The long-awaited wave of Senegalese entrepreneurship

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Abdoul Aziz, project manager at Senegalese incubator CTIC Dakar, introduces us to growth of tech entrepreneurship in little-fancied Senegal, and predicts what the future will look like in the West African nation.

Who is the Senegalese entrepreneur?

Real entrepreneurs are supposed to be a rare breed. In the most romanticised versions, they are the ones who decided they would not adapt to the system, but change it. They are the braves who gave up financial security in the hope of attaining financial greatness. They are what have made America what it is, some would even tell you they are the essence of what makes a life worth living: courage, initiative, intelligence, innovation, discovery etc. They make for the some of the greatest real life stories ever heard.

Most entrepreneurs I have seen are something else entirely. Most of them are, well, Senegalese. There is depth and humour in that phrase: Senegalese entrepreneurs. It means something, something special. I have the utmost respect for that group. I could tell you that Senegalese entrepreneurs are fantastic marketers, that they are aggressive, believe what they say even when it is not true, or totally unreal. Their approach is validated by the fact that there is no single model for commerce, people act according to a code that is universally known and effective: emotion. They will use this to convince you, they will also sometimes use it to fool.

Are they all aggressive? Obviously not. Everybody is different. The mere fact of trying to describe the Senegalese Entrepreneur is destined to fail. Some entrepreneurs are shy, others extremely honest. They believe in their reputation and in a work of quality. Several entrepreneurs from the informal sector offer products or services of a better quality than entrepreneurs from the formal sector. If you know where to look, you’ll even find entrepreneurs who ensure customer relationship management. There is an important distinction to be made between the rich people wearing fancy suits and gold watches and whose first word is final, and the hustlers in jeans and old shirts who walk and run around the city from dusk to dawn negotiating with you. The first ones are exceptions, the second ones are the wave. This article is about the wave. The wave is unequal, made of entrepreneurs honest and dishonest, rich and poor, nice or disagreeable, knowledgeable or ignorant, who share a common goal: to smash a market that looks like a steady cliff.

A hard job, a hard life

You get the point, don’t you? Some entrepreneurs are sharks, others are dolphins. My assessment is that most are both. They have a difficult job. Many have to start from scratch. Talk to a successful entrepreneur and ask him who supported him. Some will tell you their parents helped them, others might mention their friends. Very few will mention the state, or their bank.

They have grown outside the reach of a more formalised, perhaps westernised system, that some people might argue has never really helped anyone succeed in Senegal or in West Africa. Ideally, a government will create the structural reforms necessary for groups and individuals to flourish. Job creation is among the announced priorities of anyone running for election at any level, anywhere. Here, these structural changes have been awaited for a long time, and entrepreneurs are still waiting. Those who need them anyway. Most have learned to act without the help of the state. They are independent, another word for lonely.

Local entrepreneurs lack several things. One of these things is data. There is no real visibility on what the market is, let alone how it would react to a new product or to a new service. I never would’ve expected so many people to possess at least one mobile phone in Senegal. I never thought the movie theatre would go away either. The market is one that is hard to map and hard to analyse because of the way the country is organised, or rather disorganised.

Faced with this, many entrepreneurs decide to imitate, a mistake. Creativity remains a problem for a big majority of people who have been asked from an early age to memorise, apply, but very seldom think outside the box and invent. Most Senegalese entrepreneurs that I have met have trouble seeing what is not there. This is understandable given the fact that they seldom have the means to materialise the craziest ideas their imagination has come up with. There is no Senegalese brand of car, no airplane factory, because the necessary technological transfer has not occurred yet.

Faced with all these problems, they do something that is logical yet ultimately dangerous. They do what has worked elsewhere or just next door. They are also survivors, with bellies to feed and bills to pay, their situation is one of survival. They take a risk that cannot only be recorded financially. Here in Africa, more than anywhere else, an entrepreneur takes a huge human risk. They have a Damocles sword over their heads, and it is hard to dream when a bad move could mean eternal sleep. The reality of a Senegalese entrepreneur is mighty close to a nightmare.

