“There’s a very special spirit that’s alive in Nigerians …” – Jean Case
Social activist, philanthropist, entrepreneur, and CEO of the Case Foundation, Jean Case has great admiration for the “Nigerian hustle”, and is very excited about the future of Africa. Jean Case is deeply passionate about the world changing potential of technology, and is a pioneer in the world of interactive technologies. She and her husband founded the Case Foundation in 1997, after dedicating almost 20 years of her career in the private sector, eight of which she spent working at AOL.
Ventures Africa had the privilege of joining her and her husband in their first and recent visit to Nigeria, accompanied by the very hard-working Case Foundation team. In this interview, Jean talks the huge potential of the Nigerian market, the unique challenges of different African entrepreneurial ecosystem, and taking risks in business.
VA: Can you please tell me how your experience has been in Nigeria.
JC: Our experience in Nigeria has been really remarkable. We try to make it clear at every stop, how impressed we are, and inspired by the innovation that we are seeing, and the spirit of the Nigerian people. We have great admiration for the Nigerian hustle that has been very much alive. You know I have also tried to underscore that the other area that is very impressive here, is the degree of participation by women in the entrepreneurial sector. Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve seen amazingly talented strong women really bringing it and building some really great new enterprise.
VA: Steve has mentioned a couple of times … Africa as a problem versus Africa as an opportunity. Can you please explain that?
JC: Sure. I will say that’s a really big change, and when we say we, we think the world has looked at Africa as more of a problem that has to be solved instead of an opportunity to be seized. And I think things have really turned dramatically for us on this trip. Quite honestly, the reason we came is because we believed Africa has an opportunity to be seized, and we have seen some of the innovation that is going to enable that even before we hit the ground. But we are more convinced than ever before as President Obama said, that Africa is on the move, and we’re really excited by it.
VA: So you’ve had several meetings with entrepreneurs and investors in Nigeria. What did you take out of these meetings?
JC: I just want underscore that the whole reason we are here is to listen and learn. So, if I reflect back to you, I’m really trying to reflect back what we heard from people on the ground here. So not so much my opinion, I’m certainly not an expert after only a few days on the ground here in Nigeria. But there were some very common themes. And I think the importance of yesterday morning you know, was a diverse group of both investors and entrepreneurs, and the themes were coming out pretty clearly, that there are some challenges here with regard to capital, that there are some challenges here with regard to developing talent that can actually fuel these new businesses. And in some cases there aren’t networks in place where networks could help lift one another, and this is where of course we have used the African proverb time and time again. Which is of course, if you want to go fast, you go alone; if you want to go far, you must go together. So, we are hoping that some of the collaborations and convening that have taken place will actually carry on after we are gone. That was what the morning did. Then the afternoon really solidly underscored the strong social innovation that’s at work here. And being at CC Hub here also underscores that we are most excited by the new enterprises that are not just building future profitable companies, but that are addressing social challenges as part of their core product and service that they are bringing to the world.
VA: Yesterday at the breakfast meeting with entrepreneurs, you mentioned that you’ve been studying the ecosystem in Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria. Are these entrepreneurial ecosystem different?
JC: They are each very very different.
VA: How are they different?
JC: I think Kenya has a recognised lead somewhat in the IT sector. And of course we’ve already seen some really great new innovations break out of Kenya; M-Pesa, and as you know, M-Kopa where we visited is also in Ghana. I think most folks recognize that the IT sector in Kenya is pretty strong, and there’s a strong entrepreneurial spirit at work. In Ghana, we saw something similar. I think Ghana face some pretty unique challenges just in terms of regulatory and sort of the role of the government there. But again, we saw some really terrific start-ups on the ground there. And then coming to Nigeria, I will say that there’s a very special spirit that’s alive in Nigerians that I think … very well for the ability to build great enterprises. And part of the reason for that is that I think that the spirit is one of partnership. I think that the spirit is one of great optimism. And that will help in terms of perseverance in sort of going forward and taking their enterprises to the next level.
VA: Where do you see start-ups, entrepreneurship, and investing in Nigeria in the next 10 to 15 years?
JC: I think it would be very strong. We just talked about the spirit of the Nigerian people, but of course the most obvious thing is the potential size of the Nigerian market. It’s huge, and it’s largely untapped. And so I think that we would see investors come to Nigeria largely because of the market opportunity. And part of our job is to go back and really tell the story of the innovation that is alive here and the new enterprises that are being built. But you know, we very much feel for the Nigerian entrepreneurial sector because not only are they having to build enterprises but in many cases create sectors that don’t exist.
VA: Yes, like trash to cash WeCyclers.
JC: Correct. Like the recycling that we just saw is one example. But we saw this time and time again. For instance, when we were in Ghana, we met with the fashion entrepreneurs, there is an informal fashion sector, but they are really trying to make it something significant. So in each place we’ve been, there are multiple challenges, but there are also really terrific opportunities. There are many entrepreneurs in the United States who would love to seize the opportunity to create a new sector and be an early leader in that sector. And that’s very much alive here.
VA: So, what has been your highlight here so far? I know you have a couple of highlights, but what has been the most interesting part of your visit to Nigeria?
JC: First of all, just meeting with the people. And we think maybe in the days we’ve been on ground, and of course we are not done yet, we’ve probably met easily a few hundred of both entrepreneurs and investors. You’ve witnessed that in your travel with us.
JC: We’ve heard a lot of really great stories. I think that in some ways it will be like saying, “who is your favourite child?” But, I especially loved our meeting with the social entrepreneurs yesterday at lunch, the impact leaders meeting. I love being here at CC-Hub for the same reason, we are all about social innovation. And quite honestly, I really loved being at Andela today, because I think the picture of Africa is not a picture of unbelievably brilliant coders, and that is what Andela is bringing to the world. Many of them, women, and that is the new face of Africa, and so for that reason, it really was a favourite.
VA: In our interview with Steve at Kenya, he talked about following gut instincts as an entrepreneur and investor. Has there been a time when you both felt strongly about a business, invested in it, yet it didn’t work out?
JC: Sure. But that’s not only true in entrepreneurial businesses, that’s also been true in the social sector, more broadly. Even in the Case Foundation, in our granting work, we like to take risks because we are driving towards innovation. And as I said earlier today, anytime you are focused on innovation, you are taking risks. And when you’re taking risks, we just don’t see progress without some failure. The road is strewn with failures before you breakout and find the solutions typically. So yes, we have seen them both in our investments, and we have seen them in our granting business as well. But we are committed to staying in the game to basically find innovations. And we’re accepting of that kind of risks, and we want to be in that space.
VA: On the significance of passion in entrepreneurship and start-ups, should every passion be business centred or focused?
JC: I’m not sure every passion should be made into a business, but I’m definitely sure you can use your passion to change the world. And I think for some it’s going to mean starting a new enterprise, and for others, it might be joining a new enterprise even if you’re not the founder. Some will actually, and we see this in the United States, even in established businesses that are desperate for innovation, we see some people taking their passion into these big businesses and helping them reinvent themselves. And of course in the social sector, whether its government, or whether it’s non-profit and philanthropies, there’s tons of room for people with great passion. We need to call everyone with passion to change the world. To any sector where there is a great need for a new vision. You know there is one of my favourite quotes coming from an American comedian, and she said, “I looked at that and I thought somebody should do something about that. And then I realised I am somebody.” And I think if everyone brings that spirit to what they care about in this world, and the passion they bring, and they apply to go do great things, we’ll have a better world.
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