Communication network giant, Vodacom, has collaborated with America-based business expert, Rhett Power, in a training project aimed at equipping Basotho with entrepreneurial skills. The entrepreneurs are being trained at Vodacom Innovation Park at Maseru Mall, with the Vodacom Lesotho Foundation bankrolling the initiative.
In this wide-ranging interview, Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, speaks with Mr Power, who is the Programme Facilitator, about how the Vodacom Innovation Park operates and his involvement in the project.
LT: The Vodacom Innovation Park…what is it all about and what does it bring to Basotho?
Power: The idea in my mind and the reason why the Vodacom Foundation is supporting and funding this initiative is to help entrepreneurs improve their businesses. It is to help give entrepreneurs a better chance at thriving and surviving in a tough economic environment. Entrepreneurship is a very difficult thing no matter where you live; it is tough. If you start a business, you are never sure whether you will succeed. So what the Vodacom Innovation Park does is give entrepreneurs a better chance to survive; a better chance of creating more jobs; a better chance of being successful. The work we do with these entrepreneurs will give them the tools to succeed and a competitive edge over the competition. That’s what the Vodacom Innovation Park is going to do in Lesotho. The other thing that I think it does is raise awareness of entrepreneurial issues in this country. It is going to highlight the importance of entrepreneurship in Lesotho. If you look at any economy in the world, the jobs are not created by big companies. Yes, they create jobs, but the majority of the jobs are created by small and medium size companies. And if we can help that sector, we are going to create more jobs, and that’s the good thing. That is our mission.
LT: How exactly are you doing this?
Power: Some of the biggest problems entrepreneurs face, again it doesn’t matter where you live, are money, support, knowledge and access to resources. What we are trying to do at the Vodacom Innovation Park is address those challenges. One of the biggest challenges is managing money. So were working with the entrepreneurs on how to manage money better. We are giving them an opportunity at the end of this training to pitch their businesses in front of investors. We are working with them on business structure; how to plan their sales and marketing departments. Basically, we are working with them on all major challenges that new entrepreneurs face. Most of these guys are brand new entrepreneurs; they have never run a business before, so we are giving them the basic tools to do it better; to avoid some of the basic mistakes that we normally make as entrepreneurs. I’ve started several successful businesses but we made lots of mistakes. I wish that there was an innovation project similar to this so that I could have learnt and avoided them. So with this project, we will help entrepreneurs avoid those mistakes.
LT: How do interested Basotho entrepreneurs become part of this initiative?
Power: Everyone is welcome to apply. For this first group, there were lots of applications made, but we narrowed it down to the best six applicants. We are going to do the same thing again for the next group. The next applications will be invited at the end of this week or early next week. This is open to everybody in the country to apply. If you are a brand new entrepreneur; if you already have an existing business and you want to improve it, you are welcome. We are here to help you take your business to the next level. We encourage women and young entrepreneurs to apply. They are our target.
LT: How long is the training?
Power: The programme takes 12 weeks with the participants spending 20 hours per week for the training. Actually, the participants are part of the programme for a year. So after the initial 12 weeks, and after what we call pitch night, which is where they pitch their businesses to local and international investors, they still come back every month for one-on-one counselling sessions after the training is finished. We believe after the 12 weeks you have to go out and implement what you learned. You stay in the programme for a year to continue the learning process and have access to resources and mentoring.
LT: When did you start the programme?
Power: It’s five weeks now since we started the programme. The six participants have already indicated to me that they are beginning to find the purpose of this project. One of the exercises we do is to create a personal mission statement. It’s the first thing we do in class. The personal mission statement helps you define who you are, why you want to become an entrepreneur. So before you can put together your business plan, you have to know what your goals are, personally. You have to know who you are; what were your motivations for becoming an entrepreneur; why you are going down this path. It’s not the easy path so you have to be sure.
LT: Are there some fees that participants have to pay?
Power: No. There are no fees involved. The programme is entirely sponsored by the Vodacom Foundation. All we need from people is their time and commitment. One of the things that we look for from the applicants is their commitment and their drive. I am not so much worried about their business ideas, but the commitment. That is what is important to me. I want people who want to win and who want to create something special.
LT: What are the other basic requirements for one to first make an application for this programme?
Power: The only basic requirement for this programme is for you to have a business or a great idea. There are no specific academic qualifications required.
LT: Who came up with this idea?
Power: I have to give all the credit to Vodacom. The idea came up during the tenure of former Vodacom Managing Director, Ian Ferrao. We talked about the idea with him about a year ago. Obviously the current Managing Director, Johnny Dos Santos, has continued to fully support the programme with funding. The programme is fully Vodacom’s vision and support.
LT: To your knowledge, are there any other Vodacom centres like this one anywhere in the world?
Power: No. This is the first of its kind for Vodacom and as you see in Lesotho, it is an amazing space. It will become a place for entrepreneurs to meet, work, and collaborate in Lesotho.
LT: When did you come to Lesotho for this project?
Power: I came to Lesotho about a year ago, and now I am here fulltime. Actually, I want to be here for three years. But if they want to keep me beyond that, then we will see what happens.
LT: Tell us a little about your background.
Power: I co-founded Wild Creations in 2007 and quickly built the startup toy company into the 2010 Fastest Growing Business in South Carolina. Wild Creations was awarded a Blue Ribbon Top 75 US Company by the US Chamber of Commerce and named one of Inc Magazine’s 500 Fastest Growing US Companies two years in a row. Together with my team, I have won over 40 national awards for the innovative toys. I was also a finalist for Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2011 and was nominated again in 2012. And I will be launching a new company, EdJunction, in January 2016.
LT: What have been your observations regarding Lesotho’s business sector?
Power: I see a lot of young people who want to make something out of their lives. I have talked to a lot of young people during interviews and that was really eye-opening for me. I see young people who are excited about opportunities that come their way. I see people who want to create something meaningful on their own. A lot of them want to create something that they will leave behind as their legacy. I am very encouraged though I also see challenges. No matter the challenges, entrepreneurs figure out how to make things work. They are problem solvers by nature.
LT: What change would you want to see when you leave this country?
Power: I want to see Basotho entrepreneurs, especially young people, doing their businesses successfully locally and internationally. If we can accomplish that, I will be very happy. My goal is simple, I want to see them being able to operate anywhere in the world as entrepreneurs.