The creative genius among the young is perhaps one of the least-tapped resources in many economies, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. If given the opportunity to explore entrepreneurship as a career path and a business-friendly environment, young people can unleash their potential—creating gains for all in terms of quality of life, employment and wealth generation. This Friday, I will get a first-hand look at some of that potential as I moderate part of the African Innovation Summit—sponsored by the U.S. Department of State in coordination with Meridian International Center—that will welcome more than 60 young African entrepreneurs to Washington, DC. And later this year, thanks to a new partnership, we will see some of the continent’s most promising entrepreneurs compete during Global Entrepreneurship Week.

Fortunately, entrepreneurship is becoming a better-respected tool for international development and cooperation. This is progress since until recently the concept of an entrepreneurial system simply did not have a place in the traditional development models of the past decades. The new cooperation models are looking beyond “aid” to leveraging private sector creativity and innovation—and more importantly a younger generation unafraid of the marketplace as a platform to do good and do well.

The news gets even better. Governments in the region seem to be valuing bottom-up movements for entrepreneurship in their efforts to set in motion a long-term economic growth strategy. According to the 2012 Doing Business report by the World Bank, 36 of the region’s 46 economies implemented regulatory reforms making it easier to do business between June 2010 and May 2011. Several African countries are among the top reformers, namely Cape VerdeSierra Leone andBurundi. And these are on-going efforts. During the past six years, Rwanda (45th) has made more progress than all but one country in the world, pushing it to thethird spot in the region—behind Mauritius (23rd) and South Africa (35th). By other measures, the same performers stand out, leading the way for its regional neighbors. In the Index of Economic Freedom, for instance, Mauritius is ranked among the top 10 worldwide. In the 2012 Index, Mauritius became the first sub-Saharan African country ever to advance to that height in the rankings, thanks to the island’s continued commitment to structural reforms and policies that promote integration into the global marketplace. By intent at least, people in the region are reacting positively to their government’s efforts. According to an October 2011 Gallup poll, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest percentage of adults (20%) planning to start a business in the next 12 months.

A New Partnership for Entrepreneurial Growth
Recognizing these trends in international cooperation and policymaking in sub-Saharan Africa, a new partnership has formed to enhance and deepen the startup and innovation ecosystems of targeted fast-growing African economies. Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW)—the world’s largest celebration of the innovators and job creators who launch startups that bring ideas to life, drive economic growth and expand human welfare—is working with the U.S. Department of State, Microsoft, DEMO, USAID, African Development Bank, Nokia and infoDev in coordinating LIONS@FRICA—the Liberalizing Innovation Opportunity Nations Partnership.

LIONS@FRICA launched last month at the 2012 World Economic Forum on Africain Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Modelled after the successful Startup America Partnership, it is a public-private alliance to enhance and deepen the startup and innovation ecosystems of targeted fast-growing African economies. By bringing together key institutions from both sectors to provide resources to emerging African startups, the partnership aims to inspire and challenge the continent’s young innovators and entrepreneurs to connect their efforts to the global innovation grid in order to make their endeavors more effective, scalable and sustainable.

Global Entrepreneurship Week will help LIONS@FRICA engage and channel the efforts of more than 25 GEW country hosts and hundreds of partner organizations across the continent to strengthen and scale the startup ecosystem of Africa. To celebrate our partnership, the ‘Meet the Lions’ competition will be a featured event during GEW 2012, helping African startups turn their ideas into reality. Inspired by GEW’s ‘Meet the Dragons’ competition which covers Europe, a select group of African entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to present their startups or business plans to prominent entrepreneurs, investors and business executives from the continent in an effort to secure support, mentorship and funding.

We will call for applicants from all over Africa. The youth unemployment rate for some countries in the region, like Nigeria, hovers around 60 to 70 percent and points to a huge amount of spare capacity and talent. However, with so many in a post-Google world less skeptical of the marketplace as a vehicle to affect positive change, I see nothing but opportunity. Moreover, we have reached a tipping point in Africa’s economic development where the potential of powerful ideas, smart thinking and hard work—combined with a passionate desire to make a difference in our world—opens new doors to addressing old challenges arising from poverty, disease, unemployment and national debt. Just think how mobile banking and other information and communications technology has helped the region leapfrog inadequacies in education, health, and other areas.

LIONS@FRICA, along with Global Entrepreneurship Week, clearly offers a fresh path for Africa’s transformation and emergence as a startup ecosystem. This week’s African Innovation Summit will offer some excellent examples of the type of entrepreneurs we can expect to emerge from this partnership. I hope to see you there.