Uwem Uwemakpan

Uwem Uwemakpan is the VP, Fund Operations at Ingressive Capital, a venture capital firm focused on funding the next generation of African innovators across Sub-Saharan Africa. He is also a startup advisor and investor in early-stage startups who helps entrepreneurs gain the clarity they need to turn their passions into profitable businesses.

In this interview, Uwem explains how government, funders and private organisations can leverage on Nigeria’s human capital and innovation to address digital divide and spur economic growth.

The African youth has constantly been regarded as the continent’s greatest asset – both by industry experts, economists and global political leaders. In thirty years, it is expected to double to over 830 million. But, taking into cognisance issues of skill, limited access to funding and unemployment that still pervades the nation, how can Nigeria adequately harness the working-age population for a more robust, more inclusive development?

A more inclusive growth means consistent economic growth that creates new and improved employment opportunities, access to essential services in health and education for everyone, ensuring equal opportunities, and empowering people through education and skill development in order to increase the standard of living and reduce poverty. To achieve a more inclusive growth and reduce poverty, citizens, corporate organisations, funders and the government must actively participate in creating opportunities for gainful employment for the growing population and enhancing human capital.

For instance, the local unemployment rate currently stands at 33%, which means close to 23 million Nigerians are either unemployed or underemployed in 2021 – the youths account for about 14.3 million of this. While we can agree that the government is not expected to create jobs for everyone, it is necessary to have a suitable environment for entrepreneurship and innovation to thrive.

As you indicated, we are expected to reach more than 800 million by 2050 and Nigeria will double its current population by then. An agenda for inclusive growth requires that we intensify efforts to address the sources of the country’s fragility by adopting measures to improve security, ensuring macroeconomic stability, investing in human capital & physical infrastructure. We also have to build strong & effective institutions, strengthen the financial system by bringing everyone under the financial services net, adopt modern technology and spur innovation by facilitating structural transformation in the various sectors from agriculture to manufacturing, and from rural to urban.

Many touchpoints can sometimes focus on the well-educated, urban-located university graduates in an urban location with better amenities. Yet, how can we account for over 80% of Nigerians with limited education and are employed or under-employed in low-productivity informal-sector work? Is there a need to bring them into the conversation about the entrepreneurs of the future?

Interestingly, there have been several conceptual definitions of formality and informality, but one area that experts do agree with is that these distinctions should be made relative to state regulations and laws which may differ from country to country. Personally, I have a little grouse with the ‘low-productivity’ definition, and the subconscious perception of poverty attached to it. Simply, it also leads you to consider whether the issue is its informality, and what can one do to drive growth. But it is certain that we cannot talk about the socio-economic future of the country without discussing the rural-urban divide and creating solutions that transcend informality.

The informal economy comprises more than half of the global labour force and more than 90% of micro and small enterprises worldwide. In Nigeria, it is close to 48% of national GDP, 96% of businesses and 84% of employment. Absolutely, we cannot talk about the entrepreneurs of the future without engaging the rural economy, or generally, what some would refer to as the informal sector.

In recent years, technology and creative entertainment appear to be significant interests for young people, both in Africa and countries worldwide. Obviously, we have made inroads in some instances, but we have a long way to go to be on par with the first-world countries. So how can we achieve such goals through education and entrepreneurship?

I read an article last week that talks about how Nigeria can only celebrate Nollywood and Music as its major victories at 61 years. In certain cases, it might appear true, but it misses the full picture. Yes, the creative entertainment sector has grown to be a major part of the national GDP, but we have rapidly become a major partner for the entertainment sector in first-world countries. For example, Burna Boy, Davido and Wizkid had a remarkable 2020 – by anyone’s standards – and that has continued in 2021 with Wizkid, Tems, Ckay and Tiwa Savage. Motion picture and music recording accounted for roughly one percent of Nigeria’s GDP, roughly 1.8 billion U.S. dollars, and the world’s biggest companies are investing in African content – see the likes of Netflix, YouTube, Universal and Sony.

Technological expansion is also playing an essential role. The advances in media technology and the creative sector have changed how users access content, whether for information or entertainment. Content – and access to it – forms the bedrock of the creative economy, which is the system that turns ideas and creative works into profit, either for individuals, businesses or society. In addition, through wide-scaling market penetration, smart diversification, and the transformation of products into services, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google have reached market capitalizations well above $1.5 trillion. On its own, Africa already now has six unicorns – Andela, Flutterwave, Interswitch, Jumia, Chipper Cash, Fawry, so we have maintained a strong competition.

