Guidance from business professionals or peers can provide valuable support for young entrepreneurs just starting out. Here, Blessing Mene from Nigeria, and Hermann Tossou from Benin, both 29, describe how they have benefited from mentoring – and how each has gone on to offer mentorship to other young people wanting to launch an agribusiness.
“My mission is to help farmers improve their livelihoods through increased agricultural productivity. During my undergraduate studies, I was part of an entrepreneurship university club, which provided skills training to fellow students. As part of the club, I started my own businesses on campus, using my pocket money. One of these involved processing beans into flour. I would go to the market near the university, buy beans, clean and grind them into flour, and package this into small low-cost packs for self-catering students and restaurants. I also engaged in selling various used electronics. These businesses enabled me to meet my personal needs and learn about entrepreneurship in a practical way, while completing my studies.
After graduation, I went back into business and set up a social enterprise - UNFIRE. This produces low-cost livestock feed, made of alternative raw materials sourced from the local community, and sold to livestock farmers. I have about 100 regular customers. A key factor for success has been the fact that I have participated in a number of mentorship programmes, which helped to accelerate my enterprise. These included Ashoka and the Global Good Fund. The skills I learned from these programmes inspired me to start the League of Extraordinary Young people (LEXY) with the aim of mentoring and inspiring other enterprising youths. Under LEXY, I trained 20 youths in fundraising, business planning, and design thinking. After two years on the programme, about half of these young entrepreneurs managed to get funding to start their own businesses. LEXY has since transitioned to the Inspire Africa for Global Impacts Initiative, of which I am co-leader.”
“In 2013, I worked for a civil society organisation in southern Benin that had a programme for mentoring rural agribusinesses. This targeted rural entrepreneurs, including youth, mentoring them through an entrepreneurship toolkit. The toolkit set out to help young people establish sustainable agribusinesses. It centred on one-on-one training in enterprise marketing, processing and packaging, as well as on management. Our approach was not always successful! First, the majority of the participants did not finish the training, citing time constraints. Others dropped out because many of them, especially the younger ones, had the idea of getting rich quick, and of transitioning into big enterprises. This was mainly as a result of the type of youth success stories that were showcased. The entrepreneurship programme was eventually discontinued.
I then joined another organisation, and using my previous experiences I facilitated the design of a new entrepreneurship toolkit. For this programme, we set up groups of young people with similar enterprises and a similar skills gap. The six-month mentorship programme was then tailored to meet the needs of the group members, with the youth who had been in business the longest appointed as group leader. These leaders received training in group leadership and management, enabling them to become informal mentors within the group, which met every two weeks. In this way, the leaders were themselves mentored, while also mentoring their peers. In total, three groups were formed on a voluntary basis, the only condition being that members should in turn informally train two others within their community, in their own time. In so doing, the mentorship became cascaded. One year later, at the end of the group mentorship period, about 65% of all members had thriving sustainable businesses.”
“My experiences in the agricultural sector, and with mentoring in Africa, have made me a strong believer in deliberate efforts to include women in any type of entrepreneurial mentoring process. Without such efforts, there is a risk of leaving some behind – the women who are the engine of the agricultural sector on the continent.”
Our experiences have taught us that peer-to-peer mentoring is key for building a cadre of sustainable, viable youth entrepreneurs, as we ‘we teach what we want to learn’. Cascading, in both our cases, was key in ensuring continuous learning from peers with different levels of business success.
Through the club/group mentoring, aspiring entrepreneurs encouraged and learned from each other through their failures and success.
Moving forward, it is important that the role models showcased cover the whole spectrum – from fast and big successes to small, sustainable businesses that develop gradually. We believe this will have far greater impact on more youths – especially in rural areas, where many face seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Finally, any entrepreneurial mentoring programme should incorporate time-saving techniques such as staging group training, and using ICTs and mobile platforms.
This article was created through a CTA-led process to document and share actionable knowledge on 'what works' for ACP agriculture. It capitalises on the insights, lessons and experiences of practitioners to inform and guide the implementation of agriculture for development projects.