Leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation in Africa

Building a transformative economy: a partnership between the state, the youth and business
Michael Harry YAMSON

As we journey through the nature, potential, essential elements and pitfalls of leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation in Africa, I will use this opportunity to share some of our thoughts and viewpoints – which will hopefully be of value to leaders seeking to grow and prosper their organisations in a fast-changing world through entrepreneurship and innovation.

Who are we?

Ishmael Yamson & Associates is a consulting firm that specialises in business and organisational transformation, and in leadership development. We partner with our clients to understand the future and unearth unique capabilities that can help them respond effectively to the numerous and complex challenges they face; to create value for lasting growth, and build outstanding organisations.

Defining Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Innovation

We believe that this is Africa’s moment in history.  Youthful and rapidly modernising, Africa possesses large reserves of many resources which developed and emerging economies crave to sustain their economies.  What remains is the combination of Africa’s potential with Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Innovation to develop thriving economies which create jobs and enhance livelihoods for all.

While together leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators ‘create jobs’ and ‘enhance livelihoods’, they are not to be mistaken in the roles they play in sustainable value-creation.

  1. Leadership

Leaders fill a role, but leadership inspires and nurtures entrepreneurship and innovation.  Every growth and development strategy depends on leadership to drive-delivery by developing the culture, values and behaviour of an organisation, and the people who are led in a manner consistent with a common vision.

Leadership demonstrates the capacity to continually respond to change in the economy, social structures, technology and the global environment; and does this in ways which keep an organisation or branded solution relevant to the evolving nature, scale and scope, as well as the pace of change.

  1. Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship happens when business-minded people, industrialists and owners of resources employ their creativity to demonstrate viable market opportunities and then make economic decisions which kick-start initiatives that create, enhance and preserve value.  Because entrepreneurship is the spark of innovation, it is therefore as much a necessity in our public sector as it is in the private sector in developing markets for new products and services.  This in turn expands employment, boosts consumption and drives wealth creation and economic growth.

  • Innovation

Innovators solve real needs with alternative products, services and market spaces.  The degree to which an organisation innovates directly correlates with how successful it will be; and in today’s highly competitive economic environment, innovation must thrive in all the parts and processes iof an organisation’s value chain in order to secure dynamic, relevant and sustained growth.

While most organisations have in them all the ideas they need to be transformed into stories of radical success, many lack the know-how to manage innovation and rapidly maximise the harvest of benefits from ideas in their organisations. Leadership and entrepreneurship are needed to prepare fertile ground in which to nurture, develop and implement the innovations that will translate Africa’s moment into a future of value-creation, wealth-creation in all spheres.

Impact of Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Innovators

In preparing this paper, I read that: “There is a tendency for emerging economies to over-emphasise the virtues of trading as symptomatic of entrepreneurial instincts in Africans”.  However, “vast flea and vegetable markets in Cairo, Casablanca, Accra, Nairobi, Lusaka, Harare and Johannesburg cannot be a credible litmus test for successful business, because, they do not contribute to real economic development”. [1]

I beg to differ.  Leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation combined in these vast informal markets can bring massive changes across industry, commerce and entire economies.  Imagine that the market leaders responsible for one such market define as their mandate:

  • first – being in competition with all other markets to attract the largest, most experienced and successful owners of trading enterprises to the most well-managed concentration of capital for trading and commerce;
  • second – creating unique and differentiated services such as access to planning, buying and in-bound logistics services; the most attractive finance costs and banking services; a unique skill set in category and channel management; trade marketing; and very stable supplies of competitively priced agri-products and manufactured goods;
  • third – offering measurable best-in-class shopper experiences vis-a-vis other major markets; and
  • fourth – attracting private investments into community development, on the back of trading and commercial activities centred on the market they manage.

Such a mandate could open up endless possibilities for entrepreneurs and innovators to create and market new business solutions in communications, financial products, shopper experience, retail branding, physical and transaction security products, etcetera, etcetera.


