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Africa Needs African Entrepreneurs

In the past year, the global media has finally discovered that millions of people attempt to migrate to Europe in small boats. Growing up in Senegal, I’ve known about this my entire life. There are Senegalese TV dramas in which the plot line consists of families trying to talk their young people out of attempting the trip to Europe (but of course the young go anyway). Middle Eastern and African people traveling to Europe in small boats is not a new phenomenon, folks.

While the Syrian refugee crisis has appropriately focused attention on war refugees, the problem is much larger and longer lasting than the Syrian crisis. While 2015 saw hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe, for decades hundreds of thousands of economic refugees have fled Africa seeking jobs in Europe. Until we succeed in creating jobs in Africa, we can expect these immigration pressures to continue to increase.

Why are so many African people willing to risk death at sea? Because they are poor. Why are they poor? Because there are no jobs. Where do most jobs come from, in economies around the world? Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Who creates these enterprises? Entrepreneurs. Thus what do we need to do to help create more jobs, and thereby reduce poverty and emigration? Support developing world entrepreneurs.

As is the case with many Africans who come to the U.S., I began my career in the corporate sector. But upon returning to Senegal, I realized I had to help my people back home.

After giving away money for years, I realized that the only sustainable, scalable approach to helping my people was through entrepreneurship. I first created a beverage company that sourced hibiscus from Senegal, reviving the Senegalese hibiscus sector and thereby supporting hundreds of jobs. I have now created a skin care company, Tiossan, that both sources ingredients from Africa and is in the process of developing a production facility there.

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But the fact is it is difficult to do business in Africa. On the World Bank’s 2016 Doing Business index, Senegal is ranked 153 out of 189 — and many other nations ranked towards the bottom are African. Getting anything done in Senegal is often like swimming through molasses.

When I set up operations there again, I knew that I would have to spend an inordinate amount of time going from government office to government office, setting up appointments with officials who don’t show up over and over again.

For example, to set up an electricity account for our office there, we had to go to the Senelec agency (a government agency) multiple times with the appropriate paperwork and deposit. But no one could tell us when we would have an account and lights in our building. After my assistant made many unfruitful trips there, I finally decided to go myself and find out what was going on. When I got there, imagine my surprise at the line of people waiting. Some told me the have been waiting for hours. But while some were waiting, others were coming in and being able to go directly in the office of the supervisor.

As you may imagine, those who have no connection must wait for their turn. But their turn never comes, because those with connections drop in anytime and get received right away. I finally asked to see the supervisor, who agreed to see me. When I asked when we would get electricity, he pointed to a huge pile of paperwork, which contained all the applications for new accounts for that district. There were probably a hundred of them on that table.

I understood quickly that I had to do something if I did not want to stay in limbo for eternity. So I used all the skills of persuasion I have learned over the years, explaining I had a business to run and was paying rent for an office I couldn’t use yet. He finally agreed to assign us a meter. After some more difficulty finding a certified technician — which cost more money and time than it should have — we finally got a meter and electricity.

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Written by PH

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