Dubai entrepreneur connects small businesses with international investors

Mark-Alexandre Doumba, founder of Clikafrik, a personalised wholesale and retail online marketplace. Pawan Singh / The National
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An up-and-coming entrepreneur has taken it upon himself to hook up budding businesses in Africa with power hubs, such as China and the UAE, to give them new horizons.

From his informal office at Impact Hub Dubai, entrepreneur Mark-Alexandre Doumba is building Africa’s answer to Alibaba, the granddaddy of e-commerce companies.

In the two years since he came up with the idea, the 27-year-old has already achieved great success, generating more than US$3 million in sales.

The Gabonese national, who grew up in Paris, France, before moving to the US on a tennis scholarship, is founder and director of Clikafrik, a website that brings together small and medium businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa with their UAE and Chinese counterparts.

“I have two goals. I want to create something with value and something that people recognise as a good company. But I also want to help entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa progress.”

Because of logistics and some issues of mistrust, a lot of websites and individual companies will not do business with companies in Sub-Saharan Africa. This makes it difficult for new businesses to establish themselves and grow.

Items Mr Doumba has shipped from China include everything from industrial tractors to ink cartridges. He also handles outdoor furniture, building materials, shopping trolleys, home furnishings, and cars.

“The company in Nigeria, for example, needs tubing and has specific requirements. We will, through our relationships, contact the manufacturer in China. We follow up on the manufacturing and send updates to the client. The product won’t leave the manufacturers until the client has approved it.”

Some companies have a blanket ban on dealing with businesses in Africa due to fears of corruption.

Mr Doumba says these ideas are not always misplaced.

“We have seen it. In company B, for example, head of procurement will buy something from a local supplier for US$10. Then you’re coming in and offering it for US$7. Logic says he should buy it from you. But he chooses the US$10. He is making money as an individual person.”

Clikafrik will usually take 100 per cent, or sometimes 70 per cent, of the bill up front. Mr Doumba says these financing terms work only because he and his team have built personal relationships and trust with businesses in Africa.

He has two employees in China, two in Gabon, two in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and four in Dubai.

Mr Doumba usually works from the Impact Hub Dubai space in Downtown Dubai. The Hub, which celebrates its first anniversary this month, is one of a global network of more than 50 such centres that nurture, mentor and sometimes help finance anyone with an idea.

Members pay a monthly fee from Dh145 to Dh3,000 depending on the services they want to use and how much time they want to spend there.

For entrepreneurs like Mr Doumba, who want to avoid paying high rents for a space they rarely occupy, the Hub provides the ideal place to brainstorm, network or just to avoid feeling isolated.

Immediately before setting up Clikafrik, Mr Doumba was a director at Africa Middle East Resources, a company focusing on mining, energy and infrastructure investments in Sub-Saharan Africa. His CV includes George Washington University, Florida’s IMG Bolletieri Tennis Academy (the former training school for Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters), and investment banking firm Merrill Lynch.

He is also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, one of a group of young, mostly business people, who have "a great potential for future leadership roles in society".

He has been going to the Impact Hub for more than two years and uses the space as his office. “I like it because you’re working with other people who are inspiring at times and have different ideas that may yet give me an extra good idea.”

Aman Merchant is the chief executive and co-founder of Dubai’s Impact Hub. According to the network’s protocols, he had to pitch to the other Impact Hubs around the world to be given the go-ahead to open the UAE’s first branch.

“People come here and they are inspired, that’s part of the magic. In the past, I didn’t have an environment like this when I wanted to look at what was happening in a city. You would go and sit in Starbucks but no one would talk to you. Here you can talk to people like Mark and learn about what’s happening in their minds and what the future of the entrepreneur market looks like.”

The Hub holds Emirati Launchpad events specifically for Emirati entrepreneurs. Winners of the competition receive funding from the Government’s Dubai SME. Similar events are organised for non-Emiratis.

Mr Merchant is already making plans to another more Hubs in the UAE, including one in Abu Dhabi and another in Dubai.

Yoko Shimada, a former World Bank global health specialist, is another of the Hub’s regulars.

She moved to Dubai with her husband and first child three years ago and continued to work for the World Bank, and travel.

Despite working in the maternal and child health field and trying to educate the rest of the world on the benefits of breastfeeding, she found herself struggling to adopt the practices she was preaching.

“Breastfeeding was very important to me,” she says. “After going through the experience of becoming a mother the first time, I realised the biggest issue wasn’t really pregnancy, it came after.

“I took the maximum three months maternity leave, but I wanted to continue breastfeeding. I had to pump at work. I would sit in a breastfeeding room that was a room with four chairs facing each other in the deepest, darkest corner.

“When you’re pumping up to four times a day, for maybe 20 minutes at a time, clothing is important. I wanted to be practical but also look like a professional and feel pretty and confident. There was nothing available. I couldn’t wear dresses. You can’t take your dress off in your office, God forbid someone walks in, you’re naked. I felt ‘why do I have to hassle so much?’.”

After moving to the UAE and giving birth to her second child, a daughter, Ms Shimada left her job at the World Bank and decided to tackle the issue.

“Being in Dubai the problems became more apparent,” she says. “I had two kids and a full-time job that required me to travel. I decided it was too much and I quit my job a year ago and started doing this.”

In the past year Shimada has designed and manufactured six styles of dress. Two are casual workwear, two are smarter officewear and the final two are more dressy, suitable for weddings or parties.

They can be worn by pregnant or nursing women. There is a hidden zip and popper that can be undone when breastfeeding or pumping.

She sources the washable materials in Japan and the garments are manufactured in New York. She enlisted her friends to help model and demonstrate the dresses in her Mitera (which is Greek for mother) lookbook.

Her website, will go live in a few weeks.

For the entrepreneur, the Impact Hub has provided the perfect space for her to build her business from scratch. She has also visited the Hub in Downtown New York when travelling back to her former home city.

“I can’t work from home. I have two children and as much as I love being around them, I need a space, mentally and physically, to work.

“When I found out about Impact Hub I signed up immediately. I love the camaraderie and the networking. Seeing people every day gives the feeling that you belong somewhere.”