Interview: The world needs entrepreneur heroes to see current challenges as opportunities

Ashraf Amin , Sunday 12 Apr 2020

The world not only needs innovation in the face of the coronavirus crisis, but especially afterwards, to rebuild the global economy on better foundations, says Jason Pau, Jack Ma Foundation senior advisor

Jason Pau, Jack Ma Foundation senior advisor
The world not only needs innovation in the face of the coronavirus crisis, but especially afterwards, to rebuild the global economy on better foundations, says Jason Pau, Jack Ma Foundation senior advisor

Considered as one of the leading Chinese multinational technological companies in the fields of e-commerce, internet and cloud computing services, Ali Baba and its sister foundations have been playing a crucial role in collaboration with the Chinese government and the medical sector to reduce the spread of the Covid19 virus in China.

In the following interview Jason Pau, Senior Advisor for Jack Ma foundation shares their experience to strengthen the world combat against covid-19. He also highlights on their initiative to support African entrepreneurs and the successful stories of startups in the continent who are able to excel and provide creative solutions in these hard-economic moments.

With respect to the current world crisis due to the spread of the corona virus. What are the experiences and technological tools that you can share with technology companies and policy makers to overcome the current crisis?

It is extremely important that we be able to pool efforts and use all resources at our disposal to combat Covid-19. To this end, the "Jack Ma" Foundation and the "Alibaba" Foundation share a digital guide developed by doctors and health personnel in the first hospital of the Faculty of Medicine - Zhejiang University (FAHZU)

This specialized medical staff was the forefront of the front lines of Covid-19 treatment in China, and they had a critical role in slowing its spread. Therefore, in the digital guide, they cover and share what they have learned in every step of the way to confront the virus on a global scale, from examination, to diagnosis and treatment of patients who have contracted the disease. We provided the digital guide in ten languages ​​and can be viewed through the following link

The two institutions also established an international communications platform for medical sector experts to facilitate communication between these experts around the world with the aim of exchanging experiences and lessons learned during the fight against the Covid 19 pandemic. The platform is provided by Alibaba's DingTalk messaging program, and supports simultaneous interpretation using AI technology in 11 languages. Our goal is to enable medical sector experts worldwide to engage in bilateral talks to exchange experiences in fighting the epidemic, as well as group participation in live broadcasting sessions and webinars with their peers from other countries.

Many international conferences and events were cancelled or postponed. Why have you decided to launch the Africa Netpreneur competition in its second year?  

The Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative (ANPI) is the flagship philanthropic program of the Jack Ma Foundation. Since we first launched the ANPI, our long-term mission has been to recognize 100 African entrepreneurs and commit to allocating US$100 million in grant funding, training programs, and support for the broad African entrepreneurial ecosystem over a ten-year period.

Indeed, we find ourselves in unprecedented and extraordinary times, but it is now more than ever that we need entrepreneurs with courage and vision to do what they do best – solve problems and create economic opportunities for society. At this time, it is not only physical but also economic well-being that is under attack and it is in the nature of entrepreneurs to find the resources, resilience and strength to overcome challenges. With the ANPI’s “Africa’s Business Heroes” prize competition, we hope to encourage aspiring applicants to seize this opportunity to break through barriers and create hope for the future at a time where hope is desperately needed.

For this year’s competition, all ten finalists will share a prize pool of USD 1.5 million in grant money, up from USD 1 million last year. We will also be working with Anchor Partners across the continent, including RiseUp from Egypt, to identify and support African entrepreneurs. We will also partner with Pulse.Africa to highlight stories of African entrepreneur heroes.

How many applicants do you expect will apply?

We are excited to have kicked off the application process on April 6 until June 9. The competition is open to African entrepreneurs from all 54 African countries, across every sector, age group, and gender. Last year we received nearly 10,000 applications from 50 African countries, and we hope to receive even more this year.

Will there be any preferences to select the projects related to covid-19 crisis?

The Africa’s Business Heroes prize competition is open to businesses in all sectors. We are focused on those working to solve the most pressing problems across Africa. Finalists will be selected for their vision and leadership, inspiring and innovative ideas, and their ability to create positive impact and value for their local communities.   

