The 12th annual MEDays International Forum brought some 4500 participants—heads of state, government officials, entrepreneurs, and investors— together last week in Tangier, Morocco. The forum, often dubbed the African Davos, was organized this year by Moroccan think tank Amadeus around the broad theme “The Global Distrust Crisis: Facing Subversion and Uncertainties”. Attendees participated in some 30 debates and workshops on a wide range of subjects, from crafting sustainable energy policies to empowering African women.
This year’s forum shone a particular light on the progress made in recent years by Senegal, which event organizers Amadeus dubbed a “bulwark and beacon for the world.” Senegalese President Macky Sall was MEDAys’ guest of honour, serving as honorary president of this year’s gathering and receiving the forum’s Grand Prize “in recognition for his commitment to the development of his country and the consolidation of peace and stability in Africa”.
“Nations must […] make their first priority assuring equality and good quality of life among their populations”, Sall remarked about his award. “In this emerging Africa, our countries should not be spoils for the taking in global competition, but rather active participants who understand and defend their own interests. In this emerging Africa, there is no room for exclusiveness and exclusion.”
Granting this year’s award to Macky Sall was particularly appropriate given that Senegal has launched some pioneering initiatives in a number of the areas discussed at the MEDays conference. MEDays participants paid particular attention this year to boosting Africa’s entrepreneurship credentials—panels debated how Africa could become a network of “start-up nations” and how the continent’s policymakers could support African entrepreneurs & help SMEs get off the ground.
Earlier this year, the Sall administration embarked on a national programme to train some 100,000 entrepreneurs, and relaxed regulations to facilitate the creation of a small to medium size enterprise (SME) in just 48 hours. Targeting mainly women and young people under 40, the scheme is part of a plan to make Senegal the largest incubation centre in West Africa. Senegal has already begun to reap the fruit of its investment in female entrepreneurs: the digital sector alone has borne a wealth of innovations, including barcode health cards, mobile apps for victims of violence and an online legal platform for Senegalese users.
For many, the success of the country’s entrepreneurial schemes comes as little surprise. “Entrepreneurship in Senegal has been female forever,” explained Awa Dia, Senegalese businesswoman and member of the Women’s Investment Club which provides private equity for businesses led or started by women. “The problem is knowing how to make it grow.”
Speakers at MEDays echoed these issues surrounding funding, noting that female entrepreneurs and SMEs particularly struggle to access the resources they need to expand their businesses. Nigerian entrepreneur Irene Ochem highlighted the cultural and structural barriers that have kept many African women from clinching investments, and Fatima Maado Bio—the first lady of Sierra Leone—gave a vehement speech calling for African women to have equal access to education and financial institutions.
“How much work can a person do with only one arm?” Maado Bio asked. “How much development is possible in Africa, and how fast can we develop in Africa when women are not given opportunities to reach their full potential and contribute equally to national development?”
Meanwhile, panelists at a session on African business underscored how poor human capital and corruption have slowed the flood of foreign investment into African SMEs. Senegal has provided an example in how to address these gaps, mounting an anti-corruption drive and stepping in to fund promising projects itself. In addition to launching a US$50 million La Délégation Générale à l’Entreprenariat Rapide (DER) fund dedicated to fostering inclusive growth and pushing for the creation of business incubators, Dakar has also put up some €900,000 of sponsorship capital alongside the Tony Elumelu Foundation to empower young entrepreneurs, pushing a message that private investment is the key to unlocking Africa’s potential.
“Poverty anywhere is a threat to all of us everywhere,” Elumelu told an entrepreneurial forum in August. “The more we come together to provide solutions, to increase prosperity and make sure our young ones are engaged, the better for the world.”
The Senegalese government apparently agrees with this message that support for entrepreneurship needs to stretch beyond national borders. Last month, entrepreneurs from Morocco and Tunisia joined their Senegalese counterparts for the Senegal-funded Dakar Forum for Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Leadership (FIELD); there, they met with potential partners to develop their businesses in the country.
Sall declared when accepting his award at MEDays that “despite uncertainty, prejudices, and biases, […] Africa’s time has come.” Many of his fellow attendees at MEDays seemed equally convinced, as African leaders committed to harness the power of innovative new technologies to create a brighter future for Africa’s youth, fight against discrimination against women, and coordinate strategies to attract foreign investment.