How studentpreneurs can find opportunity in Africa's vast array of problems

Ms Ellen Fischat has gone from being born into humble surroundings in the Eastern Cape to working with global captains of industry and representing African women in technology on international stages. Now she dines with the elite and travels the world.

Speaking directly to studentpreneurs in her virtual presentation (Africans creating market opportunities through entrepreneurship and innovation) last week, the founder of Story Room and impact entrepreneur used herself as an example of how it is possible to succeed. She was speaking within the session on Day Two of the EDHE Lekgotla 2020 that was dedicated to the sub-theme: Breaking new ground through entrepreneurship.

The 2020 edition, themed #African Entrepreneurship through Technology, attracted 1221 participants from South Africa's 26 universities, across the African continent, Europe and the United States.

Telling studentpreneurs that Africa's problems presented countless opportunities, she urged them to look within their own communities to find innovative solutions to problems that their communities face. It was through finding solutions for everyday problems that market opportunities are created, she told them.

Ms Ellen Fischat
Ms Ellen Fischat has, herself, transitioned from social worker, through many stages, to a businesswoman now working in technology. "I made all sorts of iterations. I evolved and changed with the changing times," she told the studentpreneurs at the EDHE Lekgotla 2020.

"My business is called Story Room, a boutique innovation consultancy that designs entrepreneurship training programmes for incubator and acceleration projects," she told the students on this virtual platform. She added that she wears many hats and is involved in business mentorship, runs a non-profit organisation that aims to make female role models in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) more visible, so that more women will choose technical careers.

"I come from a coloured area in Port Elizabeth called Korsten. It's not a rich area. But I stand here today because I made a conscious decision to make the best of my life and move out of the circumstances I was born into. I not only created lots of opportunities for myself but also started several businesses. Not all of them were successful. No one wakes up and is successful overnight, unless you are Beyoncé and Jay-Z's child.

"Most of us addressing you today, have worked very hard to get to where we are today. I want to remind you that I am a social worker, who nobody thought would be in business and travelling the world, coming from humble beginnings."

Hers has been an unusual journey. She obtained her degree in Social Work, in the Netherlands in 1999. The first 10 years of her career, spent in Amsterdam, were focused on helping families, running charities and empowering people. In 2006 she came back to South Africa and started working in the townships.

Fischat showed a picture of the 2019 Paris Air Show: "I am one of the two women who designed #Africa4Future, an African aerospace accelerator programme. I got here by pursuing opportunities that exist in the market. This shift to entrepreneurship and innovation has taken me to insane places I never could have dreamt about. But I am not the only one. There are many South Africans who have had remarkable success."

She said it was unfortunate that South Africans tended to look outside of their own country to Europe and America. "We're not really focused on the abundance of resources that we have here."

SA entrepreneurs whose names you should know

She showed slides of South Africans who had excelled internationally:

Ms Lelemba Phiri , a Zambian woman who runs a R100-m venture capital firm and a multi-talented entrepreneur and gender equality advocate.

Ms Lelemba Phiri

Dr Adriana Marais

Dr Adriana Marais , a quantum physicist and technologist and one of 100 people
selected to go on the first journey to Mars.


Lesotho-born Ms Nneile Nkholise , founder of iMed Technology. She is world renowned for the impact she has made in healthcare.

Ms Nneile Nkholise

Mr Siya Xuza

Mr Siya Xuza , an African rocket scientist from the Eastern Cape.


Mr Vinny Lingham ,a Durban-born internet entrepreneur who is a co-founder and CEO of Civic, an identity protection and management start-up. He made his money selling his digital gift card company Gyft.

Mr Vinny Lingham

Then Fischat said: "As aspiring entrepreneurs, you need to know that if you look around you, there is greatness. You don't have to wait until you reach somewhere someday."

All topics discussed at the Lekgotla, she said, had been about innovation, a word that used to be reserved for scientists, but now applies to everything.

"I would like to demystify something: making the transition from a social worker to a social entrepreneur; to an impact entrepreneur; and, ultimately, to a businesswoman working in technology, I made all sorts of iterations. I evolved. I changed as times changed. I used to think that innovation was not for me. I will never forget the time I attended my first session at Nelson Mandela University and everyone was speaking a language I did not understand. I wondered, how am I going to figure this out? These people have studied for years...

