The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating economic impact on various sectors of the economy across different countries in Africa. One could even argue that the continent’s promising and rapidly growing startup ecosystem could be one of those worst hit by the effects of the pandemic.

Given that, it is encouraging to learn that the Jack Ma Foundation is continuing with its Africa’s Business Heroes prize competition (ABH) to empower startups across the continent.

To understand what the Africa's Business Heroes prize competition is all about and how it continues to empower Africa's startups, had a chat with Zahra Baitie-Boateng, Head of Partnerships & Programs, Africa’s Business Heroes Prize Competition. Prior to her role at ABH, Baitie-Boateng previously worked at Alibaba’s AliExpress as a Senior Business Development Expert and at Alibaba’s B2B Unit - 1688 as Special Assistant to the CEO.

📷 Zahra Baitie-Boateng, Head of Partnerships & Programs, Africa’s Business Heroes Prize Competition by the Jack Ma Foundation.

Q&A with Zahra Baitie-Boateng on empowering African startups How did the Africa's Business Heroes prize competition come about?

Zahra Baitie-Boateng: The Africa’s Business Heroes prize competition (ABH) is the Jack Ma Foundation’s flagship philanthropic initiative in Africa. When Jack Ma first visited Africa in 2017, he was inspired by the energy and talent he saw in the entrepreneurs he met with. He also recognized that they faced many of the same barriers that he faced when he first founded Alibaba. He made a commitment to do his part to support African entrepreneurs and from there, the Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) prize competition was born.

What is the driving aim of the prize?

ABH identifies, supports, and spotlights talented entrepreneurs from across the continent. We strive to provide them with a platform to present their businesses and share their stories. Every year, ten finalists will be selected to pitch at the Grand Finale and compete for a portion of a $1.5m grant. Every finalist is a winner, and the first prize winner will receive the top grant of $300,000.

Our long-term goal is to help foster a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem  in Africa where entrepreneurs, investors, educators, policymakers and civil society are all working together in concert to create more opportunities and build a more inclusive future.

What type of entrepreneurs is the prize looking to empower with the grant funding?

We are looking for entrepreneur heroes - individuals with a strong vision and mission, who are passionate, bold, resilient, and innovative. Moreover, they need to be able to demonstrate how they are addressing pressing issues with concrete solutions and positively impacting on their communities.

Applicants must have African citizenship and/or a parent or grandparent with African citizenship. Their business needs to have a three year track record, be registered and headquartered in an African country, and has to primarily operate in Africa. We accept submissions from business founders and/or co-founders from all sectors, ages, and genders.

Applications for this year’s prize will close on June 21 so I encourage any interested entrepreneurs to visit to apply now in English or French!

Why did you opt for grant funding as opposed to venture capital?

We are a purely philanthropic initiative. We do not have any expectations of equity or payback and want our finalists to use their grants the way they need in order to find growth, scale into new markets, and ensure their businesses not only survive but can also thrive during these challenging times.

Is it only the prize money that is awarded to entrepreneurs or are there other benefits?

What helps set our competition apart is the mentorship and networking that is baked into the prize. We provide bootcamps and trainings throughout the application process for the applicants. The training sessions are designed to equip our finalists with key skills and insights to help them grow and manage their businesses.

In addition, every year, the grand finale is also aired in a television show and online to showcase how our top 10 finalists pitch to legendary business figures. The show will feature the most exciting moments of the competition and follow the finalists in their journey to the grand finale. We hope that the show can serve as a masterclass in entrepreneurship for aspiring entrepreneurs and also give our finalists the chance to tell their story to the world and attract investment, support, partnerships and talent. The 2020 show will air later this year.

There is also so much value that is unlocked as applicants become part of the larger ABH community. We provide them with access to a community of like-minded business leaders and investors, and from this network, we’ve seen really exciting partnerships and investments come about as a result.

Lastly, each eligible entrepreneur who successfully submits an application receives feedback from our expert judges. We hope this feedback will help them address challenges within their businesses for long-term growth.

Please share some case studies of entrepreneurs the prize has helped.

It gives us a tremendous sense of pride to see the great success our finalists have achieved since become one of our Heroes. Our grand prize winners are perfect examples. Our 2020 grand prize winner, Chebet Lesan, is the founder & CEO of BrightGreen Renewable Energy in Kenya. She has invested her winning grant to scale her operations, expanding her energy solutions across East Africa, an incredible achievement in a really difficult year.

Our 2019 grand prize winner, Temie Giwa-Tobosun is the CEO & founder of Nigeria-based LifeBank. With her grant, she grew her business to new states in Nigeria and Kenya. In response to Covid-19, she also expanded LifeBank’s services to include the delivery of medical oxygen and facilitated COVID-19 testing. She’s been able to secure further investments and just won the Global Citizen Prize for Business Leader, a testament to her extraordinary leadership.

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