Emma Sinclair: Planting entrepreneurial seeds

Entrepreneur Emma Sinclair, the youngest person to float a company on the London Stock Exchange, was selected by UNICEF to become the first UK Business Mentor to take part in the Building Young Futures programme run in partnership with Barclays. The programme aims to help young people become entrepreneurs. Emma reflects on her recent trip […]


Entrepreneur Emma Sinclair, the youngest person to float a company on the London Stock Exchange, was selected by UNICEF to become the first UK Business Mentor to take part in the Building Young Futures programme run in partnership with Barclays. The programme aims to help young people become entrepreneurs. Emma reflects on her recent trip to rural Zambia under the programme.

Youth unemployment is arguably one of the biggest challenges the world is facing today and the stats are terrifying: 1.2bn adolescents stand at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood – a world where they are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Africa, with the youngest population in the world, of course knows this only too well; it has approximately 200m young people aged between 15 and 24.

As an entrepreneur I see this as potential – young people who can become a demographic dividend. But how and what role can my world play in this? It was this challenge that interested me and made me seize the opportunity to become a part of the Building Young Futures programme. I visited Zambia to see the issue first hand. I knew that whilst I had little local knowledge, I do have a treasure chest of business know-how to go some way towards addressing that imbalance, as well as a keen desire to see what role technology and entrepreneurship, two topics close to my heart, were playing in job creation.

 Emma Sinclair 3

So that is how I found myself addressing tech start-ups in the US’s famous Silicon Valley – Palo Alto at DEMO a few weeks ago, lecturing to MBA graduates at the London Business School the week after that and standing in the middle of a small village on eastern border of Zambia the week after that.

I was there to witness young people passing through a programme now in its sixth year, which offers enterprise training, support, mentoring, advice and access to finance skills in a way any young business person in any country and at any age might wish to have access to: a mini MBA, if you like. The programme is focused on giving young people the skills to set up their own businesses, which I was fascinated to see because I often ask what it is that make some people successful entrepreneurs and others not. Can a programme teach everyone to be an entrepreneur?

As the first Business Mentor that UNICEF and Barclays have sent to see the Building Young Futures programme in person, I was to join in those sessions, take the time to visit businesses already up and running and give one-to-one advice on any and every challenge or goal those business owners may have. And of course it often takes fresh eyes to bring fresh perspectives so I hoped I might come up with some innovative ideas to make the programme even more robust.

Can anyone be an entrepreneur?
Before I left for Zambia I questioned the validity of the programme because not everyone is, in my opinion, designed to be an entrepreneur. Some of us have an appetite for risk, ability in sales and indeed an idea we believe is worth supporting. Others don’t and work better with direction, prefer hierarchy and aren’t wired to build a business.

Entrepreneurship has become something of an opaque cult in my book. Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, thinking that being the boss means outsourcing your work and reaping profits when, in fact, it means working three times as hard, doing 10 people’s jobs and often, with little safety net, no pension and no infrastructure. Plenty of us know the reality of that misconception but it has set a tone for the definition of what it means to be an entrepreneur.

Of course, the young people that Barclays and the government are working with are not the ones who watch The Apprentice, or Dragons’ Den or any popular TV show focused on business. But success matters – in fact, it’s vital. Nurturing entrepreneurship can transform lives, enabling young people to embrace the economic potential around them and becoming engines for change in their communities.

I learnt that almost anyone can be an entrepreneur – which genuinely surprised me. When faced with difficult challenges, people with skill sets and personalities I would never have identified as being entrepreneurial, were being just that.

Unicef and Barclays share the belief that investing in young people is critical and at no time more important than during adolescence – a pivotal life stage when poverty and inequalities can pass from one generation to the next. With 50% of the population of Zambia under the age of 20, and a predicted 130,000+ youths entering the job market each year, entrepreneurship represents the best choice for many of those the programme supports, who seek a positive and stable future. But whilst the potential is there – there is no doubt that support is needed.

But where to start in a country where despite steady economic growth, there are low levels of education coupled with incompatible skills, disparate infrastructure, limited access to technology and many other things I, as a Westerner, have come to rely on?

Entrepreneurialism is a universal language
My first question and answer session in a small schoolroom in a rural village reassured me. As I told my story and talked about how to grow businesses, arms shot up around me keen to ask questions. I quickly saw that entrepreneurism is a universal language, a language that provided a context and forum for us all to connect and resonate with because – even though I had a bigger safety net – I too started from nothing, invested all my resources into my business and at times lived on debt and risk. We all had something in common.

Questions were not dissimilar to those asked anywhere in the world: ‘How do I obtain finance, what’s the best way to market to an audience on a limited budget, how do I find a business idea and how do I win more customers?’.

I met Kenneth Mwaza, who’s turning his life around. From selling illegal charcoal by the side of the road, he’s now running a market garden business, he has enough fruit and vegetables to ensure his family can eat a varied diet, is selling the surplus at the local market and is also negotiating small but significant deals with supermarkets which, until recently, would have been inconceivable. This is allowing him to save to send his son to school and – as he put it – finally gives him options and ensures his son will have a life less arduous than his.

Training and support has taught him to plan, budget, diversify and the importance of crop rotation; he now even has a bank account, which he is using to save and use the funds to buy processing machinery.

He’s identified business opportunities that are stimulating his local economy, and it doesn’t stop there. He is inspiring friends and neighbours to join the programme and has visions of setting up a village cooperative. He sees solutions not problems, identifies goals and works towards them – and is mobilising a village to do the same through his actions and success. This is about creating jobs and ensuring people can be self-sufficient. Simple lessons are broadening the chances for success and business is transforming lives.

