Billionaire Alibaba Founder and Executive Chairman, Jack Ma, launched the Jack Ma Foundation Netpreneuer Prize yesterday in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The prize is a $10 Million grant that will be won by small businesses working to grow the continent’s digital economy. These will compete for $1 million in prize money every year for the next 10 years.
During his speech, Jack Ma gave all indications that he is now ready to bet on Africa and for the long term. This is despite the fact that he had no interest in the continent a few years ago.
"Last year was my first trip to Africa, but before I came to Africa, I worried a lot like anybody else," Ma said. Yet, he used the opportunity to announce that from now onwards, he will be visiting at least 3 African countries every year.
"From now on, every year, I will come to Africa and visit three countries," Ma pointed out, and hopes that in the next 10 to 15 years he "can finish visiting the 54 countries in Africa." Which is the entire continent!
Jack Ma says that his attitude towards Africa has changed over time after interacting with the young entrepreneurs doing work across the continent. He says that these "inspired" him and made him realize that "Africa is a continent full of opportunities."
Jack Ma visited Africa for the very first time last year and toured Kenya, Somalia as well as Rwanda. This time around, he toured Ethiopia, Botswana and South Africa. On his first trip, he was impressed by the fast wifi in Nairobi which he said was faster than in some parts of the US.
Yet, that wasn't all the e-commerce, logistics and payments enthusiast realized about the continent. He saw a lot of opportunities unexplored on the continent and decided something must be done.
"When I left Africa last year, I felt that something should be done. And a lot of things can be done," Ma said.
So far, Jack Ma's support has come in form of the Alibaba eFounders Initiative that they are running with the UNCTAD - The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
Also read: These are the Ugandan startups in Hangzhou participating in Alibaba’s eFounders Initiative
He committed to supporting 1000 entrepreneurs from Developing countries and 200 of these will come from Africa. So far, around 80 have been admitted in two cohorts of the eFounders Fellowship.
The other step Jack Ma has taken is the $10 Million prize by his foundation. Though, he believes that it is "little money" compared to what governments spend as well as what entrepreneurs are capable of doing.
"This Netpreneur prize is the beginning. The $10 Million prize is nothing. It is not big compared to the other people like governments that spend," Jack said.
He also offered to grant access to both Alibaba and Alipay's technologies to all governments and entrepreneurs who are looking to build solutions solving e-commerce, logistics and payments problems.
"You don't have ePayment, the technology is there. Alibaba will do anything to share the technology," Jack Ma
Additionally, Jack Ma - when asked a question about the outdated curriculum on the continent - he expressed his willingness to work with Universities. This will surround e-commerce and cloud computing. Topics Jack Ma believes should be well understood across the continent.
"[What] we want to do in Africa is we are thinking about having training centers in Africa. We are gonna have five hubs for training centers. We are gonna be happy to work with universities. We let universities have [an] understanding of e-commerce and cloud computing."
After all this, he hopes that his company - Alibaba - can come in a few decades later and takes a "small" part of what they would have helped build.
"We hope 10 to 20 years later when Africa is successful, we can get a tiny [part of the market]."
He also pointed out the areas where he thinks opportunities still exist; tourism, payments, and logistics.
These are also indicated in the type of ventures admitted into the Alibaba eFounders Fellowship. Most - if not all - were from those sectors; Flutterwave, RoundBob, Intership and more.
Plus, Jack Ma first paid a visit to Cape Town before Johannesburg. There he awarded 50 rangers and said that such people should be hailed as the heroes of today. Further showing his commitment to tourism on the continent.
"200 years ago people killing animals were the heroes, now people protecting animals should be the heroes," Ma said.
Throughout his speech, Ma gave his usual self-belief and hope-filled advice to the entrepreneurs across the continent. That ranged from building the products, patience, embracing challenges as well as seeing the opportunities around them.
"People say Africa has a lot of problems, but tell me a place in the world without problems?" Ma pointed out. Adding that entrepreneurs should be used to having no government or any form of support.
"[If] people help you, that is unusual. [If] people don't want to help you, that is very usual," Ma said. "You have to get used to not being supported. When you're lonely, use your left hand to warm your right hand."
But, he also advised governments to focus on giving startups good conditions especially when it comes to taxation.
"Everyone country in this world should give good tax conditions to startups, not the big companies," he pointed out. Adding that "it is time to get policies for startup and young companies."
He also encouraged entrepreneurs to think outside the box by building products that will scale beyond their countries and the continent.
"Do not think about your own country. Think about the whole [of] Africa and the rest of the world. If you only think about your own country, there's no difference between thinking about your own country and your village."