Africa and the Middle East

How West Africa’s Small and Growing Businesses Use Trust to Fight Corruption

November 21, 2022  • Fay Kakai Mukweli & Amy Fallah

Many countries across the African continent lack robust anti-corruption laws or policies. As a result, businesses often lose out on foreign investment opportunities and face higher operational costs. From underhanded fundraising practices to gender discrimination, entrepreneurs in developing economies must overcome corruption at many levels to thrive.

Em Ekong is the new West Africa chapter head for the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE).ANDE’s mission is to empower entrepreneurs with the support they need to reach their full potential, no matter where in the world they are located. Ekong has over twenty-five years of experience in the business development world. Now, she is working to help eliminate corruption in the small and growing business ecosystem in West Africa.

Building trust among entrepreneurs, financial institutions, and governments is essential to achieving this goal. People across the world have lost confidence in the institutions meant to serve them. This leads to frustration and great uncertainty. Aspen Institute programs like ANDE are working to resolve this crisis of trust.

“Starting a business from the ground up is difficult, and the added complexities that come with navigating a corrupt business ecosystem can be overwhelming for many entrepreneurs,” Ekong says. “It can be crippling for many start-ups and small businesses, which has a rippling effect on the region’s economy.”

Building trust among entrepreneurs, financial institutions, and governments is essential in the fight against corruption.

Tackling corruption and mitigating its impact on small and growing businesses is multi-faceted and challenging. Still, Ekong is encouraged by the strides ANDE has made in the region. Through partnerships with organizations like the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), ANDE equips African entrepreneurs with the knowledge and tools they need to avoid the pitfalls of a corrupt system.

“There’s always going to be someone offering you a shortcut, but those quick fixes will not set you up for success in the long run,” Ekong says. “What’s important is that there are tools that entrepreneurs can use to manage those situations.”

The primary way to reduce corruption is by sharing information and ensuring that entrepreneurs know what it means to be a well-governed organization. For example, CIPE asks their partner organizations like Wangara Green Ventures, an impact fund in Ghana that invests in green entrepreneurs, to promote corporate integrity by signing integrity pledges. “The pledges ensure that all small businesses they invest in have completed our Ethics First training,” says Baaba Jackson, Rainbow Consult’s CIPE Project Lead. These practices help minimize corruption and its detrimental impact on the region’s small and growing businesses.

ANDE also works with local partners to set up peer networks for entrepreneurs to share their struggles and successes. “The positive reinforcement that comes from a group of like-minded entrepreneurs working together to avoid engaging in corrupt practices is essential,” Ekong says. “The way you beat corruption is through relationships—trust is something that is earned over time.”

Ekong looks forward to a future in which corruption has been greatly reduced, leading to higher GDP in the West Africa region. In such a world, investors could reach the small and growing businesses with the most potential to create jobs, generate income, improve local economies, and contribute to the UN’s sustainable development goals. “There is a lot of work to do, but it begins with building trust, providing appropriate support, and developing capacity for businesses such that they are able to compete without being corrupt,” she says.

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