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Here’s How Chinese Billionaire, Jack Ma, Can Really Create Change in Africa

Image via Alibaba

Three weeks ago, I attended the maiden edition of the Africa Netpreneur Summit followed by the African Heroes Awards, an initiative of Jack Ma Foundation in collaboration with Alibaba Group in Accra, Ghana. Upon attending and reading numerous writeups about the event, I thought to add my voice and explore some critical questions about the initiative as a young Ghanaian/Africa.

Over the years, billionaires have tried to solve Africa’s problems through philanthropic aid. Some have not accomplished their intended purpose while others have managed little success. For one, Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote through his Dangote Foundation, which has an endowment of a reported $1.25 billion has given more than $100 million over the past five years to causes in education, arts, and humanitarian relief. Egypt’s wealthiest family, The Sawiris Family, through the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, a charity that provides microcredit to Egyptian entrepreneurs and grants scholarships to outstanding Egyptian students in tertiary education.

Moreover, when Forbes began its annual ranking for the wealthiest people on the continent in 2011, no African billionaire signed the Giving Pledge. Today, there are at least four Africans who have taken a vow to give at least half of their net worth to philanthropy, either during their lifetime or upon their death, all in a bid to solve Africa’s problems.

“In Africa, we need three Es: E-government, to make the government transparent; entrepreneurs, make them heroes; and education, make the people know what they want and what they don’t want. The thing is that entrepreneurship in Africa is so different … Most entrepreneurs in our countries, they always want to [start an] enterprise, they want to go for IPO. These people in Africa, they want to change Africa. They want to change their lives.”

Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba

The Foundations mentioned above among several others have contributed millions of dollars to help solve Africa’s problem.

The tactic of using philanthropy which is aid has not worked for Africa since its inception in the 1990s. To reiterate this remark, Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, once said, “’Africa has seen $300 billion in foreign aid to its shores but has nothing to show for it”.

Jack Ma, through his aid for Africa Netpreneurs, is no different from Dangote and Sawiris, or any foreign aid for that matter.  If the billions of dollars that have been spent through philanthropic aid in Africa this last decade has made little impact, what will the $10 million over a span of ten years from the Jack Ma Foundation?

WHAT ARE JACK MA’S INTENTIONS FOR AFRICA?

“Most people see Africa today, they say there is no e-commerce, no logistics, no payment. For me it so similar… Africa today is like China 15-20 years ago. Because we didn’t have anything. This is the opportunity” – Jack Ma said at the Netpreneur Summit.

Temie Giwa-Tubosun, whose company LifeBank delivers blood to in-need hospitals in Nigeria, took first place in Jack Ma’s inaugural Africa Netpreneur Prize contest on Saturday during a five-hour finale taped for TV in Accra, Ghana. Photo via Alibaba.

Indeed, this is the opportunity. Africa has become increasingly attractive to the West, and giant corporations and governments have become very interested in the continent and its affairs. Africa has great potential for development through its resources, mineral wealth, youthful population. I have no doubt that with the right investment and strategy Africa will surge immediately.

Ma and the Alibaba Group see these indicators of superb opportunity. Notwithstanding, Africa’s youthful population in the next 10-20 years will increase which means more people will be using mobile phones which will require internet access, alongside e-commerce. It appears that as a strategic investor, Jack Ma and the Alibaba Group want to capitalize on this opportunity by using philanthropic means to win over African leaders and netpreneurs. Through this means, Alibaba can infiltrate the African e-commerce market and gain some level of monopoly before other e-commerce giants like Amazon can enter the market, hence making millions, if not billions.

SO, WHAT WILL BE A WIN-WIN SITUATION FOR JACK MA AND AFRICA

The biggest drag on African economic development is infrastructure, which usually focuses on physical infrastructure – ie. roads, bridges, railways, etc – and not communication and technology. Yet, without, rapid advancements in technology to forge its own way, Africa will continue to lag. As such, rather than investing in philanthropy, I would suggest that a quarter or more of the aid the continent receives is apportioned for communication and technology development.

Second, Africa lacks the technical know-how needed to spearhead innovations let alone how to sustain them. Therefore rather than aid and award schemes, there should be mass training and development programs to nurture these brilliant ideas into fruition which will create room for shared knowledge and skills development. Moreover, where there are one-time awards, they should not be one time engagements but rather, the Alibaba Group should form long-standing partnerships with netpreneurial startups on the continent to work together until these startups are positioned to be on their own.

Finally, the Jack Ma Foundation should invest more in developing communication and internet infrastructure in Africa which will boost internet accessibility to millions of African which in the long run will foster e-commerce trading activities and generate the wealth it believes it can inspire in Africa.

Andrew George Brown is a student of All Nations University College of the class of 2021. He is majoring in Banking and Finance. He currently serves as a course representative of his class. In his capacity, he serves as a representative in the student parliament ​where his role has been to work with other reps and the SRC we have been able to bring social programs to campus contribute in the planning and decision-making process of the house and presenting the problems of his class to the parliament​. He is passionate about pursuing a career as a stockbroker upon graduation. He is an Africans on China Campus Leaders Ambassador.

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