Business momentum is building across Africa and the rest of the world is starting to notice, says professor and entrepreneurship expert Murray B. Low. Low directs the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia University’s Columbia Business School, where he also serves as an adjunct professor of management and teaches a course called “Entrepreneurship and Private Equity in Africa.”
Low said the course grew from an earlier course on “Private Equity and Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets.” For its first five years, Low says, “the course was a whirlwind trip around the globe. … Then about four or five years ago, due to increased interest in Africa from the business community, development community, our students and the increased activity of those engaged in private equity in Africa, we began to focus more on Africa.”
Low reflected on that change during a recent interview on the campus of Columbia University in New York, saying, “Ten years ago it would not have been possible to teach a course on private equity and entrepreneurship in Africa.”
“As we speak, there are now six or seven new equity funds that are in formation that are targeting Africa, as well as half a dozen existing players of significant size.”
Low said being in New York is an advantage, because he can bring in principals from many private equity firms that are doing business in Africa. He has traveled across the African continent, identifying successful entrepreneurs. “We are looking for real role models … people who have built growing, sustainable businesses of the sort that would be attractive to professional investors.”
A real entrepreneurial hero
Low’s students have written half a dozen case studies — analyses of particular business operations — and in so doing have contributed expertise to help entrepreneurs in those operations enhance and expand their businesses.
In one such case study, Low said, his students traveled to Nigeria to work with a “real entrepreneurial hero,” Austin Okere, the chief executive officer of Computer Warehouse. Low said Okere started his information technology (IT) business about 15 years ago and secured a license to resell Dell computers.
“From that very modest beginning, he has had a series of steppingstones where one thing has led to another. Now Austin’s company has revenues in excess of $100 million. He is the leading IT company in West Africa and is expanding to other parts of the continent” with leading telecom, banking and oil companies as his clients.
“What is remarkable about Austin is how he has built his business … in very difficult political circumstances, and he has done so by emphasizing good governance, transparency,” Low said.
Low cited another example where his students provided timely business advice to Banana Investments Ltd., a $5 million business in Tanzania that manufactures and distributes banana wine. “We wrote a case study on the company, a well-known brand in Africa.” The company, he said, took a basic process from a cottage industry and converted it to an industrial scale and now produces millions of bottles annually.
Africa’s need for Entrepreneurship
Low said his students are working with Equity Bank of Kenya to explore new business ventures. Fifteen years ago, he said, Equity Bank was a bankrupt savings and loan organization. Chief executive officer James Mwangi transformed the company to where it now holds 55 percent of all Kenyan bank accounts.
Equity Bank was able to do this, Low said, by “providing services to part of the population which was previously considered unbankable, and they have done this through a very impressive development of branches and mobile phone technology.”
Entrepreneurs are the very “essence” of business development, Low said. “Businesses don’t arise because there is some need in the abstract. They arise because someone sees that need, sees the opportunity to satisfy that need, and has the wherewithal to secure the resources and deliver a product and collect payment for it and then start the whole cycle again.”
“I think there are many things needed for economic development, but clearly one essential component is entrepreneurship. When I talk about entrepreneurship, it is not just the lone individual who comes up with an idea and starts a business; it is also the same sort of entrepreneurial spirit that drives existing businesses to new and better performance.”
“In Africa,” Low said, “there is a great need for entrepreneurship and greater leadership and managerial ability in the private sector as well as in the nongovernmental organization space.”
“As a person who has dedicated his life to researching, teaching and studying entrepreneurship, [visiting Africa] has been a very humbling experience for me,” Low said, “because I have learned a lot about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur by studying these very successful African entrepreneurs and seeing how under extremely difficult circumstances, where you are dealing with political instability, massive currency fluctuations, where you are dealing with corruption and poor infrastructure — even under these conditions, entrepreneurs can and do thrive and build wonderful, impressive businesses.”