THE BLOG
10/06/2014 12:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

5 Career Lessons I Learned From African Entrepreneurs

Diane Calvi

If you're scouting globally for entrepreneurial inspiration, check out East Africa. Western-centric business gurus have often underestimated African ingenuity, thinking it devoid of bright business ideas.

But think again. Clusters of African countries are finding creatively bold ways to stoke economic recovery and spark opportunities for women.

Small business owners are on fire and innovating in refreshingly nimble ways. And the world is increasingly taking notice.

Take a "prosperity petri dish" of sorts in Uganda and Kenya. Thousands of small business owners in the most remote and rural areas are thriving against great odds. Many have broken the cycle of extreme poverty (under $1.17 a day) to earn enough profits to improve homes, eat more than one meal a day, and send children to schools. Their success reveals some universal business wisdom.

Background: These African entrepreneurs received 14 modules of business training, small grants of $150, business mentoring, savings support, and follow-up monitoring from Silicon Valley nonprofit Village Enterprise.

Many have gone on to realize record profits and leave extreme poverty behind--often without good roads, safe water, perfect health, steady markets, or banks to loan them money.

Their secret sauce? Here are 5 lessons learned.

  1. Take big risks for big gain:
  2. Onigica Vicent, a Ugandan father of eight, is still struggling to get back on his feet after Joseph Kony's LRA rebels looted his property, destroyed his crops, killed many of his relatives, and unspeakably, burnt his home to the ground as they left.

    But Vicent took a huge leap of faith. Like many African farmers, he'd gone for years planting the same thing as his father and grandfather, and still was not realizing major profits. Village Enterprise helped Vicent see that growing only sesame could be more profitable.

    Scary decision for any African farmer. If Vicent failed, his children wouldn't eat, or go to school. But the risk paid off: Vicent's sesame crops have done so well, he and two other farmers shared increased profits of almost $1,400, allowing Vicent to feed his family better, send children to school, buy a cow, clothing, and shoes. "I see myself heading for more great things in business and even recovering what I lost," Vicent said.

  3. Embrace savvy, tech-smart business practices:
  4. Vicent decided to focus only on growing more profitable sesame after Village Enterprise introduced him to a game-changing, new mobile agriculture tool: SMART--Smarter Market Analysis Risk Tool, a Rockefeller Foundation-recognized innovation.

    He and other rural farmers in Kenya and Uganda are now using SMART, which uses Google's Open Data Kit, a free data collection platform, to learn specific crops' pricing, risk, demand, fertilizer and seed prices, and many other factors.

  5. Refuse to let a dark past dampen current business prospects:
  6. When Kony's soldiers swept into Uganda's Soroti district, "My parents were full of fear and panic," said Hellen Amongin. Families were forced into displacement camps, children were kidnapped. Businesses and schools were destroyed.

    But entrepreneurs like Hellen are not letting their past define their present. When Hellen got a small business grant and training, she trained to become a tailor, rented a sewing machine, bought fabric, and then grew her tailoring business. But community-minded Hellen didn't stop there. She bought sewing machines and, amazingly, opened a tailoring shop and vocational school to train 40 women to sew.

  7. Once successful, mentor and support others:
  8. Once they've become more successful and healthy, many rural Africans, like Hellen, hold a generous door open for people coming out of poverty behind them. They know that success breeds success, as it did for Hellen. "My life has greatly changed. I've gained respect from people, am doing my own business, get big contracts, and like preparing food for up to 2,000 people.

    "I feel like being a blessing to everyone. I want to see people grow. It's my pleasure if everyone is able to do something in order to survive."

  9. Listen and look for ideas in unexpected places, then innovate:
  10. Village Enterprise drives innovation to break the cycle of poverty, while listening to the ideas of African business owners themselves, who know what could work in their regions.

    Village Enterprise showed small business owners in rural eastern Uganda how they could use easy-to-assemble grinders to offer the service of grinding grains into flour and groundnuts into paste.

    Grinders are usually available in more urban areas cut off by distance and miserable roads. Barbara, an ingenious mother and entrepreneur, spoke up, "Can we grind millet and soya together in the grinder?"

    Brilliant idea since millet and soy are nearly perfect nutritional complements and add vital nutritional supplements to the diet, especially for infants, the elderly, and pregnant women. There is a large demand for this superfood, particularly in hospitals, but it's only located in urban markets at high prices.

    Barbara's idea to package the mixture and sell it at the local markets and hospital launched more businesses.

Innovation can come from any corner, anywhere, if you listen for it.