Within the African context, the subject of failure is a difficult conversation to have. If you ask the question, "who wants to fail?" no one would raise their hand. However, true entrepreneurs or anyone looking to learn, should look forward to failing. Failure drives individuals to think about what works and what doesn't; it also provides an invaluable learning experience. Failure can sometimes lead to innovation and innovation is a major factor for economic growth. The fear of failure is one of reasons why many African entrepreneurs are not innovating or scaling as quickly as they should. Many African entrepreneurs have failed and continue to fail but the stories, and the lessons learned from these failures are rarely shared or discussed compared to their western counterparts.
An honest conversation about failure is a necessity for entrepreneurial success, especially as a growing number of young Africans enter into the globally competitive world of entrepreneurship and innovation. If the stories of failure aren't shared, how do we then genuinely prepare the next generation for their entrepreneurial journey? The world is curious to know how African entrepreneurs define failure, especially since many of the continent's successful entrepreneurs operate in the midst of instability and infrastructural challenges unlike their peers in other parts of the world.
In the past few years, there has been a quest to change the conversation about Africa's narrative. Headlines such as "Africa Rising," "Aspiring Africa," "Hopeful Africa" among others, have been popular in the media. However, this attempt to forcefully reshape and change Africa's narrative leads to a failure to be realistic and honest about Africa's problems. It gives rise to missed opportunities for learning from what works and what doesn't. To an extent, it also lacks authenticity.
In the startup world, the media has focused mainly on Africa's success stories with featured programs on CNN, Forbes, and Ndani TV along with numerous blogs, highlighting entrepreneurial success. Conferences are often filled with speakers who only share their success stories without highlighting their failures, privilege, or challenges. It is important for aspiring entrepreneurs to understand that failure is a normal part of the entrepreneurial journey, but the conversation about failure is lacking or often seen as a taboo topic in the African entrepreneurial dialogue. Publicly or otherwise, failure is rarely discussed or celebrated.
There are ongoing conversations about what failure means to entrepreneurs. Many want to know how entrepreneurs measure and handle failure. How many times is it acceptable for one to fail? How do you know that you are working hard enough? What if you work hard and still fail? These questions, for the most part, have not been addressed in the African entrepreneurial community. I decided to ask 7 Nigerian entrepreneurs what failure means to them, in the bid to understand the perception of African entrepreneurs towards failure.
Clara Ohakim, founder of Fine Dining by Coco Ltd described failure as a golden opportunity to get it right. Failure, she said, "is an adventure everyone must seek to go on to get better at doing something."
Nkemdilim Begho, managing director at Future Software Resources said failure paves the way to success. "failure is necessary for any learning curve. Failure makes you stronger, bolder, and less scared of taking risks."
Ayomide Condotti, founder of Africholiday Travels, described failure as having an unsatisfied client. "When any of my clients are unhappy, I feel like I have failed. Failure is also poor financial performance. You see, I don't really care about failure or failing per se but these two things bother me: poor financial performance and an unsatisfied client."
Oreoluwa Somolu, Ashoka fellow and executive director at WTEC said, "If success means living with joy, contentment, and doing great things with my talent, then failure is the opposite of success. It means not living with joy, contentment, or using my skills and gifts. Failure would also mean not pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and not daring to try new things and ideas."
Damilola Solesi, CEO of Smid Animation Studios defined failure as giving up on one's goals and dreams. She said, "I might fail in a business venture but I do not consider myself a failure until I have given up. Failure is giving up on my goals and dreams.
While I spoke with these women entrepreneurs, I also checked in with Mark Essien, Founder of hotels.ng. He described failure as living through the day and hating it. Essien said, "the road to success is recognizable and never stagnant. When you are winning, things always get better and will improve. You know you are on the wrong path when things remain the same, stagnant, or steadily get worse."
Jason Njoku, one of Africa's most prominent success stories added, "Failure is having no money, prospects, being shunned, laughed at by your peers, or seeing your mother cry yet again because you have not yet "made it" even though you promised her this would be the last time you tried." Failure he said, means letting people down and not being able to rectify the situation. "Failure however, can serve as a catalyst for success. An entrepreneur must be able to address why they have failed and ensure that they do not make the same mistakes again. I truly believe that failure is the ultimate fire to sparking success."
Njoku also tried to explain why African entrepreneurs avoid conversations about their failures. He said, "African entrepreneurs do not like to talk about failure because they want to keep up appearances. They do not want people to know the real truth about the state of their businesses. Failure is very much a taboo topic to broach with African entrepreneurs, so very few people talk about or share their failures, let alone in public. I am not sure why this is the case but maybe it has with do with wanting respect, arrogance, or pride."
John Ajah, ICT consultant and entrepreneur wrote, "it is important for entrepreneurial minds in Africa to not only look at success stories but to evaluate failure not as a taboo, but as a catalyst that makes for a more rewarding success story."
If more African entrepreneurs are not failing or sharing their failure stories, then they may not be able to create the innovations needed and necessary to move the continent forward at the speed we would like.