“Help me find a container!”

Africa’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive.  And frankly, this is nothing new.

In September 2001, while images of New York’s tumbling towers were being shown on a loop on all television screens in Mogadishu, business leaders there were not too much concerned about geo-politics – yet.

Instead they kept telling me they were looking forward to paying taxes.

Taxes,  in their view, were better than security, transport and energy bills they had to foot themselves in the absence of any working government.

Of course, Somali entrepreneurs already ran banks, telecommunication networks and soda bottling plants. Crucially, they also were in charge of hospitals, schools and security.

Deals were being enforced without courts or even legal framework.

A couple of years before, in Alexandra, one of Johannesburg’s poorest townships,  a single mum working as a self-employed baker approached me with a sudden request: “Where can I find a container? Help me!”.

At the time, the unemployment rate in Alexandra was up to 70 or 80 percent.  Sewers were running out in the open — less than a mile away from Sandton,  Johannesburg’s new banking and business district.

Living with her two young children in a shack, the young mum was earning a living selling buns outside a school.

She knew she had a market and wanted to corner it. She needed capacity – in the form of a container where she would store raw material, set up proper baking facilities and a stall to conduct her business.

I have no idea whether she eventually found a container – and I certainly could not help. But she and thousands of other entrepreneurs like her have been seizing and creating similar opportunities across the continent.

This is what the BBC World Service  Power of The Private Sector series has been showcasing all week on Focus on Africa and Network Africa.

World Have Your Say from Tanzania

The BBC world Service’s global call-in show World Have Your Say will be broadcasting from here tonight between 5pm – 7pm GMT.

It’s not easy being green

I can’t believe I’ve become this cynical so soon. My first impressions of Lusaka had me convinced that agriculture would be this country’s future. The land was so green, the soil so fertile! Well, I hate to burst my own utopian bubble, but after speaking to some people in the industry, I’m realising just how difficult conditions are.

Sure, Zambia is green. It’s fertile. it has incredible potential. But consider this: Much of the green land all around is bushland. To turn it into farmland would cost ten thousand dollars a hectare. That’s just to get things up and running – to organise the electricity and irrigate the land. That’s before all the other overhead costs.

Then there’s the financing. Banks in Zambia only lend in US dollars. The farms will be generating their revenue in the local Kwacha currency, which has been depreciating. And with such strict lending conditions these days, many aspiring farmers would not even get past the first hurdle – credit. So there’s a good reason why Zambia has been slow to diversify it’s economy away from cooper. Investing in agriculture is a risky business.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Zambia’s farming exports have increased from around 5 percent in the 1980s to around 20 percent, and the country is becoming more self sufficient in staples like wheat and maize. But is agriculture the answer to all of Zambia’s economic problems? Don’t bet the farm on it just yet.