Rich 100: Africa's quiet revolution

Charles Sirois's status as a high-tech luminary may have faded since the telecom boom went bust. But in some parts of Africa, he is a rising entrepreneurial star.

Charles Sirois’s status as a high-tech luminary has faded in Canada since the dot-com-fuelled telecom boom went bust. But half a world away, he is a rising entrepreneurial star. On a recent visit to four African cities, he was greeted warmly by hundreds of fledgling business people, eager to meet the 54-year-old former billionaire (No. 63 on this year’s Rich 100) and hear him reflect on his tumultuous career. Over the course of six days, the Montreal-based businessman stopped in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and in South Africa’s Cape Town and Johannesburg, at each stop attending events with businesses and politicians, shaking hands, making speeches.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, each African city figures prominently in Sirois’s latest entrepreneurial endeavour, called Enablis. But Enablis isn’t what you might expect from a telecom entrepreneur. It isn’t a low-cost wireless carrier or a developer of content for mobile phones, or some other telecom-related business. Instead, it’s a not-for-profit. And it’s helping to create thousands of jobs.

Founded five years ago, Enablis is a members-driven organization of 500 entrepreneurs that combines peer networking, services to help improve their businesses, and small-scale financial loans. “The only way to alleviate the poverty in emerging countries is through job creation,” says Sirois, “and that will be led mainly by the private sector, by small and medium enterprises. The soul of small and medium enterprises are the entrepreneurs themselves. The success of SMEs is linked directly to the success of the entrepreneurs.”

African nations rank highly among destinations for celebrity do-gooders, but Sirois is no Bono. He keeps a low profile as chairman of Enablis Africa, flying in two or three times a year to meet with stakeholders. He lets it run quietly at the grassroots, leaving its management to longtime business associate Paul Lamontagne.

Sirois is even less prominent in Canada these days. He dropped out of sight after a series of public companies within his privately held Telesystem Ltd. empire — notably Microcell, Look Communications and Telesystem International Wireless — floundered during the telecom meltdown earlier this decade, as did the ill-fated Teleglobe Inc. of which he was the architect before BCE acquired it outright (to disastrous effect). Since then, Sirois has stuck to quietly operating Telesystem as a modest venture-capital investor, while also sitting on the boards of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Cossette Communication Group.

It was his high-profile persona as an Internet visionary that led him to co-found Enablis. In 2000, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed Sirois as Canada’s private-sector representative on the G8 Digital Opportunity Task Force, which was created to advise G8 leaders on how technology could be used to alleviate poverty in developing countries. Sirois, alongside the likes of Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Vernon Ellis, international chairman of global services consultancy Accenture, focused on supporting entrepreneurs in the information and communication technology sector. Together, their organizations developed a business plan for Enablis that they presented at the 2002 G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Alta. The Canadian International Development Agency offered an initial five-year, $10-million seed funding from its Canada Fund for Africa. Since being founded in 2003, Enablis has garnered total commitments of slightly more than $50 million, including a further $10 million from CIDA. But most of the organization’s funding comes from local African government agencies and banks, as well as international corporations like Accenture and Microsoft.

The Enablis model, however, is to be self-sustaining within its local regions. In South Africa, for instance, it has established its own sources of income: a small amount from membership fees, but also local donors and partnerships, including joint sponsorship of the FNB Enablis business plan competition (the largest in the country, it received more than 2,000 submissions this year), which both raises money and attracts new members. It also generates some interest revenue from its two investment trusts, as well as returns on the Enablis loans.

Enablis combines two ideas of how to support entrepreneurs: provide access to loans for growth capital, and create an organization of peers for networking and coaching. Entrepreneurs, who go through an accreditation process and business assessment in order to join, have access to local professional services experts in accounting, HR or legal, and take part in what’s known as the Enablis Circle — small peer groups that gather to discuss the challenges they face. Because one mandate of joining is that businesses use information and communication technologies to their fullest potential, Enablis offices offer broadband access and access to software tools. On average, the businesses employ about eight people; about half are still in the startup phase of their first six months. In a recent survey, members reported an average increase of 4.8 jobs each in the past year. In a country like South Africa, where unemployment runs near 25%, job creation is what counts most.

Five years since first opening an office in Cape Town, Enablis has expanded into four provinces — Gauteng (Johannesburg), Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Northern Cape. Last year, it founded a second regional hub, Enablis East Africa, in Nairobi, and in October opened a second chapter in Dar es Salaam. All told, the organization now supports 500 entrepreneurs. “Enablis is an example that there has been a move from quantity to quality when you’re talking about fostering private-sector initiatives in Africa,” says José Gijón, who oversees African initiatives for the OECD’s Development Centre. Supporting entrepreneurship is a growing trend as it is, but there’s also a move away from just supplying hard cash, and instead putting a greater emphasis on improving management skills.

Still, Enablis operates in a unique niche — not quite micro-finance, not quite large-scale investment. Its loans operate at the meso-finance level, and average about one million rand, or $125,000. “What we’ve started to show is that you can scale micro-finance,” says Lamontagne. He points to an event Enablis held in October — to honour the first five loan recipients who paid back in full — as proof of the viability of lending even in high-risk markets. But a big key to the success, he adds, is the membership organization that lets entrepreneurs help one another. “The conditions in this market look very much like Quebec in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Lamontagne. “It’s interesting we’re bringing to bear the know-how from the success of a French-Canadian entrepreneur in a market like South Africa.”

If anyone knows entrepreneurs need more than money, it’s Sirois. “From my experience, if you ask entrepreneurs what they need to be successful, 90% of them will answer, ‘Money. Give me money and I will do it,’” he says. “But money is just one ingredient.” Enablis funds come with strings attached: an entrepreneur has to be a member for at least 90 days before she can even apply, needs to be recommended by another member, and is then screened by an investment committee. “Not all our members have financing, because not all our members are ready to get money,” says Sirois. “They need to grow to a certain stage to do that.”

Having proven the model in South Africa, Enablis is now growing, too. Through its affiliation with the Accenture Development Partnerships, it’s evaluating prospects for a West Africa regional hub, and considering how the model could be used on other continents. “What we’ve learned here applies to any developing country,” says Lamontagne. He recently presented the Enablis model over breakfast to Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who sounded interested. “The reception has been wonderful. There are great opportunities for us, and we’re moving as quickly as we can.”

Sirois is under no illusion that Enablis is the solution to all of Africa’s overwhelming problems with war, genocide and disease. But it is a start. And it has opened Sirois’s eyes to another side of the troubled continent. “The perception we receive through the media is often of an Africa on its knees, begging for something,” he says. “The people we are working with at Enablis are an Africa on its feet, who will build a new Africa that will be part of global society.”