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Meet 4 inspirational African social innovators

Bethlehem Alemu

When we read of entrepreneurs we often read of the likes of Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Rarely, do we read about African entrepreneurs that changed the game and revolutionized an industry. Let alone reading about African social innovators.

Yet we strongly believe that the destiny of our continent is shaped by the greatness of our people. The beauty is that there are to many African entrepreneurs and social innovators to list them all. It is inspiring to realize just how many great people this continent of ours is blessed with.

Nonetheless, Africa is facing some serious socio-economic challenges. According to the 2012 African Economic Outlook report Africa:

  • Africa has 200 million youths aged between 15 - 24 
  • This number is forecasted to double by 2045
  • 60 % of Africa's unemployed are youth (this stat excludes those underemployed in informal sector)
  • 70% of Africa's youth live on less than $2 per day which is the international poverty threshold
  • Between 10 - 12 million African youths join the labour force each year

Besides these challenges there many others related to the environment, gender violence and corruption that plague the continent. As you can see, African social innovators have the work cut out for them. Fortunately, there are many talented and brave people working on solutions.

Here is our introduction to 4 of the most famous African social innovators:

1) Ismail Ahmed

Approxmiately 30 million Africans are living outside the continent. Many of them send money home to support low-income households so they can afford food, clothes and medicine. Yet according to the World Bank remittance costs to Africa are the highest in the world. The average cost of remitting money to sub-Saharan Africa is 9.74% of the amount.

Remittance costs for sending money to Africa are the highest globally. 

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Luckily, one visionary entrepreneur from Somalia has set his sights on solving the cost of high remittance costs. His name? Ismail Ahmed. His company? WorldRemit.

WorldRemit is an innovative fintech company that wants to make it easy, fast and safe to send money online anywhere at any time. Their goal is to provide a low-cost alternative to the high-cost providers such as Western Union that make remittance costs to Africa the highest in the world. In case you are interested, check out our in-depth review of WorldRemit or try it out yourself:

Ahmed had recognized the need to transform the remittance industry many years before he started his company. He left Somalia after receiving a World Bank scholarship that took him to the United Kingdom. While studying for his PhD at the University of London, he wanted to send money to his family members back home. Yet every transaction meant a hazardous journey across London to agents that charged high fees to send relatively modest amounts to Africa.

Ahmed was annoyed that in an industry which was worth billions of dollars customers were treated to very poor service. He knew that this industry needed to be disrupted. Yet this African social innovator started his company only after completing his MBA from  2008 - 2010 at the London School of Business.

Before founding WorldRemit in 2010 and completing his MBA Ahmed worked for the United Nations Remittance Programme where he gained substantive knowledge, expertise and skills to start his own business. His job was to support African money transfer companies comply with tough anti-money laundering rules introduced after the 9/11 attacks. During this time Ahmed became aware of corruption happening within his department and reported it.

send money online

(source: WorldRemit)

After becoming a whistleblower the UN denied any wrongdoing whilst retaliating against Ahmed. He was suddenly reassigned to Dubai yet the UN denied issuing him an agreed-upon mobilization payment, work permit and residency visa. The UN then withheld two months of Dr. Ahmed’s salary and other outstanding payments, blocked his pension fund contributions and launched an investigation against him.

After receiving an undisclosed compensation, Ahmed left the UN towards the end of 2007 and shortly afterwards commenced his MBA in 2008. WorldRemit was born during his MBA studies where having access to early investors helped the company get valuable seed capital.

In its short existence, the company has managed to raise close to $150 millon. WorldRemit finds itself in a very exciting market that according to the World Bank will be worth $610 billion in 2016. In 2015, the company generated revenues of $39 million which in dollar terms represented a 56% growth compared to 2014. The company currently averages around 400,000 transfers each month with an average transaction value of £90.

By offering transfers to Mobile Money services and airtime top-ups, WorldRemit is also helping the world's unbanked population. For many this represents the first time they are getting access to financial services through their phone. With an estimated 2 billion people being unbanked today and smart phone penetration in Africa expected to reach 79% by 2020 WorldRemit provides an essential service.

WorldRemit is a great example of what the FinTech revolution has to offer: innovation, empowerment to individuals and new opportunities to the financial services industry. We are happy to see African social innovators leading this revolution.

2) Fred Swaniker

Fred Swaniker is a Ghanian serial entrepreneur and leadership expert. He has launched 5 organizations that aim to develop future African leaders. He has been recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader and was listed by Forbes magazine among the top 10 young power men in Africa 2011.

He is most famous for co-founding the African Leadership Academy (ALA) on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa in 2004. ALA seeks to enable lasting peace and prosperity in Africa by developing and connecting the continent's future leaders.

The academy is a secondary institution for 15-18-year-olds from all African countries. As part of its two-year curriculum, the academy puts a special emphasis on African studies and entrepreneurship.

Swaniker, a former McKinsey consultant, was deeply concerned about the quality of leadership across the African continent and the consequences this entailed. In his mind, what Africa needed most was ethical and entrepreneurial leadership to transform the continent.

This gave birth to Swaniker's vision of creating a world-class educational institution. The aim of the institution is to transform Africa by developing a powerful network of over 6,000 leaders who work together to address the continent's greatest challenges, achieve extraordinary social impact, and accelerate the continent’s growth trajectory.

Swaniker circulated this innovative concept amongst his friends and secured the initial financial backing from fellow co-founders Acha Leke of Cameroon and Peter Mombaur.

During his studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business Swaniker met the 4th co-founder Chris Bradford. The American Bradford had a deep interest in the design of educational institutions and in their potential to shape societies.