Crucially, people in leadership in Africa must understand the power of branding entrepreneurship and innovation to secure the future success of Africa in global markets.  It helps that leadership in Africa can tap into differentiated identities and enduring brands that can positively define and dominate a market space.

Business done the ‘African way’ and ‘African innovation’ should never be code for shoddy, sub-standard and provincial.  In the example I just gave, there are opportunities for:

  • geographic brands that help boost the economies producing certain agri-products
  • lifestyle branding for shopping experiences and social mobility concepts, as well as
  • brands that continually create product and service solutions which respond to trends.

Differentiation is not enough

Yet there is little transformation in economic our fortunes, and Africa may miss its moment because differentiation is not enough.  Local sweets are a huge industry across many Asian markets, but the favourite toffees of many an African child and family (like wapi and Black and White toffees in Ghana) have never succeeded as sub-regional success stories.

Whilse the Indian sari is increasingly a fabric of choice in many African markets, Kente has stayed a niche cotton fabric unable to achieve commercial success beyond the African Diaspora or as a silk fabric. Ghana increasingly exports fruit, but struggles to sustain new winners to replace the likes of Sunspot and ASTEK. Why are these differentiated identities and brands not global success stories?

Missed Opportunities                    

Some of the answers can be explained by these factors that have characterised failed leadership and led to the failure of entrepreneurship and innovation:

  1. i) Inability to respond to trends or manage rapid growth

I remember Saturday Night talcum powder and joromi.  Two successful icons that got stuck in a ‘this is it’ attitude and stopped dominating the Saturday nightlife and fashion trends relevant to consumers.  Today, the Saturday night space is probably best owned by a brand called Axe; and African fashion is dominated by designs crafted in Holland and copied in China, and with fabrics from China and India.

  1. ii) Insignificant education and the absence of market development for innovations

In 2005, Ghana hailed pozzolana cement as a breakthrough in the housing industry.  In 2011 the industry succumbed.  Though this product promised stronger homes, built with more local materials at a lower cost, the business that owns the brand and the scientific community that developed it somehow never succeeded in persuading Ghanaians to build stronger houses for less.  They were unable to supply the demand that existed, and could not persuade Ghanaians to support an enterprise that promised to build stronger rural economies.

  • Unmet Expectations

In the 80s, Ghana was briefly on the cusp of an innovation in the local shoe-manufacturing industry that made ingenious, visually flawless copies of international brands that felt frighteningly like the real deal.  Except no one, it turned out, had any desire to own a shoe that would not last six months.  Trix or ‘ma trick i wo’, as they came to be known, turned out to be a solution still-born.

  1. Designing Success Without Consumers

From pay-tv to telecom operators and utilities, brand owners have seen business boom with the introduction of prepaid subscription business models.  ‘Prepaid’ is an operationally brilliant innovation, boosting business profits and sustainability.  What no provider or utility does is factor in the cost of money to the consumer and give them a value to represent interest on prepaid income.  If one responded to this imbalance in the relationship with consumers, every other business built on prepaid income would follow suit.  For now, consumers must wait until a business that has benefitted from their upfront payments is willing to share value.

Leadership!  Entrepreneurship!!  Innovation!!!  – A Better Approach

There is no magic wand to wave in success.  Each of the themes explored is truly a process which requires that leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators master these elements of success:

  1. i) welcome rebels;
  2. ii) promote experimentation;
  • cultivate a culture of confidence;
  1. frame the desired outcome accurately;
  2. v) put difficulties and failures into perspective;
  3. encourage collaborators to put facts on the table;
  • set clear boundaries and hold people accountable;
  • take personal responsibility for delivering the vision;
  1. ix) demand the discipline of showing evidence of practice and preparation; and
  2. x) acknowledge that every leader, concept or business has limits to its capacity and ability

A Final Word

Not all leadership, innovation or entrepreneurship will result in outstanding feats and outcomes; but I also say “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way”.

>>>The author is Senior Partner at Ishmael Yamson & Associates. This speech was delivered at the Vodafone Africa Business Leaders Forum in 2011.


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