We Meet Magatte Wade, one of Forbes' '20 Youngest Power Women of Africa'

Serial entrepreneur and female hero Magatte WadeThe NextWomen Africa Theme. 

We are really honoured to bring you an exclusive interview with Magatte Wade, one of Forbes magazine's “20 Youngest Power Women of Africa.”

Magatte was born in Senegal, educated in France, and started her entrepreneurial career in the U.S. Her first company, Adina World Beverages, based on indigenous Senegalese beverage recipes, became one of the most widely distributed U.S. brands started by an African entrepreneur.

Her second company, Tiossan, offers skin care products based on indigenous Senegalese recipes online and at high-end boutiques.

Magatte was also named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum at Davos and is frequent speaker at business conferences and college campuses, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Dartmouth, MIT, Wharton and Babson.

Magatte writes for The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and Barron’s. She has been featured on BBC, CNN, FoxBusiness and The New York Times, amongst others.

She is a mentor for the MIT Legatum Center for Entrepreneurship and Development.

We spoke to Magatte in a wonderful interview covering everyone and everything from Steve Jobs, Akon, her husband and the President of Rwanda; to the lessons Silicon Valley, Paris and Dakar could learn from each other; and her vision for 'contemporary Africa'.

TNW: Within five years of launching, your first company, Adina World Beat Beverages, had raised over $30 million in venture capital from institutional investors and is now the most widely distributed U.S. consumer brand founded by an African entrepreneur. In the saturated soft drinks market, how did you achieve such buy-in from the investors and go on to achieve this incredible growth?

MW: Adina took off because investors and buyers both found the combination of Magatte Wade and Greg Steltenpohl to be a credible combination.  I brought authentic indigenous beverage recipes and Senegalese sourcing, Greg had co-led Odwalla to tremendous beverage industry success.  The cultural creative demographic (basically the Whole Foods demographic) was enthusiastic about an all natural and organic Fair Trade brand founded by an African woman entrepreneur.

TNW: Tell us about stepping down as the CEO of Adina to launch your new company, Tiossana. What prompted that decision? What is the philosophy behind Tiossan?

MW: While Adina was highly successful at raising capital, the flip side of that success is that the commitment to African branding and sourcing was steadily diluted.  I left Adina because the organization was no longer as focused on Africa as I wanted it to be. 

Tiossan is committed to creating the first high-end African skin care company.  Our recipes are based on indigenous Senegalese recipes.  Our branding is designed to evoke a "contemporary Africa" styling that is clearly differentiated from most existing African brands, which are typically based on safari, tribal, or "pity" approaches to Africa. 

50% of our profits go towards the creation of innovative schools in Africa designed to develop the creative genius of Africa. 

I am very careful with respect to outside investors and partners to ensure that they share my commitment to building an authentically African brand.  We do not yet have the capital required to manufacture in Africa (in most cases we will have to develop entire supply chains from scratch), but all of our production methods are designed to be transferred to Africa as soon as we have the capital required to do so.

TNW: Tell us a little about the startup scene in Senegal. Is entrepreneurialism on the rise? What kinds of new businesses are emerging?

MW: Senegalese are extremely entrepreneurial:  To take one example, most of the black street sellers in NYC, Paris, and Milan are Senegalese entrepreneurs.  Within Senegal, however, government obstacles make it very difficult to create a legal business.  Senegal is one of the most difficult countries in the world in which to fire an employee, for instance.  And as I often point out, "If I can't fire you, I can't hire you."  The poor business environment in Senegal impacts all entrepreneurs, male and female, equally.  It is largely the reason why Senegal is poor (almost all African countries are similarly over-regulated, which is why they are poor). 

Thus despite the highly entrepreneurial nature of the Senegalese themselves, within Senegal almost all entrepreneurship remains in the informal economy, without the protection of the law. 

While I have respect for the small businesses of Senegal, the tax and regulatory burden results in a situation in which very few of them ever scale to become substantial employers.

TNW: What are the particular challenges faced by women looking to start their own businesses in Senegal? Are these reflected across Africa as a whole? Are families and communities generally supportive of female entrepreneurs?

MW: With regard to being a woman, Senegal is actually quite respectful of powerful women.  There are some uneducated Senegalese who are not as supportive of women in leadership positions, but compared to most developing nations Senegalese culture is fairly supportive of women. 

I had many strong female role models growing up, and a forceful woman can make her way throughout Senegalese society without much difficulty.  There are other African cultures that are not nearly as supportive of women.

The African family does present a challenge, though again it is a challenge for both male and female entrepreneurs.  In many African cultures, Senegal included, entrepreneurs typically have a large extended family based on a tradition of gifts, celebrations, and mutual aid.  But every successful entrepreneur must invest most profits back into the company in order to grow.  The only way that Africa will ever have a thriving business sector led by Africans is if some of us use our capital to grow our companies. I know of many African entrepreneurs who struggle with the constant demands and expectations of their extended families, which can include hundreds of people. In part this is understandable due to the poverty of Africa, but if African entrepreneurs do not grow their capital, the continent will constantly be managed by outsiders who do have capital.

TNW: Which African startups do you really admire and why?

