Togo, the narrow strip of a country where I was born, is one of the poorest countries in the world. The population is only seven million, and GDP growth is largely dependent on foreign aid, but when you interview hundreds of young entrepreneurs up and down the country, as I do every year in August and September, you discover that Togo’s mostly destitute and underemployed youth often display a staggering capacity for innovation.
That is why, every year for the past four years, during the first weekend of December, my team and I have been hosting a Forum of Young Entrepreneurs. We started with modest ambitions in 2013, but the Forum has grown a lot in four years. Over time, we were able to drum up support from the Togolese government, the US State Department, and Togocel, Togo’s largest company. This year, we’ve added new partners including the European Union, MIT, and Harvard Business School.
Novelty is key. And collaboration is key.
Because we recognised, early into organising the Forum the first year, that Togo’s young entrepreneurs need to acquire basic entrepreneurial skills, we focused on one-to-one mentoring and modern frameworks as a way to boost their confidence. I saw, all over the country, that they often lack the confidence needed to turn their projects into reality. We decided to promote action learning, new forms of collaborative ideation, and even a couple of shy personalities behind some of the wildest ‘Made in Togo’ startups.
Stefan Dimitriadis, a researcher at Harvard Business School researcher who traveled across the country with us last year as my team and I were selecting finalists for the startup competition, wrote that, ‘In a poor country like Togo, innovation, as characterised by a process of combining existing, scarce material with highly efficient technological fixes, can lead to development through the production of novel goods and services.’
I noticed that, now, close to half of the ten entrepreneurial projects that made it to the finals, are working in teams.
Novelty is key. And collaboration is key. Having worked on this year’s edition for more than six months, I noticed that, now, close to half of the ten entrepreneurial projects that made it to the finals, are working in teams. This is music to our ears. We wish these teams well, because they will have to defend their ideas—and respond to numerous challenges—in front of a large audience.
The Forum starts at 9am on Saturday, and the final pitches will take place from 2:30 to 4:30pm on Sunday. The two winning teams (who will receive cash prizes in addition to continuing mentoring and business development support for at least a year) will be announced around 5:30pm on Sunday.