SME Empowerment in Action in Lagos

“I have been in business all my life. I started selling chickens by the roadside when I was ten. When I was at school I started a training initiative and later a media company. The media company did not succeed, but it taught me a lot and got me to where I am now. Then I went to law school and now I run mSMEGarage.”

This is Gerald Abila from Uganda, one of the three finalists in the SME Empowerment Innovation Challenge that we are running with the Ford Foundation in East and West Africa and the Global Agenda Council of Justice of the World Economic Forum. Gerald is a rare breed: an example of a true justice entrepreneur. He embodies what is possible when justice innovation is given room.

We were at the Innovation Justice Boost Camp held in Lagos on 29 October. Seven very inspiring finalists competed for three places to go to the 6th Annual Innovating Justice Forum in The Hague on 3 and 4 December. Our man in Lagos, Olufunbi Falayi worked tirelessly to gather a tremendously inspiring crowd in the Co-Creation Hub, an accelerator in the heart of Lagos. Speakers included Isaac Aggrey, Executive Director of the West African Social Entrepreneurs Network in Ghana, Bunmi Okunowo, National Coordinator at the Office for ICT Innovation & Entrepreneurship for the Nigerian Government and Akingbolahan Adeniran, former ICC Lawyer and Senior Special Assistant to the Lagos State Governor on Legal Matters.

Small and medium sized enterprises (SME’s) are the backbone of the African economy. Estimates are that SME’s account for around 80% of employment in Africa and 90% of all business. It is, and will continue to be the backbone of the African economy. International organisations like the World Bank are devoting a lot of energy to increasing access to finance for SME’s. For the Ford Foundation it is one of the cornerstones of its new strategy that is directed at combatting in equality. As The Foundation’s President, Darren Walker says: Inequality, in all its forms, represents the greatest impediment to just, fair, and peaceful societies that offer opportunity for all. He is right.

What we focus on in the SME Empowerment Challenge is the legal infrastructure (to borrow a term from Gillian Hadfield) that such small and medium sized businesses need to flourish. Being able to register easily, having access to good credit and investment agreements, contracts for the delivery of goods and services, access to effective means should disputes arise, effective rules on employment, arrangements for insurance, and we could go on. These are all things that are taken for granted in the Netherlands, Denmark and New Zealand. In large parts of Africa it is different.

“In Rwanda it takes two hours to register a new company. You do it online.”, says Noel Ntabanganyimana, one of the innovators who represents Atikus based in Rwanda. Few places in Europe can do it that fast. In Kenya, the count was two days. In Nigeria, it can take months.

All of the seven finalists were winners. All of them had developed great initiatives designed to make the lives of SME’s better. In the end the jury, consisting of Segun Olukoya (Lagos Angel Network), Emmy Rono (Strathmore University, Kenya), Ore Sofekun (Investment One), Yemi Adamolekun (Enough is Enough), and Gbenga Ogundeji (SME Development Agency Nigeria) decided that three of them stood out.

The three winners of the day were DIYLaw, mSMEGarage and ShopOfficer. Whereas DIYLaw aims to ease and speed up business registration in Nigeria, mSMEGarage aims to reach as many businesses as possible in Uganda by providing free legal information and advice to entrepreneurs, while ShopOfficer provides small Kenyan businesses with a smart accounting-tool that makes payments transparent and easy.

The three winners will come to The Hague to attend the global final event in the Peace Palace. There they will receive more coaching and will be linked to potential partners for the scale-up process that will follow. Our ambition is to deliver justice initiatives that contribute to a better SME climate and that can be scaled up throughout Africa and elsewhere – making entrepreneurship in Africa easier and providing employment and economic development. These seven justice entrepreneurs, and in particular the three winners, have all the potential to make the difference. To be continued in December.