"Innovation, when you're talking about entrepreneurship, is really the ability to adapt, and to use that adaptation to your benefit and the benefit of other people. It's about opportunity. You may have a five-year strategy, but it is in doing that we fail and that we learn. The only way you're going to test any of these assumptions you make is by implementing and executing them."

Problems abound in Africa...

Opportunities, Fischat told students, lay all around them. "What we don't lack in Africa is the enormous number of problems that we have."

  • Literacy – reading, maths literacy, but also digital literacy. "That poses a problem: if you're not part of the digital economy, what economy are you a part of?"
  • Food insecurity in this country and on the continent. (She posted a slide of food being delivered, showing how supply chains broke down, especially during the Covid-19 era). "There are a lot of problems around logistics and supply chains."
  • Agriculture. "We have enough land. Foreigners (not Africans) buy land that they develop in Africa, yet we have land that we are not leveraging."
  • Health care.
  • Transport.

"This could make one depressed. But the good news is that these problems provide opportunities for students, and lecturers."

....but so do opportunities

Having started her life as a social fixer, she says she saw an opportunity in education.

"I use technology because that places me in a niche market. There are many women in technology, but they are not at the forefront; they are not visible. You don't see them being part of a business community."

She encouraged the students to find opportunities in education, in Ed-Tech and invited them to specifically look at vernacular languages. "The many problems in digital literacy create an opportunity for you. If you're fluent in your home language and enjoy storytelling you could create content, as your side hustle. Also, how many websites exist in our mother tongue? There is an opportunity."

Waste is a huge problem in Africa; both locally generated waste and exported waste, dumped in Africa by Western countries. "There are few systems to deal with this problem, and we lack the necessary legislation. But there are real business opportunities in managing waste. Climate change means we can't allow our natural resources to be depleted. We can't afford to continue to fill our oceans with plastic and pollute our planet."

Fischat asked the students: "What do you see in your environment as an opportunity? Go onto municipality websites, look at local economic development, at public works infrastructure, and look at what strategies they have in place, in, for example, waste management. See where the opportunities lie in your community."

There was no shortage of sick people in South Africa (and Africa), she further pointed out, "but there is a shortage of affordable health care." Applications that present data to governments, multi-nationals and corporate pharmaceutical companies on the health status of communities, inform the delivery of targeted healthcare solutions. There are potential opportunities in setting up systems in primary healthcare clinics to reduce the time that people wait in queues.

On logistics and supply chain, Fischat disclosed that she was working on a remote sensing and infrastructure project. "There needs to be more focus on local economic development. How do we get our goods to the people? If you understand your area well, you will know what the challenges are, and therefore also the opportunities."

She also spoke about technology used in agriculture, agri-tech, suggesting how drone technology and remote sensing technology could provide farmers with the information pertinent to improving their business. "The outside world wants to come to Africa, not only because it's beautiful but because there are a lot of problems and therein lie the market opportunities."

She mentioned opportunities in fashion: "We are creative people, we live online. People want to buy our designs, our beautiful fabrics. There's nothing stopping you from creating e-commerce opportunities in design and fashion."

She also suggested that students pay attention to energy supply: what simple infrastructure in renewable energy can offer energy solutions to local communities?

In wrapping up, she offered personal advice.

Grow wealth in your heart; always be kind to others

Fischat said she had always been willing to work very hard, and to do what no one else was willing to do. That meant putting herself out there, asking the "stupid" questions to those who seemed to know everything. "Be curious. Also, if you don't know, partner with people; rope in your friends or family, the tech nerd. Learn the rules of the game. Do your research, speak to companies, pick up the phone and dare to be rejected.

"It's important that you grow wealth, not only in your bank account, but in your heart.Don't be afraid to fail. You only learn by being out of your comfort zone, by making mistakes.

Lastly, always be kind. It's an infinite resource, it's not going to cost you anything; you will be amazed where this will take you in the world and how successful you will be."

The EDHE Lekgotla, an annual platform for exchanging best practices and thought leadership among studentpreneurs, academics, experts and policymakers, has become a premium event on the EDHE annual calendar. The EDHE programme is one of Universities South Africa's flagship projects funded largely from the Department of Higher Education and Training's University Capacity Development Programme.

EDHE Lekgotla 2020 attracted delegates from South Africa, other African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania, as well as Europe and the United States.


The author, Charmain Naidoo, is an independent writer commissioned by USAf.

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