Chinese internet giant Alibaba shares its plans for Africa

From June 19-29, 29 Africa-based entrepreneurs from 11 countries participated in a flagship programme hosted by Alibaba Business School and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The students were participating in an intensive eFounders Fellowship programme which is part of a pledge by Jack Ma, Alibaba Group’s Executive Chairman and UNCTAD Special Adviser for young entrepreneurs and small business. The aim? To empower 1,000 entrepreneurs from developing countries in five years. Two hundred of these entrepreneurs will come from Africa, demonstrating Ma’s personal commitment to supporting entrepreneurs from the African continent and empowering them to succeed in the digital world.

CNBC Africa spoke about the eFounders Initiative and Alibaba’s vision for Africa with Brian Wong, Vice President of Globalization Initiatives at Alibaba. Wong also serves as the executive director of the Alibaba Global Leadership Academy (AGLA).

What are Alibaba Group’s plans for Africa?
When Jack Ma first visited Africa in 2017, he saw a continent facing many of the same challenges that Alibaba had managed to overcome in the last 20 years in China. As a Special Adviser to UNCTAD, Jack recognised that empowering young entrepreneurs with ideas and practical knowledge from China’s most innovative businesses could accelerate the development of inclusive ecommerce platforms and provide markets around Africa with a whole different approach to enabling entrepreneurs, small businesses, youth, women and more, all with the objective to provide access to prosperity for all.

As with other regions outside of China, Alibaba’s expansion strategy is one of ‘inclusive development.’ The company seeks to work with local partners who share our values and understand local markets. By partnering with local platforms in Africa and elsewhere, we believe we can better enable SMEs and create a more inclusive globalised trading network.

What is it currently doing in Africa?
Some Alibaba services are available in Africa (Alibaba Cloud, for example) but as mentioned above, our focus is on enabling local partners to develop their own inclusive ecosystems.

Which regions does it operate in?
Alibaba Cloud,, and AliExpress are available to anyone with an Internet connection in all 54 African countries, while TMall Global facilitates African exports to China from around the continent.

What is Alibaba Group doing to help young Africa-based entrepreneurs succeed in the digital economy?
The eFounders Fellowship is at the core of the Alibaba’s plan to empower young entrepreneurs in Africa by providing capacity building and access to insights and experience from Alibaba’s own journey.

The eFounders Fellowship is a two-week course for entrepreneurial founders in developing countries who are operating open, platform-based businesses in the ecommerce, logistics, big data, and tourism sectors. The programme provides first-hand exposure to and learning about ecommerce innovations from China and around the world that enabled growth and a more inclusive development model for all.

With a focus on highlighting breakthrough innovations that have transformed society in China, the programme seeks to inspire each participant to think of creative frameworks based on prior expertise and new learnings that can be applied to their own home markets.

Participating entrepreneurs are given the tools to improve their own ventures, but as ‘New Economy’ pioneers they are also expected to serve as network builders and champions of new ways to approach commerce in their own markets. UNCTAD and Alibaba believe these entrepreneurs can inspire others with powerful new ideas around the world by creating impactful communities and empowering their peers.

The course consists of a structured series of classroom workshops, lectures, meetings with business leaders, teambuilding exercises, site visits and a business hackathon at Alibaba Group Headquarters in Hangzhou with site visits to other cities in China.

Upon graduation from the programme the fellows make a 2-year commitment for how they will apply their learnings from their course to transform their businesses and make a positive impact on their societies.

We also invite ecosystem partners from local venture capital and incubators to observe during program and to participate in the hackathon portion in order to engage them and to work with Alibaba to provide the necessary support to the fellows during the subsequent two years.

Why is it doing this?
The initiatives in Africa are consistent with Alibaba’s original mission. It is a platform-based business whose mission is to make it easy to do business anywhere by connecting SMEs around the world. Enabling platforms in other countries strengthens this worldwide network and “grows the pie” for all, rather than fighting over the same pie.

The more open, platform-based businesses there are in the world – the more opportunities there will be for all players (including Alibaba), and the more partnerships will be possible in the long term.

How many has it helped so far?
There are 52 fellows from Africa who have completed the fellowship and are currently participating, but the expectation is that with their platforms there will be a multiplier effect in their impact.

From which countries?
Our current fellows are from 14 different African countries: Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, South Africa, Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Egypt, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia.

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