After 9 months working they had a pilot version of the Academy's full-time program ready for testing. Bradford was responsible for the design of ALA's curriculum, while Swaniker took charge of fundraising efforts.

The pilot Summer Academy was launched in Cape Town in June 2005. It was a massive success. This success laid the foundation to gain credibility with donors, feeder schools and potential students and families.

In 2006, Swaniker & Bradford won the highly competitive Echoing Green fellowship having been selected from over 900 applications worldwide. The two co-founders were identified as "two of the leading social entrepreneurs in the world".

The ALA academy officially opened its doors for its inaugural class in June 2008 at their Honeydew campus outside Johannesburg. Famous alumni include Tom Osborne (founder of Greenchar in Kenya & also an Echoing Green fellow) as well as well as William Kwamkwamba. The following book and documentary tell the inspiring story behind William Kwamkwamba.

The boy who harnessed the wind

We love how one generation of African social innovators is nurturing the next generation of African social innovators. This is how it should be and all of us can learn from these brilliant leaders Fred Swaniker and William Kwamkwamba.

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3) Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

Dear Friends,

My name is Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu and I am the founder and Managing Director of soleRebels here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It is my immense pleasure to introduce myself and soleRebels to you.

For us here at soleRebels, creating great footwear is also a means of creating hope.

soleRebels began in 2004 as an idea: to bring jobs to our community, Zenabwork, a small village in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a place where literally there were none.

This is how Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu introduces herself on her company's webpage. This gives us an insight into what drives this extraordinary female social entrepreneur. She is driven to bring hope to her community through jobs - a sentiment that many across Africa can identify with.

Alemu grew up in the rural impoverished community of Zenabwork. As is common among many social entrepreneurs she recognized an opportunity facing adversity. Growing up surrounded by unemployed people, Alemu noticed that many of them had remarkable artisan skills.

Bethlehem Alemu

This drove her to explore ways in which those skills could be harnessed for the benefit of the community. Shortly after graduating from Unity University in Ethiopia in accounting, she convinced her husband and her family to back her with some start-up capital for a social enterprise. Alemu decided to start an eco-friendly and ethical footwear company called soleRebels in 2004.

Alemu founded a footwear company because this represented a great opportunity to share many of the indigenous Ethiopian eco-sensible craft heritages and artisan talent with the world. The shoes strongly reflect Ethiopian culture and tradition and are a modern reinvention of the famous Selate and Barabasso shoe. These kinds of shoes have been worn by Ethiopians for a long time. 

In fact, Ethiopian rebel fighters wore those shoes in the days fighting against European armies. The company name soleRebels honours those fighters who defended the country in those days.

Alemu has received many awards and recognitions for her extraordinary work. Among them are winner of the 2012 Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year award, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2011 and 100 Most powerful women to watch in 2012 by Forbes magazine.

Besides the above, Alemu has also been invited to sit on the board of the African Innovation Foundation, which makes investments into African-led solutions that address challenges faced by the continent.

4) Anne Githuku-Shongwe

Anne Githuku-Shongwe is the founder of and CEO of Afroes Transformational Multi-Media & Consulting. Like the African Leadership School Afores is based in Gauteng, South Africa. The objective of the company is to "to position African youth for productive futures by innovating in skills acquisition, engagement and connecting to opportunity." 

They do this by developing gamified solutions that address specific socio-economic challenges such as youth unemployment, gender based violence, child protection & safety as well as environmental issues.

One such game is called jobhunt that aims to teach the user about the world of online work. The user is invited into an online world where he or she needs to compete for jobs, complete them on time, earn income and at the same time manage his or her skills and resources.

Anne Githuku-Shongwe and her company have won many prizes and accolades. Amongst them are the Cariters Women Initiative Award, Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 by the World Economic Forum as well as being nominated as a fellow at the Unreasonable Institute in 2011.

Prior to her work as a social entrepreneur, she was a development professional with the United Nations for 15 years where she run large-scale national and multi-national programmes across Africa. In addition, she also has a Master Degree in International Development Management from the American University (1989 - 1991) in Washington D.C.

Just a small sample from many more African social innovators

Ismail Ahmed, Fred Swaniker, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu and Anne Githuku-Shongwe are just 4 amazing African social innovators out of many that are transforming our continent through their work. As you can see, all of them come from different backgrounds and are working on different issues in different parts of Africa.

All 4 went to study at a university, while Swaniker and Githuku-Shongwe also worked for McKinsey and the United Nations respectively before launching their ventures. Both Swaniker and Alemu were still in their twenties when they started their ventures. This is a powerful testament that young people can successfully tackle socio-economic issues and co-design a prosperous future for Africa.

Africa's time is now

Each of the 4 social enterprises became successful within a few short years and gaining momentum  through winning fellowships (e.g. Echoing Green), awards as well as being covered in high-profile magazines. This shows that having a good idea is important, but even more so is getting the necessary support in executing it.

Being inspired is important when we want to achieve great things for our communities and for the continent. Whenever you feel low on inspiration, make some time to read the stories of successful social innovators who have gone before you.

You will realize that they too had their challenges that needed to be overcome. This should give you the strength to continue on your chosen path, even if with a different approach. Most importantly, always remember that there are many great African social innovators. The only person stopping you from becoming the next one is you yourself! 

The only person stopping you from becoming the next African social innovator is you.

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We are inspired by these leaders. We admire their courage, their vision and their tenacity in making their businesses work for our continent. What inspires you about them? Let us know in the comment section below.

About the Author Rise Africa Rise

Rise Africa Rise is your online guide to tech entrepreneurship and (social) innovation for African entrepreneurs, startups and businesses. Our aim is to provide you with valuable digital strategies, tools and insights to support you in building a world-class and competitive business in the 21st century.

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