Washington — Business ventures ranging from biotech seedlings in Ethiopia to a geotechnical lab in Liberia were among 14 winners of matching grants for joint ventures between U.S. entrepreneurs of African descent and partners in sub-Saharan countries.
The winners announced January 13 receive grants ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 intended to help them execute their ideas and boost their chances to successfully launch or expand their businesses. Winners were selected from among 58 finalists in the African Diaspora Marketplace competition, sponsored by Western Union Company and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Paul Applegarth, who was a member of an independent panel of judges from business, academia and diaspora development groups, said all plans in the final round had merit. What made some proposals stronger than others in the eyes of judges were their feasibility and chance of maintaining profits. The winning business plans were backed by proven managerial skills and offered “transformative value” in terms of economic development, he said. Applegarth is chief executive of Value Enhancement International, an investment management firm.
Winner Tenu Awoonor said the grant will help him and Kweku Ndoum, his local partner in Ghana, move the process of establishing cash card services for students to the next level. The partners plan to launch a pilot project with a few schools to make sure that the concept, which is successful in Jamaica, works in an African country.
Another winner, Raymond Rugemalira, said the grant gives “a boost to what I want to do most: bring development to a small-scale farmer.” Rugemalira and his Kenyan partner, James Mwangi, will put their winnings toward a trademarked venture called Uza Mazao (which means “sell agricultural products” in Swahili.) It plans to create a virtual, mobile-based marketplace that will connect small farmers in Kenya with potential buyers and allow the two sides to complete transactions. Rugemalira plans to buy equipment and finance a marketing campaign to build a customer base.
Many entrepreneurs who did not win said the competition has proved to be a valuable experience because it provided expert advice and helped them expand their network of essential contacts. Many ventures have progressed since the announcement of finalists in October 2009. Caspian Holdings has captured 30 percent of the trash-management market in Monrovia, Liberia. Trigen Healthcare is preparing a second distance-learning session with medical personnel in Nigeria. Finalists without awards plan to seek other sources of financing for their projects.
The proposals of all finalists represent more than $20 million of U.S. African diaspora business investment and are expected to facilitate the transfer of technology and skills and create jobs.
Anne McCarthy, a vice president of Western Union, called the competition a particularly successful experiment.
“This is a rare public-private initiative that successfully harnessed the entrepreneurial spirit of U.S.-based African diaspora members to address poverty through business innovation,” she said.
The success of the competition may go beyond the winners. The winning ventures will be followed by researchers to see whether they boost the private sector in African countries and what kind of economic development they spur. Melvin Foote, who spoke at the award ceremony, said the entrepreneurs’ success may modify the U.S. approach to assisting developing countries and boost the role that the private sector, particularly diaspora entrepreneurs, plays. Foote is the founder and president of the Constituency for Africa, a Washington-based alliance of groups and individuals committed to the progress and empowerment of Africa and African people worldwide.
Many African countries seem to be ready for such recalibration of development assistance. Daniel Runde of the International Finance Corporation said that there is “massive hunger for entrepreneurship” in Africa.
The winning ventures are: Green Acres Goat Farm, Ghana; TAF Biotechnology (biotech plant tissue development), Ethiopia; AMAD Metal Manufacturing PLC (metal fabrication), Ethiopia; MicroClinic Ltd. (network of franchised microclinics), Ghana; Uza-Mazao (a virtual marketplace for small farmers), Kenya; AACE Foods (food processing), Nigeria; EarthWise Ferries Ltd. (passenger ferries on Lake Victoria), Uganda; Global Telecommunications PLC (fleet management system); Student Card (cash card services), Ghana; AADT Consultants (geotechnical environmental services), Liberia; Sproxil.com (brand management and anti-counterfeiting), Nigeria; Ansa Systems Ltd. (power supply), Ghana; Tek Consults Ltd. (solar ovens), Uganda; and Palm Fruit Processing, Sierra Leone.