CAPE TOWN – This week will go down in history as the significant moment for people who are working towards building the Digital Africa. Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of the Chinese unicorn Alibaba, visited South Africa for the first time and delivered probably the most important entrepreneurship talk on the African continent.
The man who built one of the most important e-commerce platforms in recent history shared his story with young technology entrepreneurs, legislators and academics. In his talk, he had a message for entrepreneurs and government leaders.
He began by outlining what it took to build Alibaba in China in the 1990s. At the time, China had no internet (it was only installed three months after he registered the business) and people knew nothing about selling online.
Ma understood the importance of building an internet company in the country after he realised that Chinese products were not available on the global internet at the time.
The fact that China had no internet during the time at which Alibaba was established meant that Ma had to teach even journalists about his services.
According to him, this was a challenge but also an opportunity. People did not know what he was talking about when he spoke about the internet. As a result, it was also difficult to get people (engineers) to work for Alibaba.
At the time the competitor for Alibaba was eBay (an e-commerce company) and they were attracting the brightest minds from leading academic institutions. Banks were also not making life easier as they were refusing to lend him money to build his business.
According to Ma, due to lack of understanding of the internet, his company received less support. As a result this experience taught him to expect no support in the process of building a business.
The story of how Alibaba was founded is an important one for South African entrepreneurs as digital conditions in Africa are similar to what China’s were during the early days of Alibaba. In Africa a number of countries have poor internet connectivity and the general population lacks the understanding of the digital world.
According to the founder of Alibaba, these African conditions should inspire African tech entrepreneurs to develop solutions. The very fact that Africa lacks infrastructure should be considered by local tech entrepreneurs as an opportunity to build such infrastructure as well as services on top of such infrastructure.
In Europe, almost everything that needs to be built is already in place and therefore opportunities are limited. This is not the case with the African continent.
The lack of infrastructure in China was instrumental in making Alibaba what it is today. Alibaba is now one of the leading 10 digital platforms in the world.
It was built under conditions of very limited support from the government and other institutions. The same is true about building a business in South Africa. Although it is claimed that there’s support, the reality is that there’s very limited support for entrepreneurs. The lack of support, however, should not discourage entrepreneurs from pursuing their dreams.
According to Ma, entrepreneurs must get used to not getting support – even from family members.
Ma indicated that the first 10 years of Alibaba were not easy. Failure was part and parcel of his entrepreneurial journey. In South Africa, failure is viewed negatively. Ma encouraged entrepreneurs to learn from failure and mistakes in order to learn how to face them in the future.
The talk was also addressed to South African legislators who are leaders in government and some who formulate policy. He had an important message to share with legislators which, if taken to heart, can influence the success of South African start-ups. He called on legislators to create an enabling environment for young companies and start-ups.
He suggested that less tax for these companies could serve as an important instrument to drive their progress and success.
He called for leaders to start viewing entrepreneurs as heroes of our time.
Ma concluded his talk by committing to support African tech entrepreneurs. He announced and established a new contest that will see African entrepreneurs compete for $10 million (R136m) in funding, with the aim of supporting businesses that are growing the continent’s digital economy.
The Jack Ma Foundation Netpreneur Prize will enable small businesses in Africa to vie for $1million in prize money every year for the next decade, starting in 2019.
Jack Ma Foundation will host an annual pitch competition, with all 10 finalists receiving grant funding and access to the Netpreneur community of African business leaders for mentorship and other resources.
The first visit by Ma to South Africa is significant for a number of reasons. Besides the important support provided to local tech entrepreneurs, the visit also received the attention of the government.
Ma met briefly with President Ramaphosa. It is hoped that Ma’s talk and visit will bring to the fore digital matters to the South African government.
To build the future of the African economy there will be a greater need to build the digital economy.
South Africa needs more similar initiatives to build the digital economy by developing digital businesses.
South African tech entrepreneurs should aim to create leading digital businesses not just in the country but across the continent and beyond. In the next 10 years when the Jack Ma Foundation Netrepreneurs Prize comes to an end, African digital entrepreneurs should have created at least 10 unicorns that will lead the African digital future.
Wesley Diphoko is the chief executive and editor-in-chief of The Infonomist. He also serves as the chairperson of the IEEE Open Data Initiative.