A combination of factors is required to change that. Education is key. Creativity is a thought process, or non-process that is encouraged very early on. Traditional learning (which is largely dispensed in Senegal) cannot help develop that skill. The state is another key factor. Its role in making new technologies and human capital available is a role that no one else can assume.

Economic patriotism would obviously be helpful, that deserves an article of its own. Those who have succeeded have a unique platform for progress, for discovery and acquisition. They have a leverage that can make things available for the youth that were not there before. How many successful Senegalese entrepreneurs can boast having created tremendous opportunities for the local youth? How many have advanced the country’s agenda as much as their own? I could also tell you about the banks, who really have never really financed the local economy. All in all, a huge part of financing comes from NGOs and international partners, who make sizeable funds available through contests and applications. These help other exceptions, but the wave remains as it is, ignored by most, if not all. Until all the strengths are united and active and a framework for entrepreneurship is created, the wave will move itself up as much as it can, but the ocean will remain steady and frustrating.

What could Senegalese entrepreneurship look like?

Entrepreneurs can never be properly understood outside the context of their culture and usual behavioural patterns. They come from somewhere, they have a story, a history and their style goes back to their younger days, often influenced by their families or their neighborhoods. My first advice to someone trying to understand a Senegalese entrepreneur is the following: Learn about him. Who is he? Where did he grow up? What did he learn? Why is he an entrepreneur?

The boundary between the personal and professional life is extremely thin in this country. Almost as thin, but not quite, is the line between an entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur. The more the country evolves, the more we must ask the question of whether entrepreneurship can flourish here the same way it has flourished elsewhere. Can we afford to spend time thinking about solutions that do not improve lives? Can we think solely about making money rather than having an impact on our communities? Can we have an individualistic, capitalist approach? Some can, obviously. Some will make money shrewdly, in a way that does not benefit the overall community, some have and they are not to be blamed, this is a free country. But if a wave of entrepreneurship is to take place, if it is the key to job creation and employment, if it is going to take the youth forward, then Senegalese entrepreneurship has to be eminently social.

In the particular sector I work in, ICT, I have been exposed to a lot of “sectoral ICTs”. Information and Communication Technologies are a very vast field, with the potential of having an impact on nearly any sector, any industry, any business. Some of the best firms I have seen (not all of them) had a very social fibre in their core. By social, I do not mean free. And this is what people often get wrong about social entrepreneurship (or about socialism as a whole). It is not communism and is not based on the concept of a free meal.

Social entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship that provides individual gain as well as gains. ICTs have the potential of making tremendous changes across the whole spectrum of the Senegalese economic life. They do, however, take human resources of a new type, as well as sizable investments. In this field, more than in any other, you need people who know what they are doing and who know what the clients are doing. I always wondered why my $20 mobile phone contains a torchlight until I remembered than in rural areas (where electricity is scarce) they might be almost as useful as toilet paper. The new revolution is going to create new needs, but it is based on satisfying needs that are already there.

Similarly, familial entrepreneurship is something that is not looked at enough. I would argue that the natural local entrepreneurial pattern is familial. Trades and businesses have been transmitted from father to son during generations. I have been sold fruits and juices by the sons of shop owners. I see several of my friends from high school (most of them Lebanese) succeeding their fathers, mothers or uncles in managing a restaurant or a clothes store. With so many young people understanding technology, there might be a natural gateway to be found between old businesses and new practices. That is particularly true given the disappearance of necessary expertise. Quality plumbers, woodworkers etc. have become very hard to find, and professional learning is largely a myth nowadays. E or m-learning and applications increasing their availability and visibility have an important potential.

The wave will come

The wave of entrepreneurship is waiting for a storm that no single boat will trigger, but the consumption habits and the impact of globalization are as clear a sign as  the grey sky: It will come. It will not take over the same way it has taken over elsewhere. It will not go against the local culture, but drive it, the same way the current ideally drives you towards the shore when you have strayed too far in the water. Either that, or it will drown society as we have known it this far, some would argue it already has. With globalization,  But whatever the direction, the entrepreneurial storm will take place.

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Key players from Africa's startup and investment ecosystem post on issues close to their heart for Disrupt Africa.

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