By Kathy Gibson – Africa has massive opportunities that will be unlocked by entrepreneurs.

That’s the word from Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma, announcing a $10-million prize fund for African entrepreneurs in Johannesburg this evening.

The Netpreneur Prize – named for empowering a new generation of entrepreneurs, and focusing on small business growth, grassroots innovation and women founders – will award $10-million to 100 African entrepreneurs over the next 10 years.

Starting in 2019, the Jack Ma Foundation will host an annual pitch competition, with 10 finalists selected from across the continent to showcase their talent and business ideas and compete for $1-million in prize money.

All 10 finalists will receive grant funding from the Jack Ma Foundation, as well as access to the Netpreneur community of African business leaders to leverage the community’s shared expertise, best practices and resources.

“Entrepreneurs will drive the African economy: they have the dreams, and it is small business that creates jobs,” Ma says. “We should encourage entrepreneurs and make them the hero.”

He believes that the big opportunity for Africa lies in digitalisation, particularly in the areas of commerce and payment.

“It’s not that difficult,” Ma says. “The technology is there – and Alibaba will do anything to share the technology.”

Connectivity is vital if digitalisation is to take off. “If we do not get good WiFi and Internet coverage in Africa, it will be worse than it was 20 years ago with no electricity.”

He also recommends that the continent takes down customs controls across the continent to create a free trade zone. “Africa should be working together.”

Ma also believes that globalisation is important, but needs to improve. “It needs to become more inclusive to support emerging business, youth and women.”

He points out that, while there are many challenges facing Africa, there are just as many opportunities.

“People say Africa has so many problems but is there anywhere that has no problems? They say Africa is poor, but it is rich in important assets.

“This continent is full of young people, and I say we should listen to the entrepreneurs, they have the dreams and the passion.”

He urges entrepreneurs to seize opportunities, and not wait for big business or government to pave the way for them. “I believe that when everything is ready, it is too late. Entrepreneurs are the people do things before they are ready.”

When Ma set up Alibaba 19 years ago, the Internet didn’t yet exist in China. “When I registered the company, they didn’t know how to register it. At that time no-one believed in China having the Internet or an e-commerce company.”

He stresses the importance of dreaming: “When we started we decided we wanted to be one of the largest web sites in the world. At that time we were down in the several  millions.

“Now, 19 years later, we are in the top 10 web sites in the world; and have a $500-billion market capitalisation.”

Alibaba’s early employees tended to be the people who couldn’t get jobs at big companies; the people who stayed where those who weren’t headhunted. “We are the people who were rejected,” Ma says.

“If we could win, if we could succeed, then 80% of the young people inn China and the world can be successful. Entrepreneurs work hard and have dreams – and this is why they win.”

He advises entrepreneurs to identify opportunities by looking for problems. “Opportunity is the place where people complain. The bigger the problem you solve the bigger the success will be.

“Africa is full of problems, but full of opportunity.”

The road to success is hard, he warns. “Today is difficult, tomorrow is much more difficult. You have to work hard. You are working not for yourselves, but for the dream.”

Entrepreneurs need to get used to failure, Ma adds. “We have made hundreds of mistakes. But you can’t learn from how people succeed; you learn from how people failed.

“The companies I talk to, most of the mistakes are the same while the things that lead to success are different.”

There is one secret of success that Ma will share. “At Alibaba, we put customer number one, employee number two, shareholders number three.

“Customers give us the money; and employees service the customers. If they are happy, the shareholders will automatically be happy.”

He also advises entrepreneurs to embrace change. “In a changing world, keeping on changing is the best way to stay in step.

“We never change our dreams, but we change ourselves to become successful.”

Stressing the importance of creating opportunities and working hard, Ma believes entrepreneurs need to ask themselves three questions: What do you have; what do you want and what will you give up?

Ma was addressing the “Netpreneurs: The Rise of Africa’s Digital Lions” conference. Jointly organised by Alibaba Business School, the Jack Ma Foundation, and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), it brought together more than 800 entrepreneurs, policymakers, academics, students, banks and venture capitalists to address the challenges and opportunities facing Africa’s entrepreneurs.

The event explored the barriers facing a new digital Africa and the role that the public sector, investors, entrepreneurs and educational organisations play in this transformation.

Ban Ki-moon, former UN secretary-general and co-chair of the Ban Ki-moon Center for Global Citizens, comments: “With the rapid development of the global digital economy and the availability of technology, the next century belongs to Africa. I am excited to join the advisory board of the Africa Netpreneur Prize.

“Through this prize, we aim to support African entrepreneurs to build a more inclusive and prosperous Africa and dramatically shape the future prospects of the continent for the better.”

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