SAN FRANCISCO - Barbara Birungi Mutabazi has a vision: Train Ugandan women to code and do other technology work.
"The beauty of this is that even if there are not enough jobs in Uganda, if you have the right skills, you can work for any organization around the world,” said Mutabazi, who runs Women in Technology, a skills-training organization in Uganda.
Mutabazi recently attended the African Diaspora Investment Symposium to find investors and possible employers for the young women she trains. The event brought together entrepreneurs, investors and businesses to talk about the future of Africa business.
"The African Diaspora Network is trying to bring Africans and friends of Africa together to collaborate, create and to imagine possibilities for the continent,” said Almaz Negash, the founder and executive director of the African Diaspora Network and the event’s organizer.
One theme of the symposium was money — how to tap into the African diaspora to fund small, medium and large companies on the continent.
Remittances — money sent by people living in the U.S. to family in Africa — has long been a key way to support people. More than $40 billion in remittances goes to sub-Sahara Africa, mostly to Nigeria, Negash said. This is a powerful source of support for families, but some speakers wondered if there are other ways to help spur growth.
"How do we scale remittances so that it can also be invested in other people than our family,” Negash said. “Supporting startups.”
Another area of support could be to create a fund to help African entrepreneurs and businesses protect their intellectual property, said Joseph Mucheru, Google’s first sub-Sahara Africa lead and now a minister in the Kenyan government.
An IP fund
African leaders need to find ways to attract investors and businesses “to invest and come in and work with our startups, protect our startups, ensure that the intellectual property that they build can be retained in the continent,” he said.
For the roughly 50 African entrepreneurs attending the event, this was an opportunity to pitch their businesses. The kinds of businesses varied widely.
Aboubacar Komara, an architect from Guinea, is working on a housing startup.
"We're implicating people in the process of actually building their homes. You know, we want to change the concept of what is architecture, because architecture has a lot to do with your identity,” he said.
Neile Nkholise is the chief executive of 3DIMO, a sports technology company in South Africa. Sensors are sewn into sports garments, which send data that indicates whether an athlete is at risk of an injury. At the moment, she is focused on football, rugby and basketball.
She is raising her seed round of investment but is also looking for investors who can be partners, “people who unlock access to networks” and expertise “that enable us to scale much faster,” she said.
For many of the attendees, the event was a welcomed chance to talk about Africa successes. Thelma Ekiyor runs a Nigeria-based business accelerator and an investment fund for women-run businesses.
There is no doubt there are problems in Africa, she said, but “for the diaspora, the lens through which you look at these problems must be different. For the diaspora, these problems are opportunities. For the diaspora, they are entry points.”
Women in ‘the box’ of micro-lending
She said one of the challenges has been that the structure of financing women entrepreneurs in Africa and other developing regions has been "micro.”
"Most of the funds available to women are micro-lending, as if women don't know what to do with big money,” she told the attendees. “And so the first thing that I knew we had to do was change that and ensure that how we finance women was aspirational. We would start them at them micro-level and support them to grow.”
The power of the symposium doesn’t stop after everyone goes home, said Negash of the African Diaspora Network.
Over the coming months, connections made may turn into something else — a new business, a customer or partnership — all with a focus on the African continent.