Engaging African Diasporas Through Entrepreneurship

For entrepreneurs, motivation and ideas can come from anywhere.

Take Bridget Mbeng of the Mbeng Adio Mushroom Farm, an agricultural business that specializes in the cultivation of mushrooms in Cameroon and is the largest farm of its kind in Central Africa. Bridget’s entrepreneurial spark was ignited in large part due her family circumstances -- since the Mbeng family has no sons, Bridget was motivated to win the competition in order to honor her father and bring prosperity to her family name. Over the years we have seen how expanding businesses like the Mbeng Adio Mushroom Farm -- in emerging African economies and throughout the African diaspora -- have the most to benefit from accelerated business training and entrepreneurial competitions. 

Back in 2009 I helped to launch the first ever African Diaspora Marketplace (ADM) competition, a collaboration between Western Union and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that supports job creation in Africa, sustainable economic growth, and African diaspora entrepreneurs. Since its formation, ADM has held three business plan competitions that showcase promising African entrepreneurs with innovative and high-impact start-ups and I have had the privilege of serving as a juror for each of the competitions in 2010, 2012, and 2015.

Flash forward to September 15 of this year, when I had the opportunity to interview entrepreneurs and listen to pitches during the third year of the African Diaspora Marketplace business plan competition (ADM III) in Silver Spring, Maryland. I got to see their entrepreneurial spirit in action as they creatively promoted their businesses, from exporting and importing cereal and spices to widening access to medical services by harnessing mobile technology. 

Building on the success of previous competitions, ADM III targeted high-impact sectors in Africa, including agribusiness, renewable energy, and information and communication technology (ICT). During the event, fourteen U.S.-based entrepreneurs -- all immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa countries -- were awarded grant packages and start-up grants, and had the opportunity to access key support services such as technical assistance and business training from partner companies including Deloitte LLP, Homestrings Ltd, and the Minority Business Development Agency.

Regardless of their industry or nationality, the entrepreneurs all expressed gratitude for the rise in platforms such as ADM in connecting them with investors, lenders and other entrepreneurs across the African continent. As I heard their personal stories, a common thread emerged among the finalists: whether or not they were awarded final prizes, the competition itself endowed them with business planning and financial modeling skills that would propel them forward in future endeavors. Most importantly, they felt their entrepreneurial spirit ignited as a result of having merely participated.  

Serving as an ADM judge this year has been a reaffirmation that engaging with African diaspora -- by offering platforms for entrepreneurs to showcase their work -- is good diplomacy in action. When entrepreneurs are given the right platform, they can do so much more for diplomacy on the ground than governments can achieve formally.

Understanding the importance of this collaboration between the public and private sector, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Partnerships will celebrate diaspora engagement efforts such as the African Diaspora Marketplace during this year’s Global Diaspora Week (GDW) taking place from October 11-17. GDW is dedicated to diaspora communities and their contributions to global development. Almost 100 registered GDW events are planned over the course of this week with the aim of building awareness, enabling collaboration, and enhancing learning amongst those working with diaspora communities in different locations around the world. Our office is proud to support diaspora communities and leaders, especially entrepreneurs like Bridget and the ADM participants, who are sparking new ideas, ventures, and opportunities to collaborate with growing regional and global impact. 

About the author: Thomas Debass is the Deputy Special Representative for Global Partnerships at the U.S. Department of State

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Several participants pose for a photo at the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, Kenya [State Department Photo].
Posted by Thomas Debass
October 15, 2015

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