If we are to sustain and even improve on this, private organisations and policymakers have to understand that all new ideas and knowledge should be converted to profitable and useful products and services. We have to encourage and establish education for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship right from the very early stages of childhood because it has a vital role in enhancing students’ abilities that promotes business activities. Rather than trying to secure good results based on just theory, schools should function as innovation centres, with the support of lecturers and facilitators who can promote entrepreneurial ideas and products that contribute to societal change.

The name Startup itself implies that it is started from scratch, with the only option to grow (or die) soon. How would you describe the mindset of the average Nigerian entrepreneur, especially in understanding what it means to start and sustain a small business within a challenging environment?

The average Nigerian entrepreneur is energetic, creative and understands that we can escape poverty through hardwork and creating value. However, this has led to more ‘poor quality’ entrepreneurs because they lack the necessary orientation and training to build sustainable businesses. Unfortunately, major parts of our classroom education cannot address market realities, partnerships, pitching and how to manage a business in challenging times. Unfortunately, it has led to many young entrepreneurs closing down their businesses, or switching to a new one as soon as they experience just the smallest challenge possible.

As the co-director of Startup Grind Lagos, a group with the largest number of startup entrepreneurs on the continent, how would you describe the importance of collaboration and partnership in the startup ecosystem?

By working collaboratively, companies and brands can share information, resources and build healthy market relationships. The supply chain of work to get a product into the market is quite long, especially for a startup. The more moving parts required to get work done, the more chance there is of creating confusion, rework, variance and other inefficiencies. For big businesses, it has long been difficult to keep pace with the innovation of smaller businesses and nimbler startups. As a result, corporations are fiercely working to find ways to encourage innovation through innovation labs, building disruptive cultures, or hiring chief innovation officers.

While these shifts have helped and have enabled big companies to establish cultures of innovation, the only known remedy is structured communication and collaboration across the supply chain. When done correctly, they can be mutually beneficial and can help both parties develop, gain a competitive advantage, and ensure long-term success. It is no longer optional, it is a strategic imperative to encourage partnerships and collaboration.

Startup Grind talks about educating, inspiring and connecting entrepreneurs. Can you describe it in practical terms, especially by touching on the group activities?

Our programs, which are the Startup Summit, the Europe Conference and the Global Conference, are designed to bring together the best startups and scaleups from around the globe and to help them get the education, access and exposure they need to help scale their business via the power of networking.

We host a lot of events. But more than that, Startup Grind is a community. We bring like-minded yet diverse individuals together to connect, learn, teach, help, build, and belong. We do this daily through our local events, flagship conferences, startup membership, partner membership, student and investor programs, and online media + content – collectively reaching over 3.5 million individuals worldwide.

What is the long-term goal of the organisation, and what are the available means to secure external support in order to achieve them – funding, collaboration, innovation, etc.?

Today, Startup Grind is the world’s largest community of startups, founders, innovators, and creators with over 600 chapters, 1,700+ team members, over 5million community members worldwide, and currently exists in over 125 countries. We strongly believe our investment in community-building is what drives our startups toward continued success.

We want to change the world one startup at a time, and what makes us truly different is our commitment to global citizenship, and our goal to lead by example in this space. As Global Citizens, we take pride in knowing our global presence in every community has a direct impact on the livelihoods of the people living there.

By extension, how would you describe the role of Startup Grind, and other organisations like it, for the socio-economic status of African countries and the citizens?

Every country needs ideas, innovations and entrepreneurs to keep the society moving forward, not just economically but equitably. Start-ups also need an innovation-driven environment to truly thrive– a community of like-minded people. These networks can be a valuable source of mentorship, collaboration, learning, job creation and investment. Startup communities are typically subsets of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, which in turn, are subsets of innovation ecosystems, the economy, and society. Africa’s startup communities are very inter-connected, adaptive and heavily localised. Sometimes, they can function as accelerators and incubators.

In addition, the partnerships and conversations in start-up communities help to sustain innovation, and they help entrepreneurs with long-term perspectives. Long-term communities of support and knowledge-sharing between diverse actors play a key role in urban innovation ecosystems. While it is tempting for large players like government and corporations to favour a top-down approach, start-ups require a bottom-up approach with start-up founders at the centre, and we have seen this work effectively over the years.

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