Africa Summit organizers bring entrepreneurs together from a distance

April 28, 2020

By Alexandra Jones for Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

The student organizers of Princeton University’s Africa Summit found a way to convene their community, in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, with an online discussion led by young entrepreneurs working to create positive change on the continent. 

The Africa Summit steering committee had hoped to build on the success of 2019’s inaugural event, which brought 200 attendees to campus for two days of cross-disciplinary discussion and networking with academics, advocates, government officials and entrepreneurs — but the 2020 summit has been postponed until September.

In the meantime, the students decided to bring a portion of their programming online, convening a panel of young tech entrepreneurs in Africa to share the stories behind their startups as well as their strategies for responding to the pandemic. The webinar ”From Startup to COVID: Entrepreneurs Share Experiences" featured speakers Ugwem Eneyo, co-founder and CEO of Shyft Power Solutions; Feleg Tsegaye, founder of Deliver Addis; Vivian Nwakah, CEO and founder of Medsaf; and Africave co-founder Kennedy Ekezie.

Bayode Okusanya ’20 moderated the session, which brought together 160 attendees from 19 countries via online videoconferencing platform Zoom on April 17. 

 “I’ve never done anything like this and never thought I would be doing anything like this,” said Okusanya, who joined the steering committee last fall as vice president of finance. “It was a new experience for everyone — for the planning team and for our guest entrepreneurs. Everyone’s just trying to adapt to this new environment and new changes.”

During the webinar, entrepreneurs took turns sharing stories about their experiences finding their passion, the challenges in building partnerships and teams on the ground in Africa, and strategies for securing funding before answering questions from attendees. 

Nwakah, whose company provides safe, traceable medications to hospitals and pharmacies in Nigeria where counterfeit medication is a common problem, encouraged attendees not to feel discouraged if they didn’t know exactly where they wanted to focus their efforts yet. 

“I’ve worked in finance, healthcare, tech — basically because I’m curious — and that curiosity has led me to learn more and more,” she said during the webinar. “All those skills I’ve continued to build have served me so well at Medsaf.”

The Africa Summit was founded to create a space for critical thought and discussion around Africa on campus — not only to demonstrate the importance of Africa studies at Princeton, but also to welcome scholars, entrepreneurs, scientists and government leaders working on the continent into the Princeton community.

“The Africa Summit really represents the premiere African presence on campus, and being able to put on an event and show that there are brilliant minds on the front lines in Africa doing great work on the continent and addressing this crisis fills many of our audience with inspiration,” Okusanya said. “A big feedback point we kept getting was just how inspiring and motivating the entrepreneurs are and how inspiring their stories are.”

Only 30 percent of webinar attendees were affiliated with the university, a figure that indicates to organizers how the summit has already begun to raise Princeton’s profile in the area of Africa studies. “This shows that at Princeton, people actually care about Africa, and it’s a place for quality research on Africa,” said Bunmi Otegbade *19, who co-chaired the inaugural summit while pursuing his master’s degree in public policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He currently works as Africa engagement manager with PIIRS. 

“From Startup to COVID” also gave attendees an opportunity to hear first-person accounts of life  in cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa, with panelists speaking about how COVID-19 has affected everyday life and created problems that creative businesses can help solve. For example, being locked down at home rather than going to work means that many people in Nigeria are without power for most of the day — something that Shyft, Eneyo’s company, hopes to address with its hardware. 

“Bringing people together to actually talk about different experiences happening in different spaces is more powerful than I realized,” Otegbade said. “Especially for undergraduate students, it forces them to think about the broader environment, which hopefully can lead to innovation.”

For James Lee ’20, co-director of the Africa Summit steering committee, the webinar also gave student organizers the opportunity to see their hard work come to fruition in some way before the end of the semester, despite the full-fledged in-person event being postponed. 

“Both the virtual panel and what’s been going on behind the scenes have been the culmination of so many tasks by so many volunteers,” he said. “I’m really grateful to be a part of that again.”

“From Startup to COVID: Entrepreneurs Share Experiences” was sponsored by Africa Summit at Princeton and The Program in African Studies.