Inaugural forum connects Africa’s entrepreneurship ecosystem

Hannah Diorio-Toth

Jan 11, 2023

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CMU-Africa recently held its first entrepreneurship forum which brought together a large group of people from across the continent to discuss important challenges and opportunities for African entrepreneurs. The two-day event welcomed over 700 participants (in-person and virtual), including students, faculty, higher education administrators, government officials, industry leaders, ambassadors, and members of the diplomatic corps. Several countries were represented, including Rwanda, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, and the United States of America.

In order to foster networking and a lively exchange of ideas, the agenda was divided into two tracks (students and ecosystem players) which came together at the end of the forum for student presentations of a global challenge competition, judged by a panel of industry, government, and charitable organization leaders. In this hackathon-style competition, students worked in multi-disciplinary teams to propose solutions to some of today’s grand challenges such as climate, poverty, and healthcare. Through this activity, students gained experience in design thinking, pitching, and presentation.

"We really think entrepreneurship is the future of the continent," says Gbemi Disu, former executive director of CMU-Africa. "We think it’s important that students not only think about starting businesses while they’re in school but also cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset. This means even when students work in big companies, they’re able to think innovative, be productive, and think outside the box."

The student activities also provided a platform for further collaboration between the participating African universities and Carnegie Mellon University’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. Several Swartz Center students from CMU-Pittsburgh visited Kigali to participate in the forum and act as mentors for the global challenge competition.

We really think entrepreneurship is the future of the continent.

Gbemi Disu, Former executive director, CMU-Africa

The track for ecosystem players focused on networking, sharing ideas, and exploring best practices. Panel discussions and presentations facilitated conversations about trends for regional and global innovation, funding, policy, and the role of higher education in entrepreneurship. The agenda featured insight from the event’s lead partners, Hanga Pitchfest '22, the Mastercard Foundation, the World Bank, and UN Rwanda.

"We brought these leaders together to have a conversation about what an entrepreneurship ecosystem should look like. What makes a vibrant ecosystem and how is a pipeline to entrepreneurism built?" says Maria Mayanja, entrepreneurship program manager.

Although this was the first entrepreneurship forum held at CMU-Africa, the conversation around inspiring innovation and supporting startups is not a new one for the Carnegie Mellon location. Their tech incubator, the Industry Innovation Lab (IIL), has been supporting budding entrepreneurs since its founding in 2020. The IIL helps CMU-Africa students and alumni accelerate product development, launch their companies, and grow their businesses while working with industry partners and Carnegie Mellon's global community.