Episode 000: Welcome to Young African Entrepreneur!

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Hey listeners,

This is Victoria Crandall, founder and host of Young African Entrepreneur Podcast.

I’m joining you from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, which I’ve happily called home for the last four years.

Thank you for tuning into the first episode of Young African Entrepreneur — which strives to be the go-to resource for aspiring African entrepreneurs.

Let me give you the backstory of YAE before I delve into my own foray into business in Africa and entrepreneurship.

THE WHY OF YAE PODCAST

I was motivated to create a podcast on African entrepreneurship after many conversations with friends, social acquaintances and business contacts who were running amazing businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Not only was I fascinated by the inner workings of businesses in African markets, but I was equally enthralled by the backstory and psychology of successful African entrepreneurs.

Why did they decide to start a business?

How did they do it?

How do they deal with the constant challenges — big and small – and the sheer unpredictability of Sub-Saharan African markets?

How do they handle failure?

In general, what do you do facing a fragmented market, huge barriers to raising finance, and creaky or nonexistent infrastructure?

As an unabashed business geek, I love this stuff.

I love dissecting the details of company business models, operations and the “secret sauce” that make businesses tick. These details illuminate the workings of African economies on a micro level, which often get lost in policy-heavy and sleep-inducing discussions on GDP growth, commodity prices, and infrastructure development.

Don’t get me wrong.

These are all incredibly salient points, but there is an immense gap between the agendas of the World Bank, international donors, their African interlocutors and the reality that entrepreneurs must face.

Nothing makes me happier than chatting about business in Sub-Saharan Africa, preferably over a glass of red wine, and diving into the details of African markets. Not to mention that I simply love good stories – which are abundant once you start scratching beneath the surface of African entrepreneurship.  

THE IMPERATIVENESS OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP IN AFRICA

Furthermore, I’m convinced of the imperative of entrepreneurship in Africa. Entrepreneurship cannot provide all the needed jobs to provide a living and purpose for young Africans, but it can help.

In a way, Africans are already entrepreneurs; in the large informal sector, Africans are selling goods and providing services, offering solutions to consumers’ problems at an affordable price.  Given the absence of strong governments and state institutions, Africans have to be enterprising. They are full of hustle.

Nigeria is the epitome of that. In October 2012, I went to Lagos for the first time, and it blew my mind. This sprawling megalopolis of over 20 million people buzzed with a dynamism and energy that, outside of New York, I had never experienced.

How can that enterprising spirit, fostered out of sheer necessity to survive, be channeled into formal businesses that can be scaled, creating jobs and wealth that stays in country?

Africa’s youth bulge is either represented as a threat --  a “ticking time bomb” -- or a opportunity on which governments can capitalize. Either way you slice it, the figures are sobering. It is estimated that Africa will have 830 million young people by 2050. Another figure that made my jaw drop – every 24 hours, nearly 33,000 young Africans across the continent are looking for work. Only 40% will find gainful employment; 60% will join the ranks of the unemployed.

Again, entrepreneurship is not a panacea for Africa’s underdeveloped economies, but it is a huge leap in the right direction.

With that in mind, I get to the core mission of Young African Entrepreneur, which drives me as a creator and host. Young African Entrepreneur looks to be the go-to resource for everything on entrepreneurship in Africa. YAE aims to act as a virtual mentor to YOU, the aspiring young African entrepreneur, providing  tools, tactics and strategies that you can use to kick start your own entrepreneurial journey.

Mentors are invaluable. Successful entrepreneurs anywhere in the world attribute an invested mentor as critical to their business accomplishments.

Because let’s be honest.

As with any place, Africa’s business environment has its own quirks and obstacles, requiring its own tailored solutions. I love to listen to advice from entrepreneurs in the US but it has its limitations. A tactic or advice that works well in Silicon Valley won’t necessarily fly in Accra, Lagos, or Nairobi.

That’s why we need entrepreneurs who have successfully set up businesses in Africa to share their stories and experiences. Simply, no one serves as better mentors for upcoming and aspiring entrepreneurs on the continent.

That’s why every Monday, in 60-minute episodes, I chat with successful entrepreneurs who have built thriving businesses across the continent to discuss the roadmap of their success.

MY STORY

Now that you have a good idea about YAE, I’d love to share my story of how I stumbled into the world of Africa and business, and eventually, entrepreneurship.

In 2008, I graduated from the University of Virginia in the US with a double major in Foreign Affairs and French language. I had become fascinated with the Middle East during my time in college, and dreading an entry-level job in Washington, DC, I decided to move to Syria to learn Arabic.

