‘The most challenging aspect of entrepreneurship is putting ideas into action’
Afua Osei is a co-founder of She Leads Africa, a digital media company focused on business content, where she leads an online team. She served as a Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia and had worked in the office of United States of America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama, in the White House. She had also worked as a strategy and communications consultant. She started SLA with a colleague and the two have since been named by Forbes Africa, as two of the youngest power women in Africa (2014). Afua was also named by Ventures Africa as one of the top 25 African innovators to watch (2016). She spoke with Business Editor, Clara Nwachukwu on how SLA is helping young women entrepreneurs, and the forthcoming SLAY Festival 2017. Excerpts:
What is She Leads Africa all about?
She Leads Africa is a community that helps young African women to achieve their professional dreams, since 2014 when we started in seven different countries. We focus on helping young women have access to business career skills that will help them move to the next level. Young women can have access to resources, network and information on how to be successful in whatever fields they choose to be in.
What kind of business or skills are you talking about?
We don’t have a specific type. We take on any type of business; any type of entrepreneur an individual that is looking to improve. We have assisted women who are in fashion, in farming, technology, manufacturing, eCommerce, retail etc, and we believe that everyone can improve their personal skills regardless of the industry that they are in.
What kind of women entrepreneurs have you assisted in Nigeria, and in what areas?
We have response programmes, which have provided early stage female entrepreneurs with access to networks, investors and funding for their businesses. This past year, just a couple of months ago, we provided funding for an agriculture company that grows produce inside a shipping container inside and outside of Abuja. They cut down on the time from the farms to the people, and they also grow products that are not typically available in Nigeria. We have provided assistance to a company that is making it easier to get pharmaceutical and drugs for hospitals and clinics. We’ve also supported a company that cooks soups and sources for Nigerian families that you can buy from a supermarket.
But we believe that people are at different stages in their growth and development. Maybe they’re not ready to go all the way forward with their business and that’s why we have our online community and our website that has articles and features on entrepreneurs, where they are sharing their stories and the lessons that they have learnt. Right now, there are thousands of women from across Africa and in Nigeria, who have access to the site and they can talk to experts for free.
Do you give them financial assistance or recommendations?
For companies in our accelerated programme and selected by the investors to be high performers, yes, we do provide them with green funding. We also provide introductions to investors that really help them with skills and their profiles so that companies and individuals know them as trustworthy businesses. However, we do not believe that money is all that it takes to build a good business. You may have all the money in the world, but don’t have the right ideas on how to manage it, then you will still fail. So we spend a lot of time focusing on business strategy and capital development and marketing so that entrepreneurs can build their businesses without too many challenges. And if they decide on what want, they can have access to those who can assist them.
When you give them funding, does it have a limit or how do you determine how much you give them?
We don’t want to focus on the funding aspect because that is not all that we do, and we don’t want people to only see us as that kind of organisation, because funding is a small part of what we do. We train people; we are online and there are so many other things we do, and even though a lot of people would want to focus on funding, for us that is not the primary thing we do to help people.
One of the first things we do is to tell people that the money will not save a bad idea. We are looking for general business support that covers all the critical areas that can help an efficient entrepreneur. In terms of limits on the funding, we are only able to provide about N5 million in a year. Because we know we have a small amount of money, we spend a lot of time to leverage that, first, by connecting entrepreneurs in our networks to investors the first day they start the accelerated programmes. We also work with them over the next four to five months to make sure that not only are their businesses strong, but they are able to run them effectively. Since 2014, we’ve been able to channel around $500,000 in terms of distribution of funding through the connections entrepreneurs have made on the network.
Part of the challenges for startup entrepreneurs is how to present or package a bankable project. Do you give the women training on preparing bankable projects?
