Sudan’s next top entrepreneur: It’s a hit!

Youth Skills

Sudan’s next top entrepreneur: It’s a hit!

Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps.

For weeks, contestants presented innovative startup ideas to leading economists and business professionals, and faced elimination. Finally, sweating under stage lights, only five contestants remained. Tense with energy, futures at stake, they waited, breathes held in the final, fateful pause.

“First place goes to Samah al-Gadi!”

Gadi threw her arms in the air with a huge smile, the first winner of Sudan’s hot new version of “The Apprentice.” Gadi’s friends in the audience leapt out of their chairs, her mom cried, and she made the “V” sign for victory.

A surprise hit, Sudan’s first business-oriented reality show is taking the country by storm. When the first season of “Mashrouy” ended this January, fans across the country tuned into Blue Nile, the country’s most popular network, to watch the final episode. “Mashrouy”--meaning “my project” in Arabic--aims to inspire young people to become entrepreneurs in a country where entrepreneurship is rare, undervalued and fraught with challenges.

“[Entrepreneurship] is not culturally given a high status,” said Ahmed Amin Abdelatif, chairman of the Sudanese Young Businessmen Association and one of Mashrouy’s four judges, in the New York Times. “Many would say, ‘Why not get a proper job in government or a company?’”

But there aren’t enough “proper” jobs.

When South Sudan became independent in 2011, its borders contained 75 percent of former Sudan’s oil reserves. Since then, Sudan’s economy has struggled without its main economic driver. Youth unemployment was as high as 34 percent this year and many professionals are leaving to search for work abroad. The Sudanese government has tried to create vacancies for unemployed youth, but it can’t keep up.

Sudan has plenty of self-employed day laborers and small projects funded by microfinance, but large entrepreneurial ventures are few and far between. Mashrouy attempts to encourage both idea-makers and financial institutions to take a chance on entrepreneurship in Sudan.

Despite it’s novelty, 2,500 applications flooded in for Mashrouy’s inaugural season. A quarter of the applications were from women and a third came from applicants under 25 years old, according to the British Council, a co-sponsor of the show. The new business ideas ranged from agriculture to recycling.

Gadi’s winning proposal was to harness local handicraft talent to make ropes, bags, and furniture out of water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic weed overtaking waterways and attracting mosquitoes and parasites that spread schistosomiasis. Other ideas included producing and exporting spicy peanut butter, farming ostriches, using trash to make furniture, and mechanically harvesting gum arabic, one of Sudan’s most important agricultural exports.

Mashrouy quickly developed a loyal audience. “It was an inspiration,” said Khalid Muhammad Khalid, a 22-year old Sudanese university student. “I followed the show from the beginning.”

The partnership behind Mashrouy--the British Council, the British Embassy and the Sudanese Young Businessmen Association--awarded Gadi 200,000 Sudanese pounds (about $35,000 USD). The second- and third-place winners also got cash prizes and all three won trips to the United Kingdom to meet other entrepreneurs.

Perhaps most thrilling, potential financiers have already reached out to several contestants and offered support for their ideas, reported the New York Times.

“Promoting entrepreneurship is not a magic answer to Sudan’s economic woes,” said Abda el-Mahdi, another of “Mashrouy’s” judges. “But it allows for youth to think of positive ways to seek self-employment.”

To make a lasting difference, the Sudanese government must get involved to clear the way for major economic progress. Dense bureaucracy and cronyism limit opportunities for people without insider connections.

Sudan ranks 149 out of 189 countries for ease of doing business in the World Bank and International Finance Corporation’s annual assessment. Getting credit and dealing with construction permits are particularly difficult.

But Mashrouy didn’t offer false hope. The show helped contestants develop the skills that entrepreneurs need to succeed anywhere: clear vision, comfort with risk, the ability to plan, negotiate and network. Contestants were judged both on their presentation skills and on the feasibility of their ideas.

“I look up to these guys,” said Abdelatif, who drew from his experience as a member of a prominent business family as a judge on the show. “I had it easy, but they started from scratch, which is a million more times difficult to do.”

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