Hosted by Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma, the four-hour entrepreneurial talent show had all the production values of The Apprentice.
But the glitzy televised extravaganza, in which 10 contestants battled for $1m in prize money in front of a boisterous audience, took place neither in the US nor China. The action unfolded instead on a stage in Ghana, the first of what is set to be an Africa-wide annual contest as one of China’s best known businessmen scours the continent for younger versions of himself.
“Every time I come to Africa, the most impressive thing is the young people. On their face you see the energy, the passion, the confidence for the future,” Mr Ma said in Accra, Ghana’s capital, adding that Africa today reminded him of China when he was setting out. Mr Ma is the former executive chairman of China’s biggest online commerce company.
“When I started Alibaba in China, very few people knew about the internet,” he said of the company he co-founded in Hangzhou in 1999. “Today, most entrepreneurs in Africa are like those in China 20 years ago: no background, no money, no technology. The obstacles they’re going to face are unbelievably big. But they don’t wait: they create conditions.”
Mr Ma came up with the idea of the $1m prize — and the Africa Netpreneur television show to go with it — after meeting young Kenyan entrepreneurs on his first trip to the continent as a special adviser to the UN agency Unctad in 2017.
Jason Pau, a senior adviser at the Jack Ma Foundation, said Mr Ma, who had met entrepreneurs in dozens of countries, had never seen anything quite like it. Instead of “having dollar signs in their eyes”, he said, the young people he encountered were bent on solving real-world problems: water, farming, infrastructure, health and education. “He looked at them and thought there’s real, real drive there.”
The Netpreneur show is due to be broadcast in mid-December on two channels with a pan-African presence, South Africa’s DStv and StarTimes, a Chinese media company. During the filming, Mr Ma sat on a raised dais next to three fellow judges including Strive Masiyiwa, the billionaire Zimbabwean founder of telecoms and media company Econet Wireless, and Joe Tsai, executive vice-chairman of Alibaba.
Ten young people, selected from almost 10,000 entries from 50 countries, pitched ideas on stage in Accra. They included online platforms offering healthy food and Africa-inspired fashion, an Egyptian company enabling scientific collaboration and a Rwandan business making branded shoes from used tyres.
The winner was Temie Giwa-Tubosun, founder of LifeBank, which delivers blood to hospitals for mothers with post-partum haemorrhage. Ms Giwa-Tubosun, 33, who returned to her native Nigeria from the US after surviving a 26-hour breech birth, said she had decided to start a business rather than a charity after working in the NGO sector. “I’ve seen important programmes wind down because of fading interest,” she said.
Aubrey Hruby, co-founder of the Africa Expert Network, said many African entrepreneurs thought Mr Ma — and Chinese investors more generally — should put more money into African tech.
The amount of venture capital invested in the African tech sector, while low by global standards, has been accelerating, with $1.2bn flowing in last year, according to Partech Ventures, and almost $400m going into Nigerian fintech in November alone. Ms Hruby said the amounts were similar to those in south-east Asia five or six years ago and could ramp up rapidly.
There has been a trickle of Chinese money into tech. Chinese venture capital firms Hillhouse Capital and Crystal Stream this year led a $20m-plus funding round for Kenya-based trucking logistics company, Lori Systems, while OPay, an Africa-focused, Chinese-backed payments system, raised $120m this month from investors including Sequoia Capital China.
Speculation has linked Alibaba with a possible takeover of Jumia, an Africa-focused ecommerce platform whose value has slumped since an initial public offering valued it at more than $1bn in April.
But Mr Pau said that, rather than investing, Mr Ma was interested in education. “It’s like a masterclass on steroids,” he said, referring to the show.
Alibaba has dipped its toe into Africa with its eWTP hub for small and medium enterprises in Rwanda, which enables coffee farmers from the central African country to market directly to Chinese consumers.
Last week, the Jack Ma Foundation inaugurated something similar in Ethiopia. “We definitely won’t be establishing Alibaba Africa with 1,000 employees in the near future,” Mr Pau said. “But I frankly don’t think it’s going to be too long before we start to do things in Africa.”