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I can relate to that because that’s what my father did for me. He worked hard to feed our family and specifically to afford me an education so that I had choices and opportunities and access. That is what his father wanted to do for him. That is exactly what the young business owners I met are doing. Working to give themselves and their families choices.

In the words of the Permanent Secretary of Zambia’s Eastern Region, Dr Chileshe Mulenga,“There is so much potential: the sky is the limit not least because there are so many low-lying fruits which people can just pick up.”

Encouraging young people to embrace the economic growth that Zambia needs through picking up fruit which typically falls to the ground to rot is another definition of entrepreneurship. There is nothing wrong with focusing on low-lying fruit, there is nothing wrong with starting small and there is nothing wrong with starting at the bottom. I did it – it was a starting block and a step towards where I find myself now – and it is as good an education and training as any. Limited downside. Plenty of upside.

Networking and tech: Zambia style
The rules of business remain the same wherever you are and networking is at the heart of it. By bringing young people together for training and encouraging them to set up peer-to-peer support networks, Building Young Futures itself embraces this. Young people like Oliver Jere and Ernest Daka, who met on the Building Young Futures programme gained the skills they needed to evolve their existing barber shop and chicken-rearing business respectively and they have decided to undertake a three-year mechanics degree together with the goal of opening a garage together.

Whilst connecting young people with mentors to help them achieve their goals, training also encourages them to go out into their communities and find similar businesses and people to learn from. As Isobel Kachinda, one young tailor, explained, “I started networking. Every weekend I go somewhere and I introduce myself as a tailor. Sometimes I observe from the background. Then I become active. I go to the other markets and see what the other tailors make.”

For those of us who don’t have access to LinkedIn, Xing or Weibo, an approach like this is vital. And as something of a techie, I wanted to see what part technology plays in this process, given the numbers of young people the programme is able to reach and the fact that there are so many more who need advice and can benefit from its ripple effect.

My business, EnterpriseJungle, focuses on search and discovery. An application that sits within large enterprise to help employees find access to knowledge, information or opportunity they otherwise would not know existed, it brings social applications to the business environment, helping individuals find information, knowledge or people to help them with their query.

The challenge is finding capabilities in an organisation and we make it easier to know who to ask. ‘Who knows someone who can…?’, ‘Has anyone worked on…?’, ‘Can anyone explain…?’. The old premise that the answer is always in the room remains, but in a large enterprise, as within the Zambian countryside, it can be challenging to find the right person with knowledge, connections, experience or networks to assist.

An SAP (the world’s third-largest software company) partner, EnterpriseJungle solves this challenge, having created a product that sits within the apps employees are using that has recently gone to market. If you need to find an answer in a large enterprise, our technology can help. Zambia reminded me of a large enterprise: a dispersed population, silos of knowledge, a lack of access and a need for answers. The Building Young Futures training model and the Barclays and Unicef teams are determined to be the important networking glue that exists to enable these businesses to flourish, connects them to the people who can help them – like local government, and youth funds. Bridging divides, tracking people and staying in touch with isolated groups. That’s a necessity in a large country with a small and very disparately located population – and also because it works.

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UNICEF is also exploring how technology can help with this. I witnessed U-Report, a pilot project where anyone can text a counsellor at no cost. Initially set up for health purposes – so people could ask questions about HIV/AIDS or STDs – we experimented with a new idea when I arrived. What if we used this already-established network of 63,000 users to offer support on questions relating to business? That’s smart and entrepreneurial.

I sat in the U-Report office and answered hundreds of questions on business; messages were sent from all corners of Zambia to me. They were motivational responses, factual information or just a demonstration that someone is there to help. Networks such as mobile telephony are changing how UNICEF can reach isolated kids – often linking them back to programmes like Building Young Futures for help on the ground.

Tech and networking was blossoming everywhere and, frankly, I was relieved. Businesses ranged from Oliver with his phone-charging service in his barber shop, Sam turning a corner of his barber shop into an internet café, to Mercy Mbewe Banda with her wedding shop and a mini serviced office where she offers internet access, printing and photocopying behind massive white wedding dresses. And her pièce de résistance to prove business is booming: a new printer with edible ink so she can take photos and print them onto wedding cakes which (alongside running events, lending clothes and running her office…) she makes herself.

No one can tackle youth unemployment alone. It needs to be a partnership comprised of government, INGOs and business and I hope someone like me can bring a fresh voice and different perspective to this programme in the same way I can for a business. I often cite the quote ‘entrepreneurship is the last bastion of the trouble-making individual’. But in this case, it’s good trouble making that I am proud to be a part of, with an INGO and finance powerhouse doing what they do best.

The Man Who Planted Trees
One of my favourite books is The Man who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. A short tale, it recounts the proverb of an old shepherd who spent his life pushing acorns into the soil of the hills surrounding him, in the hope that one day the lifeless landscape would bear a forest.

Zambia has its own version: a Bemba proverb: “Imiti ikula empanga”, meaning today’s shrubs are tomorrow’s forests. The people I met are doing exactly that. Like the Building Young Futures students, we all have aspirations: a seed which we nurture in the hope that it will sprout and bear fruit and continue to grow until, eventually, we have a forest at our feet.

A bank, an INGO, a government and an entrepreneur watering those seeds, together tackling the barren valleys of youth unemployment. Planting seeds that will bear fruit that will feed people, employ people, help educate future generations and stimulate economies.

African teens are some of the most enterprising in the world; all they need is a little help to turn into the entrepreneurs that are changing the face of Africa.

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