Opinion: Africa's new 'yes, we can' attitude toward business

Africa impresses in the face of tough social and economic challenges.

I visit Africa often, and it is apparent that a “yes, we can” attitude is spreading across the continent, as awareness of its business and investment opportunities reaches around the globe.

Africans have much to be proud of, including some recent major economic successes. In September, Walmart made an offer to buy the South African retailer Massmart for $4.2 billion. And this summer’s FIFA World Cup — a first for Africa — generated more than $3 billion in revenue for South Africa, the host country.

Still, there is much to be done.

Analysts and business leaders often focus on mineral resources when considering prospects for Africa’s future — the continent is the source of much of the world’s platinum, diamonds and gold. But I believe Africa’s most valuable assets are its wonderful people, particularly its entrepreneurs.

Millions of men and women are carefully building small businesses suited to local markets, working off the radar in regions untouched by big business. They are the real diamonds. These entrepreneurs are agents of change, taking risks that may someday generate jobs and build communities.

Yet many lack the financial resources and support networks needed to help them scale up their businesses. Some have such limited access to teachers and mentors that simple training on pricing, marketing and product design can have a massive impact. With the right support, their entrepreneurial efforts can produce even more opportunities, leading to the prosperous dynamic of progressive capitalism.

That’s why Virgin Unite, our non-profit foundation, established the Branson School of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg to support and celebrate young South Africans as they launch new ventures. We help them expand their businesses by connecting them with entrepreneurs from South Africa and around the world — people who can provide mentorship, help them gain access to markets and raise capital.

We’re also directly investing in some African businesses, from small startups to larger companies. Indeed, one of our best investments is Virgin Active in South Africa. It was recommended to me by Nelson Mandela almost 10 years ago when he asked me to rescue a chain of health clubs that had gone into receivership. Today, the business has grown to 92 clubs across the country; it has half a million customers and is planning to expand to more than 100 clubs in 2011.

In the meantime, across the border, the people of Zimbabwe need more international investment and expertise to help them revitalize their country, which has been suffering under years of dictatorship and disastrous economic policies. In September, Virgin Unite, together with Humanity United and the Nduna Foundation, launched Enterprise Zimbabwe to help Zimbabweans attract and foster investments from philanthropic and commercial donors. This organization will target small businesses and social initiatives in key areas such as health, small-scale agriculture and education.

An example of one of our early projects: in partnership with American and Australian entrepreneurs, Enterprise Zimbabwe is investing in a growers’ association that represents 2,000 farmers near Harare. We hope to assist a small number of these farmers to revitalize their operations over the next six months. We will then assess the impact of this pilot project, and pay attention to what is needed on the ground.

If Zimbabwe is going to recover, it’s critical for the global community of business leaders and philanthropists to come together to support the people who will rebuild its economy. In 2011, Enterprise Zimbabwe will help to arrange a number of trips to the country, so that entrepreneurs and leaders of charitable foundations can meet with Zimbabweans. We hope to help these leaders to understand how they can help, and to match them with emerging businesses and social development opportunities.

Every time I visit the continent, I am impressed by what daring African businessmen and women are accomplishing in the face of tough social and economic challenges. I am certain that Africa will someday occupy a more prominent place on the world stage. U.S. President Barack Obama summed it up well last year in his famous speech to the Ghanaian parliament: Africa is not a world apart, it is a “fundamental part of our interconnected world.”

While we often hear what’s wrong in Africa, I’d like to hear what Africans are doing right. Inspiration comes from leaders who care about communities. Let’s find those entrepreneurs who are making a meaningful impact.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group.