Enabling Youth Entrepreneurship in West Africa

An Interview with Isaac Aggrey, CEO, African Social Entrepreneurs Network

An Interview with Isaac Aggrey, CEO, African Social Entrepreneurs Network

BFP: First of all, please introduce yourself to the Business Fights Poverty community.

I am passionate about providing effective financial solutions to benefit local entrepreneurs, social impact investors, and most importantly, people at all levels of society, especially women entrepreneurs.

I am the CEO of African Social Entrepreneurs Network, founder and executive director of WASEN Ghana and the Women Business Center in South Africa. I was a founding partner to President Obama’s Young African Leadership Initiative Regional Leadership Centre and presently mentor graduates of the programme. I am also a taskforce member for Business 20 (B20), an official business dialogue responsible for drafting concrete policy proposals to the G20.

BFP: Tell us a little bit about the problem you are working on.

Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, faces chronic unemployment, especially for youth under age 35. The youth feel disempowered, frustrated and disoriented. This has key implications for political, social and economic instability.

Some of these young people strive to start their own businesses, but profit-motivated financial institutions are less inclined to help them because they lack collateral as well as the experience of handling loans. These challenges, coupled with the lack of investable enterprises, highlight the need to support the entrepreneurial ecosystem and increase the number of enterprises – particularly youth enterprises – that can eventually become self-sustaining in the long term.

One of the most important factors, particularly in Ghana, is the relatively low level of skills among young people. These young people need to be prepared to redefine “jobs” based on shifting opportunities and continue to adapt to bridge the skills-opportunities gap. To do that, they have to cultivate and exercise the skills of the future that can help them create solutions to complex problems – bringing value to the labor market and creating demand for their services. These much-needed skills include leadership (courage and confidence as initiators), hands-on problem-solving (creativity, agency for change-making and critical thinking), and teamwork.

BFP: How are you tackling this challenge?

I established the West Africa Social Entrepreneurs Network (WASEN) to reverse the youth unemployment trend by instituting appropriate research, quality training and mentorship programs that help young people develop as entrepreneurs. Our long-term solution to the unemployment crisis is to create entrepreneurs, and not job-seekers.

Our entrepreneurial training programmes targeted at students, unemployed youth, SMEs, and start-ups, to inspire and encourage them to take the initiative and respond to the societal challenges that confront them.

Finance is the central theme, but participants also learn about entrepreneurship, leadership, marketing, relationship-building and other valuable concepts related to the business world. We use methodologies that take into consideration the special needs of young people with no prior knowledge of business.

We aim to motivate participants to consider entrepreneurship as a viable alternative to employment. Participants gain the knowledge, skills, and motivation to start and run their own businesses. It is envisaged that, by the end of the training program, they should be able to submit bankable business plans to our network of impact investors and other financial institutions for further support.

BFP: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way, and how have you overcome these?

Creating social change in Africa takes time and lots of effort. There are real challenges around identifying the most powerful levers for change and allocating organizational resources accordingly to get the best results.

There are underlying structural systems that have a major effect on entrepreneurial drive, especially in the informal sector, where options are often restricted because people lack connections, status, and resources. It is very challenging to level the playing field by strengthening the business enabling environment for SMEs.

I am now seeing new ways of thinking about social problems and new operating models, such as social impact investing. I am seeking to develop new financial products that are matched to the abilities to pay of social enterprises, SMEs and start-ups – thereby allowing capital to “go to work” and reducing risk of default for the impact investors. I foresee this as a model to revolutionize the way funding is apportioned to support social enterprises, start-ups and SMEs in Africa.

BFP: Where does this idea stand now?

We are currently offering a wide range of reasonably priced, revenue-generating services to support SME and start-up growth. These include training, resources, information, conducting surveys, conferences, roundtables, accounting, legal, registration, partner and investor search, etc.

The aim is for SMEs, start-ups and entrepreneurs to utilize these services to promote their ideas, raise funds, conduct market research on their product, and interact with potential customers as well as investors. The ultimate goal is to connect all SMEs and start-ups and promote intra-trade relationships among them.

BFP: What are the next steps for you?

Increasing SME financing and streamlining the credit market helps businesses to expand, grow, increase profitability and employment capacity. It also ensures the birth of many new businesses.

Going forward, I will continue to work on strengthening business acumen on financing innovative start-ups and SMEs – focusing on engineering financial support to match SMEs’ and start-ups’ ability to pay, thereby allowing capital to “go to work” and reducing risk of default to all investors involved.

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