Three months after graduation, I moved to Damascus, Syria. I lived there for two and a half years, studying Arabic and traveling around the region. It was an extraordinary experience that had a profound impact on my character. Living in a vastly different culture than your own gives you perspective, makes you resilient, and increases your risk-taking.

Jobless, I left Syria for Dubai to establish a career in journalism.

I was miserable in Dubai. I found it fake and soulless, especially after living in Damascus.

But, I got a lucky break when I landed my first job, which would introduce me to Africa and business. My first real job was as a freelance “press aggregator” at a business intelligence company.

As the name suggests, the job was unglamorous.

Late at night, I scanned the newspapers of a number of frontier markets, scouting for deal flow. Primarily, mergers & acquisitions but also IPOs, joint ventures, and public private partnerships (PPPs).

With the exception of South Africa, which was its own beat, no freelancer covered Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Because no one in the London HQ cared about the region. M&A deal flow was tiny but that was starting to change. The commodity super-cycle pushed yield-hungry investors who were getting negative returns in Europe and other developed markets to diversify their portfolios and get frontier exposure to SSA.

As the new freelancer, Sub-Saharan Africa coverage fell into my lap. I spent my nights reading about freewheeling markets in Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria.

Nigeria had me particularly hooked. I couldn’t help but feel excitement and curiosity about this larger-than-life place. While reading the local business papers, I had the impression that Nigeria was bursting with potential. 

But my growing desire to explore West Africa would have to wait. After Dubai, I moved to Cairo, Egypt.

Egypt was not my cup of tea. Cairo is an overwhelmingly city and it was a hard time to live there, after the toppling Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring. I left Egypt after seven months.

Before moving to my next destination Casablanca, Morocco, I decided that I had to go to Nigeria on a six-week “spec trip.” I wanted to see if I could hack living in Lagos as a business journalist. I had no idea of what to expect, but I loved it. I met all the foreign press corps; interviewed Nigerian “repats” who were starting businesses in real estate, media, and investment banking. The throbbing energy, dynamism and sheer smarts and charisma of the many Nigerian entrepreneurs that I met cemented my fascination with business in Africa.

Morocco was ultimately a disappointment. I was itching to get back to West Africa, and luckily, in the spring of 2013, I was offered a short-term assignment in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. I immediately felt at ease in Abidjan: people were super friendly; the business environment was dynamic and diversified; and you couldn’t help but be seduced by the city’s bon vivant vibe.

For a number of years, I had thrived on the travel and career possibilities. I lived my life as a choose-your-own-adventure, hopping from the Middle East to West Africa, from one opportunity to another. I had no regrets, but I was at a crossroads. While I was grateful that my freelance job allowed me to discover my passion for Africa and business, I was growing frustrated with the uncertainty of the job. I had reached a glass ceiling.

But, I had another stroke of good luck. After interviewing the head of research of agricultural commodities at a large pan-African bank, I discovered that they were looking for a market analyst in the region. I applied for the job and was hired.

Fast forward four years, I’m still in Abidjan. I’m no longer at the bank. It was a great growth experience, but I’m not suited to a corporate environment.

Accustomed to taking risks, I resigned from my position at the bank to set up my own consulting business. I won’t lie – it was my biggest challenge yet. I lived from project to project, but, again, I had some good luck. One of my consulting clients made me a full-time offer, which I accepted.

For the last year, I’ve been trading cocoa and cashew nuts – much to my surprise. I never would have dreamed of leaving academic, journalism or market research for business and trade.

My unconventional lifestyle has been a strength, exposing me to different cultures and ways of thinking and giving me perspective. A life on the go, hopping from country to country, also gives you a larger than average appetite for risk, which has been the key reason for my professional and personal success thus far.

As an aspiring entrepreneur and creator myself, I hope that Young African Entrepreneur will inspire the countless number of young Africans whose inner entrepreneur is waiting to be woken.

As a non-African, I cannot understand all the complexities of entrepreneurship in Africa and how it is impacted by African economies, cultures, and societies. After all, Africa is a vast and sweeping continent that is immensely diverse and complex.

However, having lived and worked in Abidjan and travelling across Sub-Saharan Africa for the last four years, I am deeply passionate about the continent. I am therefore committed to telling the powerful stories of African entrepreneurs to the best of my ability.

Thank you again for listening to Young African Entrepreneur. If you find the podcast helpful and support YAE’s mission of encouraging and developing the next wave of the continent’s bright young entrepreneurs, I’d be grateful if you could subscribe, rate and review on iTunes. This helps spread the word about YAE, allowing us to reach as many people as possible.

Thank you. Until next time.