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The Coronavirus and Who We are – Early Lessons from the Crisis

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We are in the early stages of what is shaping up to be a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. Estimates still vary significantly, but the most alarming ones say that the Coronavirus could infect up to 20-30 percent of the world population over the next twelve months. This would obviously have dire consequences in terms of loss of life and economic and social distress. Whether the extent of the projections materialize or not, a few lessons can already be drawn from the situation:

  1. History is now. We tend to think that great wars, pandemics, global natural disasters and other Earth-shattering events happened only in the past and might only reoccur in the distant future. This leads us to take for granted warning signs and make bad decisions — the belated and inefficient response to this Coronavirus spread being one of them. Other examples of disasters waiting to happen include the effects of climate change and the threat of nuclear war. On the former, specialists have been losing their voices for decades, screaming for attention. On the latter, the Doomsday Clock has never been so close to midnight. Hopefully, this health crisis will open our eyes and make us understand we are part of the world we live in and our actions do matter, today.
  2. We are all the same. We are all on the same boat: black, white, brown, men, women, gay, Christian, Muslim, whatever you are. We live and we perish the same. Any sentiment of racial, cultural or gender superiority should seem frivolous at this point. If this crisis does not humble us and teach us to put things in perspective, nothing will. Like soldiers that went through war together and are ever bonded by overcoming a common fear, hopefully this crisis will help us learn how to leave differences aside and focus on what unite us.
  3. Institutions are not as solid as we think. We tend to trust our institutions. We rely on the ability of our governments, hospitals, and the general infrastructure to keep us safe and hold order. But the reality is that we are much more vulnerable and powerless than we would like to believe. If that many people do indeed get sick, we will not have enough hospital beds, ventilators and doctors to deal with it, and no contingency plan seems to stand on its feet. Luckily, the Coronavirus is not a particularly lethal one, with mortality rate estimates from various sources ranging anywhere between 0.1 and 5 percent. The mortality rate for the Ebola virus, for example, was about 40 percent, but in that case, we lucked out on the contagiousness side, as it was easier to contain its spread. But one day we might get the worst of both worlds and we better be ready to deal with something like that. Or a major terrorist attack. Or the effects of climate change. Hopefully this crisis will urge us to prepare better for these situations, in time.
  4. The cost of having lousy leaders is much higher than we think. In some countries, we are paying the price for having elected lousy leaders, who are clearly unfit to rule a nation let alone to manage a crisis of this proportion. When one casts a “protest vote”, he/she normally does not foresee a situation such as the one we are living in. In the face of a major crisis, serious leadership and competent teams matter more than ever and can be the difference between the life and death of thousands or even millions. Hopefully, moving forward, people will add another variable to their decision-making process when it comes to electing representatives to public office.
  5. Yes, we need the State. Regardless of political views, it is clear that only the State can handle (or lead) certain services and situations. Health, education, social safety nets, and part of infrastructure (including of course public-private partnerships) are some of the obvious areas. Weakening the State by cutting the budget of vital branches that oversee some of these areas can have calamitous consequences. Hopefully, after this trauma, even the most fanatical free-market evangelists will come to recognize that we need to strive for a balance between the public and private initiatives.
  6. Science demands respect. Science is imperfect, but it is the best tool we have to live in a livable world. It is what will ultimately allow us to combat diseases, mitigate climate change, and create ever-evolving societies. After what we are experiencing, there should be no more room for denying scientific consensus, minimizing warning signs, or challenging facts. The stakes are too high. Hopefully this experience will push Earth-flatters, climate-change deniers and the like to the very peripheries of the political debate, cleaning the noise around what matters, and increasing the focus on what needs to get done.

I ended each of the paragraphs above with a “hopefully” statement. We have tough months ahead of us, but I am confident that the realization of these lessons will make us better and stronger.

Stay safe!

What have I missed? Feel free to chime in below by leaving a comment.

