Smart Africa Media Interview with Zahra Baitie-Boateng, Head of Partnerships and Programmes at Jack Ma Foundation’s Africa Business Heroes Prize Competition

NAIROBI, Kenya: Zahra Baitie-Boateng is the Partnerships and Programme Manager for the Jack Ma Foundation’s Africa Business Heroes Prize. Prior to her role at ABH, Zahra previously worked at Alibaba’s AliExpress as a Senior Business Development Expert and at Alibaba’s B2B Unit – 1688 as Special Assistant to the CEO.

Her prior experience includes work at Dalberg Global Development Advisors where she consulted for governments and organizations (such as the Mastercard Foundation) across several African countries on a range of issues related to youth unemployment, tourism development and agriculture transformation policies, and Development Reimagined where she served as China Director focusing on Africa-China trade facilitation.

She is a native of Ghana and a graduate of Yale and Tsinghua University, Schwarzman College.

Zahra [pictured] was recently interviewed by Smart Africa’s Elvis Mboya about the programme.

Please share with us an overview of this amazing opportunity for African entrepreneurs.

The Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) prize competition is a unique platform for entrepreneurs across Africa. Every year, 10 outstanding finalists will take home a share of a $1.5 M pool prize.

They will enjoy a spotlight with which to showcase their businesses and will also get unparalleled support in the form of grant funds, training, mentorship and networking with a like-minded community of investors, entrepreneurs and ABH alumni.

This year, we have already received tremendous interest from aspiring candidates but we encourage all interested entrepreneurs to not miss this opportunity and apply in English or French until applications close on June 7.

Who should apply for the programme and what are the real requirements?

With ABH, we aim to be truly pan-African and inclusive. The prize is open to entrepreneurs regardless of their sector, age, and gender. We welcome applications from all African founders/co-founders and owners with headquarter or operations in Africa that have been operating for at least three years.

We are also putting a particular emphasis on female entrepreneurs as well as those entrepreneurs that are tackling the most urgent problems and working to contribute new opportunities of growth for their local communities.

Are there specific countries in Africa that are excluded from participating?

The ABH prize is open to entrepreneurs from all 54 African countries. We are especially proud that since launching the first edition of the competition in 2019, we have received applications from talented entrepreneurs from across the continent and representing every region.

Is the programme also taking into consideration practical ideas that are geared towards solving problems around Covid-19 effects and recovery?

The pandemic has taken a serious toll on entrepreneurs and small business owners both in Africa and globally. But it has also brought to light the incredible importance that entrepreneurs play in our global economy. We are certainly keen to see applications from businesses that are solving problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic but we also believe that there are several other pressing challenges that entrepreneurs are solving and we welcome applications from all businesses solving a myriad of challenges. That said, we are really proud to see the incredible resilience and innovation our finalists have shown since the pandemic broke out.

Our 1st prize winner in 2019, Temie Giwa-Tobosun, the CEO & founder of LifeBank, uses data and technology to help health workers discover critical products. When Covid hit, she expanded her firm’s services to include the delivery of oxygen and COVID-19 testing. Another of our top finalists, Omar Sakr, is the CEO & founder at Nawah Scientific, the first private research centre in the MENA region. To tackle Covid-19, Omar’s team supported research in the region by offering cheaper and quicker diagnostic tools, as well as free pickup services for research samples requiring examination at their laboratory.

Despite the challenging time we all face, we believe it’s never been a more important or exciting time for entrepreneurship in Africa. Entrepreneurs will play a critical role in drive post-pandemic recovery and we hope to give them the support they need to be able to not only survive but thrive.

Please take us through the application process till winners are announced and funding disbursed to the recipients.  

This year’s applications will be closing June 7th. After applications close, we have a rigorous selection process that kicks off. More than 150 judges, including business leaders, industry experts, academics, senior consultants and seasoned investors, will review our applicants. They will not only be look at the viability of their ventures, but also their leadership and vision, as well as the social impact they are making.

After initial rounds of judging, our Top 50 finalists will be announced in July. In August, our Top 20 will be identified and begin preparing for the Semi-Finale round in September. At the semi-finale round, our Top 10 heroes are selected to go on to the Grand Finale in November. 

Well, this initiative could have not come at a better time than this when Covid-19 effects continue to dent economic development and businesses in developing economies like Africa’s. Please, highlight some of the major benefits entrepreneurs and startups could derive from participating and winning.

This is an area we are very focused on. We wanted to design a program that provides all of our participants, not just our finalists, with as much long-term value as possible. We’ve worked with our partners to host training sessions, boot camps and workshops so that entrepreneurs are able to deepen their business acumen and knowhow.

Beyond the cash prize, our participants have been able to generate significant attention and publicity from their participation in the competition, secure more investments, initiate new partnerships and begin to scale their businesses into new markets – an incredibly difficult feat given the challenges of last year.

Our broader mission is to help contribute to the development of a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa. One where entrepreneurs and business leaders can join forces with a variety of stakeholders – including government, investors, educators, policymakers and civil society – and work together to remove barriers and create better opportunities for the future.

Last year Kenya’s Chebet Lesan was winner and walked away with US$300,000. What level of structures are put in place to train, mentor, and monitor progress of prize winners like Chebet to enable them stay focused on achieving their goals?

We are really proud to see the success that Chebet has continued to achieve since winning the grand prize last year. Her journey is proof of the strength and resilience of female entrepreneurs in Africa. Following her win, Chebet has invested her grant into expansion, taking their eco-friendly cooking solution across East Africa.

We are committed to staying connected to our past finalists, and we regularly receive updates on the progress and developments of their business. Many of our finalists go on to become ambassadors for the prize moving forward and it’s also been tremendously exciting to see this community of business leaders stay connected to achieve even greater success together.

Aside from traditional applicants who are mostly composed of literate and well-informed persons, how can the programme extend to include illiterate and analogue entrepreneurs with viable ideas and scalable businesses yet are not exposed enough to access this kind of information or unable to apply.

The question of how to encourage as many entrepreneurs as possible to seize this opportunity is something we think about on a daily basis. Given the complexity of individual markets and size of the continent, we work closely with a wide network of established partners and supporters that help us reach more potential candidates. These partners include the African Leadership Group, Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum,  Ashesi, Briter Bridges, Dalberg, Janngo, SA Innovation Summit, RiseUp and VC4A

We also air a television show to capture the journeys of our finalists and the grand finale every year to help entrepreneurs at all levels by providing them with advice, tips, insights and inspiration. We hope the Show will help encourage them to pursue their dreams and learn from the best African entrepreneurs in action. Our 2020 Show will air later this year on broadcast and online and we hope it will also encourage key stakeholders to continue to support entrepreneurs and address the challenges they face.

We have also made it easier for anyone to spread the word and nominate their “heroes” – entrepreneurs who are making a difference in their communities and who can benefit from the ABH experience. Individuals can nominate an entrepreneur on our website or on our social media, using the hashtag #lookingforheroes. All the information on ABH and details on how to apply can be found on our official website and our social media channels Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.


Smart Africa is a pan-African online media convergence platform that aims to incorporate TV, Newspaper and Podcast, covering the Continent’s Pro-Development and Success Stories, to inspire Investment and Growth.

The Nairobi-based Media House is on the verge to cultivate Correspondences and Audiences across Africa and the Diaspora, with a strong emphasis on Business and Economy features that are Positive, Constructive, and Empowering.


Elvis Mboya, Editor SMART AFRICA MEDIA


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