Silicon Insider: Africa, Land of Entrepreneurs

Just getting in touch with Moses is tough these days -- his rickety old car finally broke down forever, and he has to take a bus two hours into Lusaka just to answer e-mail -- but he soldiers on. And his life's work, Children's Town, is an oasis of hope on a struggling continent.

Moses accomplishes extraordinary things on a minuscule budget -- and the tragedy is how little it would take for him to do so much more: -- just 1,000 feet of electrical cable, for example, would quadruple the production of the farm and make Children's Town almost entirely self-sufficient.

Indeed, the more you travel around southern Africa, the more you appreciate that the real problem -- beyond even the corrupt governments, tribalism and legacies of colonialism -- is a shortage of capital.

Is Africa a Lost Cause?

There seems to be a commonly held assumption in the West that Africa is a lost cause. Battered by poverty, disease, civil war and cultural handicaps, Africans seem to have no hope of ever building the kind of strong economies they need to escape their morass. Every year seems to bring yet another famine or disaster, and calls for rich Westerners to give money -- followed a few months later by stories of how almost none of the aid reached those in need but instead wound up in the pockets of crooked politicians.

Almost every pessimistic thing you can say about the economies of southern Africa is true. And yet, you only have to drive through any city in Zambia or Botswana or South Africa -- or merely drive down any dirt road past the millions of tiny villages like Kawaza -- and you see something extraordinary: Africa, like India or China, is a land of shopkeepers, of small-time entrepreneurs. Anybody who has a few extra mangoes from a tree or a couple pairs of Nikes or a handwoven grass rug -- or even some bootleg DVDs -- will set up a stand by the road and try to sell them. An open field by a crossroads springs up with a dozen wooden stalls selling haircuts, whiskey, T-shirts.

The entrepreneurial urge, often driven by necessity, is everywhere -- and with it all the tricks of marketing, promotion and competitive pricing. It may look pretty skuzzy (and sometimes scary) to us, but it is the real deal -- and the ambitions, desires and attitudes of these entrepreneurs are no different from those found in Silicon Valley or Bangalore. As Moses Zulu has shown, in social (rather than commercial) entrepreneurship, the real innovations take place in struggling economies like those of southern Africa.

I would even argue that, given the obstacles they face, the small businessmen and women of southern Africa are among the best in the world.

Startups Without Investment Capital

The problem is not a shortage of will in Africa, but a shortage of money. And no, I don't mean the Bono/LiveAid give-millions-to-the-hungry approach. We already know that doesn't work. Neither do I mean the World Bank brute force approach, with its emphasis on giant projects and its casual attitude toward corrupt officials.

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