The African Leadership Network (ALN) is a membership community of the dynamic and influential new-generation leaders in Africa with the aim of strengthening relationships between leaders in order to encourage inter-Africa trade, investment, and collaboration. Founded in 2010, ALN already has over 1500 members, including entrepreneurs, investors, government officials and corporate executives from 40 countries. The CEO of ALN, Isaac Kwaku Fokuo Jr shared with KITE Invest the trajectory of ALN, the intricacies of the Network, and ALN’s Annual Gatherings.

KITE Invest: Acha Leke and Fred Swaniker formed ALN after attending the World Economic Forum, TED, and Clinton Global Initiative. Please shed light on the mission of ALN and has it incorporated any similarities from its sources of inspiration?

Isaac Kwaku Fokuo Jr:  ALN’s goal is to bring prosperity to Africa. To get there, we believe that the first and most important step is for African leaders to get to know one another better—in particular across national boundaries, which have proven so intractable on the continent. This means bringing them together regularly, in one venue, on the continent, and in a high-trust environment.

Our Annual Gatherings are similar to forums like TED and the Clinton Global Initiative, insomuch as we really focus on developing personal connections among members and other attendees. This is why the agendas at our gatherings tend to be comparatively content “light”. It’s critical for us that attendees have a lot of unstructured time amongst themselves.

We know that attendees make great use of this unstructured time, since we’re rigorous in our attendee selection. We also check in with our attendees after the fact, to confirm that they’re meeting relevant peers at our Gatherings.

KITE: ALN has a Pan-African vision and is composed of private (70%) and public (30%) institutions. While the ALN is Pan-African are there any regions that are more engaged? In regions or countries that are less active, what efforts does the ALN do to increase involvement?

IKF: We’ve been focused on the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa since inception. Certain countries are relatively underrepresented in our member population, and our selection process is designed to help rebalance this. In Southern Africa, for example, we’re actively looking to round out our Angolan membership. Similarly, our selection process is designed to take us progressively toward gender parity.

A big change this year is our more conscious and active engagement of North Africa. We’ve always had a member base in Morocco and Egypt but by hosting #ALN2015 in Marrakech, we’re looking to raise our profile and grow our membership base in all the countries in the Maghreb region. We see a phenomenal receptiveness of North Africans to sub-Saharan networks, opportunities and stories. Unfortunately there’s a lack of trust networks and misconceptions crossing the Sahara and we’re excited to help change that.

KITE: ALN has three programs: the Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship, ALN Ventures, and Africa Business Fellowship. Recently, ALN Ventures announced a strategic alliance with Microsoft. Can you tell us about the alliance and goals set for the short and medium term.

IKF: Our alliance with Microsoft is a vote of confidence in our ALN Ventures entrepreneurs. It’s worth noting that, unlike most startup accelerators and incubators on the continent, ALN Ventures doesn’t just focus on web and mobile companies. Our class this year does have the tech stories like Learning Horizon (Nigeria, education technology), but also includes manufacturing companies like Stawi Foods (Kenya, food processing) and Madlyn Cazalis (Cameroon, personal care products).

Part of what’s so exciting about the alliance is that Microsoft will be helping these “non-tech” companies layer world-class technology solutions into their business models. Even if you’re a traditional manufacturing company, you need the best software solutions to be competitive in 2015.

Of course, the tech companies in the portfolio also benefit, since Microsoft has a vast reservoir of mentors and technical experts it is making available to our entrepreneurs, on privileged terms. It’s an important partnership, and we’re proud of it.

KITE: Through ALN’s programs how does the Network work to bring entrepreneurs and investors together?

IKF: ALN is a trust community, and that means our members trust us to connect them with great people and great opportunities of all kinds.

Our members are highly motivated to support the next generation of entrepreneurs with investment, but also (and especially) mentorship. In many cases, however, our members find themselves inundated with proposals, investment opportunities and requests of all kinds from entrepreneurs. It’s a sort of information overload. So members trust ALN to  vet and select only the best entrepreneurs for ALN Ventures and the Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship. These programs are a sort of due diligence process that we’re conducting on behalf of our community. And we’ve been so inspired by the support, in terms of time and money, that our members have mobilized for the founders of these inspiring companies!

KITE: Since the Network’s formation, in your estimation how has the entrepreneurial ecosystem changed? What are some characteristics of African entrepreneurship that make it unique?

IKF: The ecosystem has evolved substantially. Today, there are incubators, angel networks, accelerators, and all manner of resources popping up across the continent, even in second- and third-tier cities. This wasn’t the case even five years ago.

With that said, entrepreneurship in Africa is uniquely challenging. The reality is that African markets remain relatively small, infrastructure and state policy are often not conducive to growing businesses, and entrepreneurs often cannot readily gain access to the networks they need to scale.

Because markets are small, it’s important to focus on the transnational, pan-African potential of any given business model, and to really understand and “stress-test” that potential. Regrettably few entrepreneurs are doing this today, and this needs to change — they need to stop thinking like MSMEs and become obsessed with scaling. For those relatively few entrepreneurs who are already thinking about scale, and who are successfully working around the structural obstacles of infrastructure and public policy, we’re looking to actively resolve the networks problem by connecting them to our community.

KITE: The ALN hosts its Annual Gathering in November each year in a different African city. What should we expect for this year’s Annual Gathering? Themes? Announcements?

IKF: This year’s Gathering is about boundaries. This word captures so much that is so central to the contemporary African experience. As usual, we’re looking to provoke thought, to stimulate impassioned debate, and to give people opportunities to come together and build relationships around ideas and conversations.

We’re working closely with public and private sector sponsors in Morocco, where we’re finding a great deal of commitment to building linkages south of the Sahara. So expect lots of interesting insights into that particular theme!

KITE: Lastly is there any message you would like to communicate to entrepreneurs and investors of Africa and from around the world?

IKF: There’s nowhere on earth more exciting to be doing business than Africa today, whether your focus is operations or investment. There is so much to be done, and the human face of the story—the skills transfer, the up-skilling, the transformation of young lives—provides satisfaction that you can’t find on this scale anywhere else in the world. That’s what we mean when we talk about bringing prosperity to this continent, and that’s why our team and our community are so passionate in the work we do day-to-day.