6 Ways Innovation and Entrepreneurship Promote Prosperity

entrepreneurship innovation

It is not a coincidence that the most developed nations are also the ones with the highest levels of entrepreneurial activity and innovation. While starting from a minimal level of development helps support the latter two, for example through basic access to capital and institutional stability, the impact of innovation and entrepreneurship on the economy and society more broadly cannot be overstated. In fact, it goes beyond usual suspects such as increased productivity, competitiveness, and job creation, spilling over to areas as diverse as regulation, infrastructure, the environment, and social inclusion. Below I provide a (certainly non-exhaustive) list of six such effects. While every issue deserves an article (or even a book!) of its own, I provide but a brief overview on each point, leaving the interested reader to dig deeper on his or her own.

  1. Innovation can drive regulatory improvements

Although ideally the right conditions, including regulations, would be in place to enable the occurrence of innovations, the reality is that the order is often inverted. Regulatory changes can be drawn by the innovations themselves, from the bottom up. For example, in Kenya, Safaricom launched a series of increasingly innovative financial services through its M-Pesa platform, such as e-money transfer, virtual savings accounts, and virtual credit. The government watched while the company experimented and innovated and, once the demand for its services were demonstrated, the government enacted and amended laws to adequate the functioning of the financial system to M-Pesa’s offerings. This set a new regulatory stage in Kenya that benefited other fintech startups and helped democratize access to finance. When regulation follows innovation, it tends to work better than ex-ante efforts, which are often based on non-transferable international practices and struggle to support innovations that are not yet fully understood.

  1. Innovation can support infrastructure progress

Innovation can also promote infrastructure development. In the early 2000s, in Africa, the growth of telecom pioneer Celtel was hindered by insufficient cellphone coverage in countries like Congo, Gabon and Zambia. But the company did not just wait for government investments. It took matters into its own hands and invested in cell towers itself, as well as other complementary infrastructure such as roads, to be able to service the towers effectively, and water supply, so workers and their communities could have basic water access in remote areas. This investment has paid off for Celtel, enabling the exponential growth of the business, and the countries where it operates, which benefitted from improved infrastructure. Similarly, in Nigeria, Tolaram launched its popular brand of instant noodles Indomie, the first of its kind in the country, which quickly became a hit and a must-have dish across the country. The growth of the business, however, was being hindered by the precarious infrastructure and logistic capabilities in Nigeria. Tolaram invested more than $350 million in developing its own logistics company, with over 2,000 trucks, and building infrastructure including electricity and sewage and water treatment facilities. Furthermore, the company took a leading role in developing a $1.5 billion public-private partnership to build and operate a deep-water port in Lagos, all to support the long-term growth of its business. Both cases are discussed in details in the book The Prosperity Paradox.

  1. Innovation and entrepreneurship can promote environmental sustainability

There is plenty of evidence that this generation of entrepreneurs and innovators, especially younger ones, tend to be more environmentally conscious than businesspeople from previous generations and government bureaucrats. In fact, many startups are set up specifically to mitigate environmental challenges. Colombia’s Conceptos Plasticos, for example, contributes to the circular economy by using recycled plastic materials to form Lego-style bricks which are then used to build affordable housing. Global startup Airborn Water, in turn, designed a technology that efficiently produces fresh (potable) water from the air’s humidity, contributing to sustainable water supply in even the remotest areas. Moreover, even when the business itself is not focused on solving an environmental issue, (younger) entrepreneurs are generally more mindful of mitigating potential negative externalities, following sustainable practices, and adopting a triple-bottom-line approach to business.

  1. Innovation and entrepreneurship can mitigate social problems

Entrepreneurs are problem-solvers who understand that a problem can become the opportunity for a profitable business. They often build companies around solving pain-points they have identified in their own lives and communities. Many startups have business models that rely on resolving social problems or targeting the base of the pyramid as consumers, workers, and suppliers. In fact, three of the examples provided above – Celtel, M-Pesa and Indomie – illustrate businesses that have great social impact. Also, there is a subset of social entrepreneurs that run non-for-profit enterprises which are committed, first and foremost, to addressing community challenges. Hospital Beyond Boundaries provides health services to poor, underserved communities in Malaysia and Cambodia. Zomato Feeding India combats food waste in India and provides meals to the poor. It has a network of about 25,000 volunteers across more than 100 cities and has served over 33 million meals to people in need.  She Says is an organization that fights for gender rights in India, especially those of women and girls that have been victims of sexual assault and harassment.

