November 6, 2020

Rural Pathways: Opportunities in Sub-Saharan Africa During a Global Crisis

Rural entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa are being pushed to their limits, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every corner of our world.

Rural entrepreneurs have been innovative in their response to these challenges, finding ways to overcome them and thrive. Against this backdrop, SPARK brought together a diverse group of stakeholders, including entrepreneurs, experts and government officials from across Sub-Saharan Africa, for online panel discussions on rural entrepreneurship. 

The conference, titled Rural Pathways: Rethinking Entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa took place on Wednesday, October 28th, and featured keynote addresses from renowned South Sudanese humanitarian, Valentino Achack Deng, and the Director General for Digital Transformation in Rwanda, Gordon Kalema. 

Check out the descriptions below and watch each panel session again in full.

Keynote: Valentino Achak Deng

Speakers: Valentino Achak Deng, entrepreneur and founder of the VAD Foundation, in conversation with Michel Richter, Programme Director at SPARK

Summary: Valentino Achak Deng, whose journey as a South Sudanese refugee was chronicled in the 2008 novel by Dave Eggers, ‘What Is The What’, opened the conference. He discussed the need to empower rural communities through sustainable development, and for flexibility in the face of the unpredictable conditions often found in countries like South Sudan.

Touching on changing demographics in Sub-Saharan Africa, he emphasised the importance of giving young people and women a stake in building a sustainable future through access to entrepreneurship and jobs. He outlined the need for building strategic partnerships between stakeholders, including subsistence farmers, to allow access to larger markets. These processes begin with providing education, both for children at the primary and secondary level, and for adults in the form of vocational and skills training.  He went on to discuss the vast potential of his home country’s natural resources, and the need to train young people to take advantage of them to prosper. His optimistic tone set the stage for continued discussion of the exciting new opportunities available to entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Panel session: Agro-Value Chains Mean Business!

Speakers: Michelle Rebosio, Senior Social Development Specialist; Mahmud Johnson, Founder, J-Palm Liberia; Christian Steinbarth, Investment Policy and SEZ expert; Rugie Barry, CEO, Liberia Business Incubator 

Summary: The panel covered topics related to gaps in agricultural value chains in Sub-Saharan Africa, including inadequate infrastructure, lack of uniform pricing and the need for more training. Skills gaps were also discussed, with calls for more targeted interventions aimed at vulnerable groups such as young women. The interconnected roles of the private and public sectors in addressing these concerns was touched upon. Other areas of conversation focused on upscaling production capabilities, teaching more profitable skills (coding), and incentivising the private sector to accomplish these goals. The conversation wrapped up with a spirited debate on the acceptable level of risk for entrepreneurs to take and how to best provide them with financing. 

Panel session: New Wave: Digital Financial Inclusion

Speakers: Jan Vos, Founder, MoneyPhone; Leesa Shrader, Director of the AgriFin Accelerate and AgriFin Digital Farmer Programs, Mercy Corps; Gordon Kalema, Director General for National Digital Transformation, Ministry of ICT & Innovation (Rwanda); Christian Kajeneri, Head of Payments, Equity Bank

Summary: This panel discussion focused on the role of digital technology in increasing financial inclusion among smallholder farmers in rural Sub-Saharan Africa. The discussion began with a question posed to the audience, “Can COVID-19 help drive breakthrough solutions for Africa related to financial solutions for rural people?”. The conversation moved on to challenges faced by rural entrepreneurs, including lack of business-building skills and collateral to obtain loans, as well as low levels of digitisation. The success story on digital loans for smallholder farmers from the SPARK, Equity Bank and Money Phone partnership in Rwanda was discussed as an example. Interestingly, it was noted that crises such as Covid, and also political unrest in Kenya, caused breakthroughs in the uptake of digital solutions among rural communities. This led to a thought-provoking discussion about the potential for crises to act as a catalyst for positive change. 

Keynote: Gordon Kalema

Speakers: Gordon Kalema, Director General for National Digital Transformation, Ministry of ICT & Innovation (Rwanda), in conversation with Marthe Paauwe, Regional Programme Director of the Sub-Saharan Africa Hub at SPARK

Summary: Gordon Kalema opened the second part of the conference with a keynote address discussing digitisation in Sub-Saharan Africa. He emphasised that, while the government is working on these issues, the private sector also has an important role to play. He went on to discuss the programs his government is working on to increase digitisation. These include initiatives aimed at upscaling digital literacy skills and providing the tools needed to access the digital world. Again, the role of youth was emphasised as important actors in achieving these goals. He went on to discuss the role of entrepreneurs and SMEs in identifying problems, and also in coming up with solutions. 

Panel session: Community Driven Entrepreneurship

Speakers: Richard van Hoolwerff, Founder, RVO, Emergi; Lauren Servin, Business Support Specialist; Drew Gardiner, Chief Technical Adviser,  ILO; Prof. Rosemary Atieno, Associate Professor, Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi

Summary: This panel covered issues related to community driven entrepreneurship, including community lead financing. The two main financial institutions discussed were VSLAs (Village Savings and Loan Associations) and SACCOS (Saving and Credit Cooperative Societies). The panel participants had different opinions about the overall effectiveness of both types of finance, leading to a dynamic discussion and debate. A common theme running through the panel discussions appeared again, presented here as the effect these institutions have on young people. 

Panel session: Entrepreneurial Courage

Speakers: Sacha Rwamibango, Corporate Affairs Advisor, Brarudi, member of Heineken group; Emmanuel Ntakirutimana, President, Burundi Fruit Federation; Fernand NiIshemezwe, Managing Director, Burundi Lend and Lease; Esther Loeffen, Deputy Head of Mission, Dutch Embassy, Burundi; Jesper de Wit, Country Manager, SPARK Burundi; Pascal Barutwanayo, General Inspector, Burundi Ministry of Commerce; Solomon Ndizeye, Manager, COIEDE; Sylvestre Marora, Director, Pineapple; Budyang Emmanuel Bugga, Director, Agroplan

Summary: The session began with two short videos highlighting entrepreneurship in Burundi. The conversation then moved into challenges that entrepreneurs face, and how they can overcome them. The panelists discussed the qualities that allow for effective entrepreneurship, including concrete targets like effective planning and business knowledge, in addition to personal traits such as courage and confidence. Overall, the panel allowed actual entrepreneurs to tell their inspiring stories and gain insights into lessons learned.