EA bankers are now ready to help, not hinder, entrepreneurs

The just concluded Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES 2015) that ended in Nairobi last weekend has put Kenya, and by extension the East African region, at the centre of the global economic and geopolitical map.

It also heralded a new dawn for entrepreneurs across the region. First came the announcement by US President Barack Obama — who was on a three-day trip to Kenya — that the US had secured more than $1 billion in investment for new entrepreneurs around the world, following up on a promise made at last year’s summit in Morocco.

Then, big companies such as General Electric, the Mara Group, Mawingu Networks and KCB Group, among others, also pledged huge investments towards entrepreneurship, signalling the growing investor confidence in an East Africa that they see as ready for take-off.

If appropriately leveraged in the coming years, the outcome of the GES 2015 will raise Kenya and East Africa’s global visibility as it has provided a global platform to showcase the region’s creativity, innovation and opportunities for tourism, trade and investment.

Last week, I had the privilege to moderate a panel discussion on the sidelines of the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

The session — among whose participants were Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto and leading entrepreneurs Strive Masiyiwa, founder of Econet Wireless, Ashish Thakkar, CEO of Mara Group, Mike Macharia, CEO and founder of Seven Seas Technology and Monica Musonda, CEO of Java Foods — sought ways entrepreneurs in Africa can leverage existing opportunities to make a name in the business world.

During the session, participants deliberated on the efforts that the government and the private sector in Africa have undertaken to spur entrepreneurship across the region.

Some of the key findings were that most of the problems that entrepreneurs face are associated with lack of an open public policy that supports entrepreneurship as well as an inability to access funds from financial institutions.

Participants called for the establishment of youth-friendly financial services providing access to credit for youth to start businesses.

The exposure at the summit, and the floodgates of funding that it has unlocked, will therefore act as a springboard for entrepreneurial growth and job creation in East Africa.

The discussions, funding and outcomes from the summit will inform the development of legacy programmes and at the same time strengthen diplomatic relations between East Africa and the US.

East Africa is acclaimed as an innovation leader in sub-Saharan Africa as evidenced in its financial services and technology sectors.

A number of initiatives, including the rapid expansion of money transfers through telephones and electronic mobile banking services, have raised the quality of financial services and expanded access to these services for the unbanked. Mobile banking has pervaded economy and industry.

The dynamism and enthusiasm shown by the region’s youth in driving innovation has been a hallmark of Kenya’s globally acclaimed technological aances on the African continent. Safaricom’s M-Pesa, has placed Kenya as a global leader in innovation.

East Africa boasts of several economic strengths. The region’s tourist offering is unique and it is a globally acclaimed experience the world over, from the mountain gorillas to the wildebeest migration, to Kenya’s Cradle of Mankind status and to the beaches that make it the best tourist destination in sub-Saharan Africa.

So the region as whole has a host of opportunities for investment partnerships to promote the tourism infrastructure.

That said, unemployment remains the single most serious problem facing the youth across the region, constituting a major threat to the achievement of the region’s long term development blueprint.

To address this phenomenon, there is a need to provide a framework to help young people to establish their own businesses, a concerted and joint effort among governments, public and private entities.

Financial institutions have all along been blamed for putting in place hurdles that have hindered the growth of startups in the country — from demanding security before giving out loans to sending auctioneers after loan defaulters.

Nevertheless, the Kenyan financial ecosystem has undergone tremendous transformation over the years and is now in a position to smooth the way for entrepreneurs wishing to set up businesses.

It is in this spirit that KCB Group has pledged Ksh1 billion ($10 million) for the next five years to boost government efforts to finance startups through the Enterprise Kenya Fund.

The initiative, which is expected to scale up at least 100 startups, will catalyse innovation and provide young entrepreneurs with much needed financial support in their innovative journey.  

As we take stock of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, we need to reflect on how best we can make our region a destination for entrepreneurs. The setting up of innovation centres is a step in the right direction as they seek to support new and promising enterprises through incubation programmes.

Joshua Oigara is KCB Group CEO and chairman of the Kenya Bankers Association.