Guest Columnist: Tony Elumelu

I commend your courage and determination to build a business in the face of constraints that inhibit the viability of your startup and significantly threaten its survival.

Last year, over 20,000 of you participated in a series of surveys we conducted to ascertain the key challenges you faced as you doggedly pursue your entrepreneurial endeavors. The results are revealing – 87% of you shared that you had no access to seed capital; 80% still sought business mentors after years of searching; 90% desired additional training, especially in business management and accounting to build capacity; and 93% longed to be part of a network of entrepreneurs for support, encouragement and prospective partnerships. Despite the restricted availability of the aforementioned support systems, you continued to strive to transform your idea to reality, to convert your dreams to flourishing enterprises.

As an entrepreneur like yourself, I know what it feels like to yearn for a lifeline, to hope for a ‘big break’, to look forward to enjoying some luck. I am unashamed to share that, I owe part of my success to someone that believed in me, and was prepared to invest in my talents and bet on my future. It is for this reason that the Tony Elumelu Foundation decided to institutionalise luck and democratise access to opportunity, to empower more entrepreneurs, to build sustainable businesses that eventually contribute to the economic transformation of our continent.

On January 1, 2015 when the Tony Elumelu Foundation launched the application portal for the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme (TEEP) to identify, fund, train, mentor and provide networking opportunities to 1,000 African entrepreneurs, the media hailed TEEP as “unprecedented”, “first-of-a-kind”, and a little too “audacious”. A few critics labeled our intent as “unachievable” because we were attempting to roll out at such a gigantic scale! But little did they understand the potential of Africa’s new generation of entrepreneurs – your ingenuity, your hunger for excellence, your dedication to results and your boundless capacity to constantly innovate.

In our first year, 1000 entrepreneurs from 51 countries were selected, covering all of Africa’s geopolitical regions – North, East, South, Central and West Africa – and major language blocs – Anglophone, Francophone, Lusophone, and Arabic Africa. In our second year, the number of applicants has more than doubled in size – leaping from 20,000 to 45,000; the number of countries represented has increased from 52 to 54 and the number of women who applied more than tripled. Well done, African entrepreneurs!

Last week on my Facebook page, I shared the story of a #TEEPWoman making great strides in business – Agboneni Isazoduwa – a female mechanic and founder of Neni’s Garage in Lagos, a one-stop shop for car care needs. Neni’s Auto Care Garage is the first automobile repair workshop to partner with the global taxi service, UBER, in Lagos. In this capacity, she will handle professional vehicle inspections for over 4000 cars in the UBER Lagos network. As the father of five daughters, it is inspiring to see women like Neni thrive in a business environment that often isolates women entrepreneurs.

The week before, Gabino Guerengomba, a #TEEP entrepreneur and CEO of Integrated Solar Technologies (IST) from the Central African Republic, signed a USD 80 Million MoU with the Benin Government to provide electricity to 10 rural areas across the country. In Gabino’s own words, “We are on pace to become the very first TEEP start up in Africa to generate USD $100 Million in revenue.” Tazania’s Elia Timotheo, CEO of East Africa Fruit Farm and Company, which trades and markets fresh fruit and vegetables in order to significantly reduce post-harvest losses, has just bagged the African Entrepreneurship Award for the best business idea in the Environment category.

These success stories I have outlined are by no means exclusive to only the three entrepreneurs listed above. They simply serve as living case studies to illustrate a much wider wave of accomplishment that encompasses the entire inaugural class of TEEP. In the most popular sector – agriculture – our just over 300 agricultural entrepreneurs have reported that they have created nearly 15,000 casual and part time jobs.

As I have travelled across Africa to meet with TEEP entrepreneurs in their countries including: Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal, Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, Benin Republic, Congo, Gabon, Egypt and Zimbabwe as well with TEEP entrepreneurs in Nigerian cities – Lagos, Calabar, Port Harcourt, Abuja and Kaduna, I am both humbled by their success stories and invigorated by their passion.

It has been 25 years since my mentor, Chief Ebitimi Banigo and the board of All States Trust Bank appointed me as branch manager of the Port Harcourt city branch, though I was only 26 years old at the time. Chief Banigo trusted me then just as I am now entrusting the existing 1000 African Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurs and the soon to be selected 2016 cohort to transform Africa with their business ideas.

As our comprehensive selection process unfolds, I call on all of Africa to join me in congratulating the 45,000 African entrepreneurs, who completed the TEEP application before the deadline of midnight March 1st. Congratulations for taking a first bold first step in the TEEP journey. And as we look forward to March 22, 2016, when a new set of 1000 Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurs would be announced, I call on all applicants to continue to push their ideas and not to lose steam and hope. Regardless of whether you are selected or not, we are certain that Africa NEEDS you. And remember, entrepreneurs don’t quit.

• Elumelu, Chairman of Heirs Holdings and Founder Tony Elumelu Foundation, writes from Lagos