  1. Entrepreneurship can promote inclusion and change cultural norms

Many countries face challenges when it comes to the inclusion of minorities and women in the economy. In certain regions of the Middle East and Africa, for example, business is still not seen as an appropriate activity for women. They are expected to take on domestic roles or perhaps become teachers, nurses, or work in traditional agriculture and manufacturing. In Africa, only 9 percent of startups have women leaders, according to Venture Capital for Africa. In such context, the development of programs that promote women’s entrepreneurship, for example through business education, incubation and acceleration, helps debunk taboos and shake the status quo. Initiatives such as New Work Lab, in Morocco, and the Kosmos Innovation Center (KIC) in Ghana, Senegal, and Mauritania, are making targeted efforts to support women entrepreneurs. Similar initiatives abound throughout Africa and the Middle East and are paying off. The landscape for women in the workplace is changing for the better, as female entrepreneurs become role models and serve as inspiration to others, regardless of sector and occupation. And the economy benefits too. According to the Women’s Entrepreneurship Report, women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa are 60 percent more likely than male entrepreneurs to offer innovative solutions and 30 percent have businesses with international reach, which also exceeds their male counterparts.

  1. Entrepreneurship can strengthen ties with diaspora and help address brain-drain

Many developing economies suffer from brain-drain, with an important share of the well-educated and resourced leaving the country to search for better opportunities in developed countries. The growth of a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem creates the opportunity for people to choose to develop their talent and invest their resources locally, instead of voting with their feet. It also motivates the diaspora to re-engage with the local economy by becoming (angel) investors, mentors, connectors – and eventually even returning to their countries. For example, ChileGlobal, part of Fundación Chile, promotes and facilitates the development of business projects and the introduction of innovative technologies through its network of influential Chileans living in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Pangea, in turn, connects African entrepreneurs and successful diaspora members by providing both training and business intelligence for diaspora investors and engaging the diaspora in the startups Pangea has invested in.

Do you have additional points to raise? Examples to share? Agree or disagree with a particular issue? Leave your comments below and let’s keep this discussion alive!

Time for Ecommerce Entrepreneurs

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Most people know that launching a business, especially online, has never been easier. However, few realize how true this is in the ecommerce space. Today there are fantastic resources available that allow for the relatively seamless development and maintenance of e-stores. In my experience, working only nights and weekends, I was able to launch an online shop for Brazilian apparel and accessories in just a couple of months. So if you ever thought about starting your own business, I suggest you read on.

Setting up an ecommerce doesn’t require any technical skills whatsoever. I never coded or designed a website. Still, I was able to set up my Brazilian lifestyle store completely on my own. Platforms such as Shopify provide you with the complete toolbox needed for your ecommerce, including awesomely designed templates. In the backend, they operate as intuitively as ticking boxes and drag-and-dropping images. They also integrate with several useful apps, which help you with marketing, CRM, logistics and all other aspects of running a business.

In terms of supply chain in particular – assuming you will be selling physical products – our lives have also been made easier by fulfillment companies, like Printful. Through them, you can automate the supply management of the business, from production to distribution. Not only that, but depending on what you sell, you can set up your business with no overhead or inventory costs, and have your products be manufactured and shipped on demand, one by one.

The beauty is that what’s left is what the majority of entrepreneurs would consider the most pleasant side of any business: value proposition, strategic positioning, product design, marketing, and customer relationship. In my case, for the most part, I developed the business concept and work on the strategy and marketing. My partner, who is a fantastic artist, takes care of our Brazilian themed art and designs. Other parts of the business were outsourced to freelancers you can find in websites such as Fiverr or Upwork.

So if you have the faintest idea of a product sell, this is the time to pursue your startup dream. There are plenty of free resources out there to help you refine your idea, test assumptions, and assist you in arriving at a winning business proposition. For example, pick a few ecommerce podcasts to listen to, such as Shopify Masters and Ecommerce Fuel. Read relevant blogs such as Digital Marketer, Get Elastic and Practical Ecommerce. This article on customer value optimization (CVO) is a great place to start thinking about your business.

Of course, building and running an ecommerce is still tons of work. But work you can administer at your own pace, especially if you are good at delegating. So go out there, think of a great business idea, develop it, and let’s get to work!

Image: creative common.