We found that one of the main challenges is that people are not aware of what investors are looking for. Because they don’t know how they will be evaluated, they don’t know what information to include. That is why we have a free dial on our website; anybody can download the information that has a clear cut outline on how to make a presentation to an investor in every single way. The types of questions you’ll be asked when you’re talking to an external body about your business. Also, being able to describe your marketing plans, being able to describe your target customers, and how many people that might be able to buy your service, and being able to really articulate your revenue plans. We also give examples of how some businesses have done it successfully, so that where many don’t want to share information, for us, we share the best practices to be successful. That is the beauty of having a digital platform where you can pass on such information, which can be accessible to anyone.
Are you in partnership with other financial institutions on this?
She Leads Africa is an independent company, but for specific events or programmes, we will work with some partners. Everything is on our website and very accessible.
What is the SLAY Festival all about?
The SLAY Festival is a day celebration focused on innovation, culture creativity and technology. We wanted to host an event that will enable people to learn and meet with experts that will teach them new skills and allow them to really talk one-on-one with SME founders, and also have fun, enjoy themselves and get excited about the New Year.
Do you think that one day is enough to take on all of these?
That is why we have a website, platform and other events so that people can continue to learn. You only need a day to get focused and keep it charged. Of course, it is up to the individuals to do the work.
What kind of people are participants expected to meet there?
The event is open to everyone. But most people who will attend are those looking for a new experience and want to get to the next level in their businesses and career. They want to analyse or just want to explore new ideas or opportunities that will help them do that. We are also going to see people, who are interested in business, who want to network with other individuals to help their businesses. We will also have a full market place for products and goods from entrepreneurs for those looking for new things to buy, what products are made in Nigeria products etc.
What about the resource persons?
We have people from different industries for instance those focused on building a career in the media, we have film directors, we have TV personalities, digital director, and we have a panel discussion on how to build your own brand, as in solo entrepreneur. We have Arese Ugwu, who is a financial expert and author. We also have Toke Makinwa, a media personality and we have expert that will teach people on being able to get contracts from big companies; we have an expert focused on projects and logistics, so we really have a wide range of fields. The idea is that even if your specific industry is not covered, you will be able to learn about general business and career and life lessons from those experts. Finally, we will be having a symposium with experts in the legal, strategy, marketing, management and finance, who will be doing one-on-one coaching with different entrepreneurs.
Outside of SLAY and your online platform, do you have a forum where the women you have assisted meet to exchange ideas?
That is the point of our on line community. We are a community connecting more than 30 countries providing feedbacks. That is one of the reasons the online platform is critical for us, so that it is not just women in Nigeria, who only know about what is happening in Nigeria, they can also learn what is happening in Kenya, in Morocco, the U.K. and South Africa and other African women across the world.
Is SLAY a yearly event or a one off?
This is our first time, hopefully, it will be a success and we would to hold it multiple times. We will see what happens with this.
Going forward, what would you advice women, who are undecided about what to do or confused about how to get going?
My response will be the same for a man or woman; I encourage them to spend some time doing research. Most times we are undecided because we don’t really know what to expect, but taking some time to speak to others who have been in the industry I think is the best way to be prepared. Secondly, fear can have us over thinking about something and not making a decision for a long time. A very important part of being an entrepreneur or starting a new career is taking a leap of faith, believing that your research and your preparation are enough for you to take off.
Finally, do you think the Nigerian environment encourages women entrepreneurship, and what more can be done to help women more?
I wouldn’t want to generalise about the Nigerian environment because there are “many different communities and many different networks,” so most people’s experiences will be very different and very unique. What we have learnt is that young Nigerian women are independent, and they are creative and they are entrepreneurial. Where most of the gaps come from are the ideas and how you can turn them into action, in that way there is a sort of discouragement because people are trying to figure it out and they do not know where to go.
What we encourage people is that it is important to have more examples of women who have been successful regardless of their background. If a woman is married and she has kids, how did she do it? If she is single and she is 40, how did she do it? If she is 18 and in the university, how did she do it? Then it becomes more normal, it doesn’t seem like a very difficult thing and very difficult to start.