MW: The African telecom sector has obviously been very successful, and the most successful of the African telecom entrepreneurs is Mo Ibrahim.  While I certainly respect him as an entrepreneur, his most visionary achievement has been the Mo Ibrahim prize, one of the most visionary philanthropic gifts anyone on earth has ever created.  African's single greatest problem is arguably the leaders of our countries, and the fact that Ibrahim created a prize to recognize African leaders who stepped down has been a striking public recognition of the problem.  Ibrahim exemplifies moral leadership as much as philanthropic leadership.  

Although not everyone realizes that he is an African entrepreneur, Akon's achievements are extraordinary.  Akon is a Senegalese-American entrepreneur who not only has a successful music career of his own, but who has been even more successful as a producer.  Few realize that Akon discovered and produced Lady Gaga, who went on to make more money for Akon than he did himself. 

I see the essence of entrepreneurial genius to be identifying value before others do, and Akon's insight in picking Lady Gaga early is but one example of his brilliant aptitude for identifying value before others do.  

Finally, to take a controversial example, Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, may be one of the most brilliant entrepreneurs in Africa.  Although he is a political leader rather than a traditional entrepreneur, as a recent book Rwanda, Inc. points out, Rwanda is being led as a corporation.  It has rapidly become one of the most business friendly countries in Africa and has one of the highest rates of economic growth.  Kagame is enabling entrepreneurs in Africa more rapidly than is any other leader.  The big question in his case is whether he will step down when it is time for him to do so.  Will he cap off his achievements by earning a Mo Ibrahim prize?

TNW: What could Silicon Valley, Paris and Dakar learn from each other in the way they do business?

MW: Sadly, while there are many brilliant French entrepreneurs, they usually leave Paris as fast as they can, usually to Britain or the U.S.  Silicon Valley really is the center of the world for entrepreneurs, and rightly so.  One of the best things about Silicon Valley, which Dakar needs to understand, is that often great entrepreneurs are constantly learning how to "fail faster."  Silicon Valley supports a risk-taking culture in which entrepreneurs are constantly trying new strategies - and sometimes failing.  Dakar is still too dominated by "hippo culture" in which business leaders are expected to be boring, cautious, and conventional.  The Senegalese themselves are extremely creative - we need to integrate creativity and business much more than we've done in the past.  

Silicon Valley could learn a great deal of humanity from Dakar.  As much as I admire Silicon Valley, I find that geek culture can sometimes be remarkably neglectful of human needs and human dignity. 

People in Silicon Valley sometimes believe that more technology will solve everything.  I don't believe that is true.  I find that when I've been in the U.S. for awhile I miss my people and my culture, where we still have a connection to each other and a mutual respect that is increasingly disappearing in the West in general, and sometimes most rapidly among the geekiest.

TNW: As innovators, do you believe that entrepreneurs have a heightened environmental and social responsibility? Which global issues would you like to see entrepreneurs tackle in the next five or ten years?

MW: I am driven first and foremost by a sense of social responsibility, and my most urgent goal is to create jobs back home so that people don't die.  Every year thousands of our most ambitious and talented young people die as they try to cross the Atlantic in small fishing boats in an attempt to get to Europe.  There are entire villages in which all of the young men are gone, most lost at sea.  It breaks my heart more than you can imagine.  

While I respect the fact that there is a growing movement in the West in support of socially responsible business, sometimes I become impatient with the fact that they rarely focus on the fundamental fact that millions of people can be saved simply by creating jobs in developing nations. 

To take but one example, while I personally love to eat locally grown food, it strikes me as a sense of misplaced priorities for young people to regard "local food" as a significant moral cause when millions of people are dying. 

Moreover, if Africa is going to become prosperous, it will only become prosperous by exporting products to the developed world.  Thus I'd like to see a much stronger movement devoted to purchasing African products as a path to creating African prosperity.

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

MW: Steve Jobs is very much a role model - I love the fact that he was committed to his vision for Apple products even though there was no market research supporting that vision and almost everyone thought he was crazy.  My primary mentors are my husband, who is deeply committed to me and my vision, and my spiritual guide in Senegal, who also continues to support me in staying true to my vision.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our readers?

MW: Try googling "contemporary Asia" in images and look at the quality and diversity of images you discover.  Then google "contemporary Africa" and compare the quality and diversity of images.  Asian artists, designers, and entrepreneurs have made tremendous progress in the past several decades in blending some of the most exciting aspects of Asian culture with contemporary themes of modernity. 

In order for Africans to be respected, we need to become leaders in the mainstream of global culture.  We need to co-create an image of "contemporary Africa" that is just as exciting and diverse as is "contemporary Asia" in art, fashion, architecture, cuisine, design, etc.  As long as the west thinks of us as poor, suffering people in need of their constant help, we will never be perceived as proud peers in the co-creation of the best of culture.  Every westerner who sees Africans primarily as object of pity needs to stop for a moment and reconsider just how demeaning such a viewpoint really is. 

And once they've become enlightened to the fact that we Africans are creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs, they need to get busy co-creating with us - and purchasing the best of our products!!!

Magatte blogs at http://magatte.wordpress.com/. She can be followed at www.facebook.com/magatte and www.twitter.com/magattew

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