The aim of the competition is to highlight entrepreneur heroes from Africa and we hope to give them a platform to showcase their talent and business ideas, as well as to inspire others to get involved.

Will there be any arrangements during the phases of the competition due to the pandemic?  

We are monitoring the situation very closely and we have already worked to make alternate arrangements. We updated our launch event on April 6 to be completely virtual and will continue to prioritize the health and safety of our teams, partners and participants.

After the first annual Africa Netpreneur competition how did Jack Ma Foundation empower the winners to enhance their business models and reach their target audience?

Last year, the Africa’s Business Heroes Competition awarded a prize pool of USD 1million in grant money to be shared among the top ten finalists. Not only that, but our finalists also found special value from the ANPI community of business leaders to leverage the community’s shared expertise, best practice, training and resources to take their businesses to the next level. Our finalists have also been able to benefit from training programs run by Alibaba Global Initiatives which span topics from digital transformation to e-commerce.

Our 10 finalists from 2019 represented a range of industries and experience, and we believe the potential of these entrepreneur heroes is limitless. We are proud to see how our heroes from last year have been able to benefit and grow from the Prize.

For example, the Prize enabled Temie Giwa-Tubosun from Lifebank company to grow her business in improving access for blood transfusion to become truly pan-Nigerian, and she now has plans to expand from her Nigerian headquarters into Kenya as well.

Tosan Mogbeyiteren from Black Swan company in Nigeria was able to attract new talent and upgrade their WeMUNIZE system, enabling them to operate at scale and offer their immunization programs in more states.

Moulaye Taboure of Afrikrea company from Ivory Coast was able to drastically expand his team across the continent. Several of the 10 finalists went on to receive multiple investments and grants from other investors and partners.

What is your advice to them as they are currently facing financial crisis due to the covid-19 pandemic? 

Now, more than ever, is the time to be creative, confident and work hard to realize your business goals. It is heartening to see how our finalists from last year have stepped up in the fight against COVID-19 in Africa. I encourage all entrepreneurs to look to them and find inspiration from their demonstration of innovation, resilience and leadership at the forefront of the health emergency:

The Egyptian pharmacist Omar Sakr – who wone the third prize last year - of Nawah-Scientific, an online scientific research company, has developed skin-friendly hand sanitiser and is continuing to support research in the region by offering free pickup services of research samples that will need laboratory examinations. The company is also partnering with SciWare to experiment on a cheaper and quicker way to diagnose COVID-19 using Near Infra-Red technology

Christelle Kwizera and her team at Water Access Rwanda (WAR)have sped up efforts to connect households in Rwanda to water supply, so people can be able to access water from their home thereby complying with mandatory social distancing and being able to protect themselves against COVID-19 with frequent and thorough hand-washing.

At LifeBank startup, founder and CEO Temie Giwa-Tubosun’s team has opened an online registry for enlisting equipment like ventilators, respirators and ICU Beds within Nigeria. The company is also distributing floor stickers to hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores to promote social distancing.

Chibuzo Opara and his team at DrugStoc in Nigeria are leveraging their strong supply chain system to provide health workers in remote facilities with critical anti-COVID-19 pharmaceutical products.

The world needs more of these entrepreneur heroes, my advice is to take a chance on your own innovative ideas and see the current challenges we all face as opportunities instead.

How could these companies move from the startup to the scale up phase locally and internationally?

The question of how to scale can vary greatly depending on the business. But no matter the business, the most important thing is how to deliver for your customer.

We also believe that programs like the ANPI can be game changers in allowing entrepreneurs to grow their global networks, learning experiences and opportunities. For instance, very few African entrepreneurs do business across the continent, let alone with countries like China. Many of the top 10 finalists have started to build partnerships across Africa and the world through our program.

How can the developing countries overcome the crisis, especially with the lack of technological infrastructure?

I believe entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to be able to help us overcome this crisis. As we emerge from the health and economic crisis, entrepreneurs will have a special role to play in rebuilding the economy and helping local communities recover. Today, as long as you have a mobile phone and internet many things are possible. We hope that one day when we are looking back upon this time of crisis, we will have seen a new generation of mission-driven entrepreneurs emerge to innovate new solutions and pioneer new business ideas.

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