Last Thursday, Jack Ma, chairman of e-commerce behemoth Alibaba and Asia’s richest man, in company of 38 Chinese billionaires, started a two-day visit to Kenya and Rwanda, searching for deals and partnerships with governments and local businesses.
Jack Ma is the kind of patient investor a budding Nigerian entrepreneur would love to have on board. Life has thought him many lessons. He knows what it is to be rejected. He applied for 30 jobs, including at KFC, but was rejected in all of them. Ma struggled to get into college — he failed the entrance exam three times, and started Alibaba from his apartment.
Ma isn’t only bringing cash to the young entrepreneurs in East Africa, he is also coming with loads of advice. “You have to get used to failure. If you can’t, then how can you win,” he told students at the University of Nairobi.
Sadly, had these Chinese tycoons, who would have come with their expensive fountain pens to ink deals, come to Nigeria this week without having registered a local subsidiary in Nigeria, they would have been stuck: Nigeria’s Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC)is currently on strike. The commission has some serious internal problems.
Strangely, Jack Ma – the kind of investor Nigerian bureaucrats normally arrange roadshows in Europe and America to meet — decided to go to Kenya and Rwanda in his first visit to Africa. Not Nigeria, Africa’s giant.
Ma told Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in 2014 that he was excited about Nigeria and was going to visit soon. “I’m so excited by Nigeria, so many young people using mobile,” Ma told Okonjo-Iweala at the Clinton Global Institute in 2014.
But, today, he has decided to overlook Nigeria, a country with 135 million phone lines,with 92 million of them connected to the internet. Instead, he is visiting Kenya and Rwanda, countries with 38 million and 9 million mobile lines, respectively.
Ma’s visit to East Africa doesn’t come as a surprise. East African countries recorded the highest share of foreign direct investment in 2016 in Africa, with a 26.3 percent share.
Conversely, in the case of Nigeria, the World Bank in its 2016 ease of doing business report ranked Nigeria in the 169 position out of the 189 countries surveyed.
It takes just six hours to register a new business in Rwanda. Though the acting president, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, has signed an executive order aimed at reducing the time it takes to register a business, current events in CAC don’t show that things will change soon.
The ease of doing business isn’t the only issue. East African governments have helped young entrepreneurs, with targeted policies, in setting global trends in innovation. For example, in 2012, the Rwandan government launched YouthConnekt, an initiative to encourage entrepreneurship amongst young people.
YouthConnekt links young people to role models, resources, knowledge and skills, internship and employment opportunities. Products of an initiative like this are what folks like Ma are looking for: innovation is the backbone of his business.
Nigeria should learn from East Africa’s investments in hubs for innovative businesses. Investing in hubs for learning, mentoring, collaboration and shared workspace is the way to go. A similar hub in Yaba attracted Mark Zuckerberg. Future ones could attract billionaires like Jeff Bezos of Amazon.
To attract these billionaires, our currency market has to be stabilized, as well. Trying to arbitrarily fix the currency, as the senate is contemplating, is not the way to go. The news that the senate is asking for a different exchange rate for pilgrims doesn’t send the right message to investors. There could be other ways to help pilgrims. (Nobody knows the next group that the senate would be demanding a different exchange rate for.)
Nigeria needs to get its act together. The countries Ma and his friends visited are obviously doing something Nigeria isn’t doing.