Growing up in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, Youssouf Ali Mbodou would take his books into the streets at night to study during power cuts which were frequent and lasted for weeks.
Now 30, he is the founder of a solar power start-up called Kouran Jabo, meaning power is back and what people would shout when the electricity returned, said Mbodou, sitting in a sparse office in N’Djamena. As he spoke, the power was out.
In Chad, one of the least-developed countries in the world, people are starting to look toward start-ups to create jobs and provide services such as electricity and waste management, which most of the 16 million population lives without.
Mbodou is among a generation of young entrepreneurs who grew up seeing such problems go unsolved and are now taking matters into their own hands by setting up businesses that aim to profit but also help.
“I told myself, ‘No one is doing anything about this’,” said Mbodou, who has sold about 400 pay-as-you-go solar kits since the business started in 2018.
Electricity reaches about 10% of people in Chad, according to the World Bank, ranking it second to last in the world.
Social entrepreneurship is rising globally as more business leaders cater to increasingly ethically-conscious consumers with companies that seek to improve society or the environment.
Ethical business is also growing in Africa as people seek alternative ways to provide social or environmental services that have been neglected by cash-strapped or inefficient governments but there are no overall numbers for the continent.
In Chad, where there is almost little to no local business, social entrepreneurs are taking on tasks such as lighting in a country where business laws are tough, investment scarce and entrepreneurship an idea that many don’t quite understand yet.
“From my experience in other countries, I knew in Chad it would be twice as hard,” said Mbodou, who worked as a consultant in France and Dubai before returning home.
A landlocked country in the middle of Africa, Chad produces oil and imports everything from soap to rice to shoes.
Politics have been stagnant since President Idriss Deby took power in 1990. On the U.N. index of health, education and quality of living, Chad ranks third to last.
People started talking about entrepreneurship in Chad around 2015, said Christian Routouang, who organised the country’s third annual Global Entrepreneurship Week in November.
“Chad is far behind,” he said. By 2015, other countries in Africa had already had start-up hubs and incubators for years.
But Chadians are enthusiastic about the idea, said Routouang. The week-long conference this year drew more than 4,500 people to a series of trainings, speeches and events, compared to 1,200 at its inaugural event.
At a fundraising gala on the final evening, young people performed slam poetry about entrepreneurship and Miss Chad in a sparkling gown handed out medals to “ambassadors” in the field.
U.N. officials gave speeches about how social enterprise could create jobs and reduce poverty, and a government representative pledged its support. But many of the entrepreneurs themselves were unsure how to advance.
“Our vision is to create 500 green jobs for young people by 2030,” said Dingaomian Etienne, a founder of Eco-Ville, a start-up that seeks to collect, sort and recycle waste in the capital.
Eco-Ville won 1,000,000 CFA Francs ($1,700) at the event but has no other source of funding, with no scheme in Chad to help small businesses that have to pay taxes from the outset.
Francois Nankobogo, country manager for the World Bank, said the state has made some efforts – such as reducing the number of days and procedures needed to create a business – but needs to do more to ease business regulation to encourage investment.
Chad ranked 181 out of 190 nations on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index this year, up from last place in 2014.
“Recent action has shown there is room for quick improvement,” said Nankobogo, saying Chad had to foster entrepreneurship if it wants to develop.
“I don’t think there is any alternative. The public sector cannot be the solution.”
Although young people are catching on, many said that entrepreneurship goes against the country’s mindset.
“We are not educated to be entrepreneurs. They don’t teach us a creative way of thinking,” said Routouang, adding that most people grow up with the goal of joining the civil service.
Joblessness is one factor pushing people into entrepreneurship, said Marie Mornonde, 23, who started a company called Nutri-all to make healthy food products but is struggling to get funding.
Most of Chad’s population is employed in seasonal agricultural work and in cities youth unemployment is over 30%, according to the International Labour Organization.
“There are still misconceptions about entrepreneurship, and people don’t see it as a viable choice of career,” she said.
“I don’t know if it’s being a woman or if it’s the culture that rejects entrepreneurship completely.”
Mbodou knew the challenges would be huge, with many people not knowing about or not trusting solar panels, and he had to use his own savings to start Kouran Jabo.
But demand for power is there and Mbodou plans to travel abroad to seek investors when the company is ready to scale up, with the aiming of powering about 1 million homes by 2030.
“There are people who have money, who want to make an impact,” he said. “We just need to go and find them.”
($1 = 589.2200 CFA francs)
Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith