Growing up in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, Youssouf Ali Mbodou took his books into the streets at night to study during power cuts which were frequent and lasted for weeks.
Now 30, he is the founder of a solar power start-up called Kouran Jabo, meaning power is back and what people shout when the electricity returns, says Mbodou, sitting in a sparse office in N'Djamena.
In Chad, one of the least-developed countries in the world, people are starting to look to start-ups to create jobs and provide services such as electricity and waste management, which most of the 16-million population live without.
Profit and help
Mbodou is among a generation of young entrepreneurs who grew up seeing such problems go unsolved and are taking matters into their own hands by setting up businesses that aim to profit but also help.
“I told myself, ‘no-one is doing anything about this’,” says Mbodou, who has sold about 400 pay-as-you-go solar kits since the business started in 2018.
Electricity reaches about 10% of people in Chad, according to the World Bank, ranking it second to last in the world in terms of a reliable supply and coverage.
Social entrepreneurship is rising globally as more business leaders cater to ethically-conscious consumers with companies that seek to improve society or the environment.
Ethical business is also growing in Africa as people seek alternate ways to provide social or environmental services that have been neglected by cash-strapped or inefficient governments, but there are no overall numbers yet for the continent.
In Chad, where there is almost little to no local business activity, social entrepreneurs are taking on tasks such as lighting in a country where business laws are tough, investment scarce and entrepreneurship an idea that many do not quite understand yet.
“From my experience in other countries, I knew in Chad it would be twice as hard,” says Mbodou, who worked as a consultant in France and Dubai before returning home.
A landlocked country in the middle of Africa, Chad produces oil and imports everything from soap to rice to shoes.
Politics have been stagnant since President Idriss Deby took power in 1990. On the UN index of health, education and quality of living, Chad ranks third to last.
People started talking about entrepreneurship in Chad about 2015, says Christian Routouang, who organised the country’s third annual Global Entrepreneurship Week in November.
“Chad is far behind,” he says. By 2015, other countries in Africa had already had start-up hubs and incubators for years.
But Chadians are enthusiastic about the idea, says Routouang. The weeklong conference this year drew more than 4,500 people to its trainings, speeches and events.
At a fundraising gala on the final evening, young people performed slam poetry about entrepreneurship and Miss Chad handed out medals to “ambassadors” in the field.
UN officials gave speeches about how social enterprise could create jobs and reduce poverty, and a government representative pledged its support. But many of the entrepreneurs themselves were unsure how to advance.
“Our vision is to create 500 green jobs for young people by 2030,” says Dingaomian Etienne, a founder of Eco-Ville, a start-up that seeks to collect, sort and recycle waste in the capital.
Eco-Ville won 1,000,000 CFA francs ($1,700) at the event but has no other source of funding, with no scheme in Chad to help small businesses that have to pay taxes from the outset.
Francois Nankobogo, country manager for the World Bank, says the state has made some efforts — such as reducing the number of days and procedures needed to create a business — but needs to do more to ease business regulation to encourage investment.
Chad ranks 181 out of 190 nations on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index this year, up from last place in 2014.
“Recent action has shown there is room for quick improvement,” says Nankobogo, adding that Chad has to foster entrepreneurship if it wants to develop.
“I don’t think there is any alternative. The public sector cannot be the solution.”
Though young people are catching on, many say that entrepreneurship goes against the country’s mindset.
“We are not educated to be entrepreneurs. They don’t teach us a creative way of thinking,” says Routouang, adding that most people grow up with the goal of joining the public service.
Struggle for funding
Joblessness is one factor pushing people into entrepreneurship, says Marie Mornonde, 23, who started a company called Nutri-all to make healthy food products, but is struggling to get funding.
Most of Chad’s population is employed in seasonal agricultural work and in cities youth unemployment is more than 30%, according to the International Labour Organisation.
“There are still misconceptions about entrepreneurship, and people don’t see it as a viable choice of career,” she says.
“I don’t know if it’s being a woman or if it’s the culture that rejects entrepreneurship completely.”
Mbodou knew the challenges would be huge, with many people not knowing about or not trusting solar panels, and he had to use his own savings to start Kouran Jabo.
But demand for power is there and Mbodou plans to travel abroad to seek investors when the company is ready to scale up, with the aiming of powering about 1-million homes by 2030.
Thomson Reuters Foundation
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