fails. Just pick yourself up, dust yourself, smile and tell yourself "tomorrow is another day!"
Ian Mvula is the founder of OFT a brokerage dedicated to introducing new retail and institutional investors to investing in managed forex accounts- http://www.forexplatform.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Labels: Africa Can be Built by Entrepreneurs, Investing in Africa