Searching Africa: How the Anzisha Prize found its top young entrepreneurs

In September, 12 entrepreneurial minds between the ages of 15-22 were flown to Johannesburg from across Africa to attend a week of business mentorship at the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in Johannesburg. They are this year’s Anzisha’s fellows, handpicked by a select team of judges and industry experts after months of searching the continent for the brightest young innovators.

The 2014 Anzisha Prize finalists and winners.

The 2014 Anzisha Prize finalists and winners.

The application process was tough this year, to say the least. No fewer than 339 applications were received from 32 African countries after running social media campaigns and working with various youth entrepreneurship organisations on the continent.

This year the Anzisha Prize team stepped up their exposure in francophone Africa, which had been lagging behind English-speaking African countries in terms of entrants in previous years. For the first time applications were accepted in French, as well as English and Arabic, to better cater for the different languages spoken across the continent.

There was a notable increase in applications from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and entrants applying from Togo and Burundi for the first time. Of the 12 finalists, a third were from francophone countries, with the first and third grand prize winners coming from Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire respectively.

Young women entrepreneurs were also well represented this year among the finalists. Despite fewer than a third  of all applications coming from women, the standard was strong with five making the cut and 21-year-old South African Thato Kgatlhanye winning the second place prize.

Searching for Africa’s youngest and brightest

“To think of the Anzisha Prize as a once-a-year event would be an underestimate of the programme,” says Josh Adler, director of the Centre of Entrepreneurial Leadership at ALA.

The application process was opened on 10 February with a flood of announcements on social platforms and relevant African media. Two months later when entries had closed, a dedicated Anzisha team, along with some outside specialists, started considering submissions, rating them on a number of criteria such as relevance and social impact.

Once the top 40 were finalised, the team started conducting telephonic interviews, followed by site visits to the candidates in their respective countries. The aim was to ensure the legitimacy of each applicant and avoid fraudulent entrants. The team also enlisted the assistance of past Anzisha fellows to interview prospective semi-finalists for the first time.

It then came down to the tough decision: who would make the finalist list? After weeks of deliberation and late nights of assessing candidates, the 12 were selected, contacted, and travel plans arranged to bring them together at the Anzisha Week in September.

Mentorship and training

The purpose of the Anzisha week was to provide business mentorship for finalists who face many challenges growing their African ventures as young entrepreneurs. Also in attendance was 2013 finalist David Morfaw, who had not been able to attend the week the previous year.

Two of the mentors were venture manager Koovi Moodley of the business incubator Awethu Project, and Segun Olagunju who heads the entrepreneurial leadership department at ALA. They conducted seminars around the nitty-gritty aspects of running a business (such as financial and strategic planning) to defining a social purpose and developing entrepreneurial skills (such as pitching to investors).

The week also aimed to help prepare the finalists for their final presentation to a panel of five judges who would select the top three winners. Each finalists was appointed a mentor to assist and advise them in their presentations.

Five minutes to impress

There was nervous energy on the day the finalists had to present their businesses to the judges and explain why they should be awarded the grand prize. They each had five minutes to pitch their venture, with time allowances made for those who required an interpreter. And the presentations went off without a hitch.

This year’s award winners were judged by respected entrepreneurs Wendy Luhabe (South Africa), Khanyi Dhlomo (South Africa), Willy Mukiny Yav (DRC), Wanjiru Waithaka (Kenya) and Mohamed Nanabhay (South Africa). And after the presentations were intently listened to, they retired to a boardroom to spend time carefully debating the merits of each before coming to a decision of who the winners should be.

The awards evening – lights, camera, action

The awards evening was a glamorous occasion held at The Focus Rooms in Sunninghill, Johannesburg. All finalists had their own booth to showcase their ventures and allow guests and media to meet with them and ask questions. The prize-giving was broadcast live online so families of finalists and those unable to attend could watch.

After keynote speaker Divine Ndhlukula, founder and managing director of Securico in Zimbabwe, shared her entrepreneurial tips, each finalist was awarded an Anzisha statuette. And then the winners were announced.

Twenty-two year old Nteff Alain, founder of the giftedMom project in Cameroon, was announced the Grand Prize winner of US$25,000. His social venture, an e-content platform for pregnant women and newborn mothers in underserved areas, aims to help safe pregnancies and combat the lack of access to knowledge that has led to high mother and infant deaths in Cameroon.

In second place, and the winner of $15,000, was South African Thato Kgathlanye (21). Her venture, Repurpose Schoolbags, designs schoolbags from up-cycled plastic shopping bags that are integrated with solar technology which charges up during the day, transforming into light for learners to study after dark in underprivileged areas.

Gabriel Kombassere (17) of Côte d’Ivoire won third place and $12,500 for his organisation Ribla Neda, a farming association seeking to reduce starvation in his region by feeding the organisation’s members.

Eighteen-year-old Kenyan Tom Osborn received a special $10,000 energy prize award from Donors Circle for Africa, for his eco-fuel venture, Greenchar. The project produces smokeless coal briquettes and distributes clean cook-stoves throughout Kenya.

Becoming part of the Anzisha family

The Anzisha Prize was first launched in 2011, and the 2014 finalists will join a community of Anzisha fellows from previous years. This is a life-long membership where the fellows will have access to Anzisha’s network of mentors, advisers and investors that extend across the continent.

But for the Anzisha team there is no rest. Preparations are already underway for the 2015 application process.

Follow the story of this year’s Anzisha Prize and what has become known as the #AnzishaEffect online and on Facebook and Twitter. Subscribe to the Anzisha Prize’s YouTube channel to get first access to their upcoming webisodes as they premiere.