In the face of COVID-19 and an unemployment rate of 30%, the country (and continent) needs young entrepreneurs: job makers. But too little is being done to support them and the problem begins with parents and teachers, the “forgotten stakeholders”, said Josh Adler.
Adler was speaking during the recent webinar, “What role can young, African entrepreneurs play during COVID-19?”. It was hosted by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Development and Alumni Department, and the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies. Adler shared the platform with Dr Aisha Pandor, co-founder and chief executive of SweepSouth, Africa’s first online platform for home cleaning.
The webinar was the fifth in the UCT Summer School’s “Unlocking COVID-19: Current realities, future opportunities?” series; conversations with leading authorities, UCT academics and alumni.
A green twig is easily bent
Young entrepreneurs: they’re agile, resourceful and they have agency – all the attributes needed to cope with a curve ball like COVID-19.
With more than 20 years of global experience in the business education and NPO sectors, Adler has walked in their shoes. He started his first business at 19. In 2001 he began his career as a technology entrepreneur and built a leading software business that was later acquired by a listed telecoms group. In 2012 he moved into leadership development and education at the African Leadership Academy. Here Adler developed one of the world’s most respected high school entrepreneurship programmes.
With the formal job market shrinking, and growing unemployment, we need to instil an entrepreneurial mindset early in our children at home and in our schools, he said. Not enough is being done to ease their transitions into entrepreneurship.
“We’ve got to influence the people around the [decision making], the confidence network – and that’s teachers and parents. We call the parents the ‘forgotten stakeholders’ in the entrepreneurship ecosystem,” he said.
“There’s the stigma around hustling in a township.”
“There’s the stigma around hustling in a township, and [a view that] it’s not a real business.”
He added, “If you look at any map of the entrepreneurship world, it’s got incubators and hubs and investors – but you never see the parents. And we think that’s a massive problem … If I had to pick where I was going to invest, it’s in the secondary actors – parents and teachers.
“Teachers need to talk about careers and know how to do that because they’re deeply trusted by young people for advice. And parents need to make it permissible and learn the skills about how to talk about entrepreneurship as an answer that’s worth talking about.”
Adler is driving this initiative as the executive director of the Anzisha Prize, a partnership between the African Leadership Academy and MasterCard Foundation. It celebrates young African entrepreneurs and the work of those who support them.
“But we’re also thinking about policymakers and investors … Essentially, we’re building a movement around young entrepreneur transitions; a large-scale movement of parents, teachers, policymakers, and investors that will encourage many more students to choose an entrepreneurship path.”
Gender issues play a role too, he added.
“As you move north in Africa and into the francophone countries in the west, the gender dynamics just become so intense for young women trying to pursue some of these things.”
“The gender dynamics just become so intense for young women trying to pursue some of these things.”
Speaking as part of the webinar, Nedbank executive Alan Shannon (small business and professional banking, client engagement) said the bank’s April 2020 survey suggests that around 10% of small businesses will close as a result of COVID-19, with 1.6 million jobs being lost.
“As you know, the sustainability of our business in the long term is highly dependent on entrepreneurs coming through the system and doing what they do best.”
Citing her own experiences as an entrepreneur and employer, Pandor said SweepSouth had a team of 60, actively employed 5 000 ‘SweepStars’ and connected 20 000 previously unemployed or underemployed domestic workers and youth before the pandemic hit.
“When it hit, there was a need for agency and urgency,” she said. “We had to respond very quickly, without a sense of how long the lockdown would last. We didn’t know how severe our measures would need to be. We ended up restricting costs, reducing our projections for the rest of the year, reducing staff salaries, and we had to think, what does this mean for our customers?
“I don’t know what we thought would happen after that. How do you support a group of 5 000 women with essentials for who knows how long?
“This is not just an economic crisis, it’s a health crisis as well.”
“How do you provide some certainty? How do you let them know what we’re doing? How do we be a voice of education and reason?... and a factual source of education because we’re in the cleaning space and in the home space … and on top [of it all] is the fact that this is not just an economic crisis, it’s a health crisis as well.”
They pulled their investors and customers together and made some quick changes.
“And there’s one thing that we’ve kept as a business even after six years … the ability to be agile and respond quickly when we need to. We changed our platform to allow our customers the option of not cancelling but supporting their SweepStar.”
They also had to consider the importance of leading in an empathetic and authentic way, said Pandor.
“I don’t think there is any perfect response [to COVID-19]. We’ve tried to focus on decisive and empathetic leadership and over-communicating at this time … We’re also looking at how [we can] use partnerships to get us and all our stakeholders through this.”
Leadership is crucial
Leadership is crucial, Adler agreed.
“All the issues we face globally are leadership, crisis-driven, we really lack the leaders we need. And I see entrepreneurship as a subset of the leadership crisis. We don’t have enough people making appropriate leadership decisions and behaving entrepreneurially,” he said.
In developing a developmental programme for “high potential teenagers” across the continent, these youth still faced real-world opportunity crises.
“Even for the most talented young Africans there aren’t enough university scholarships, there aren’t enough jobs.”
“We’ve also encouraged them to pivot their businesses.”
Developing young entrepreneurs would also provide a springboard for others.
“Research has shown that people hire their peer group; it’s called peer-to-peer employment. The thesis goes that if we see more young entrepreneurs, they’re going to take their friends with them.”
Adler said that once COVID-19 had stopped travel, they had ringfenced their travel funds and turned the money into support grants for young entrepreneurs at this time as many were finding it hard to access finance and other forms of support.
“We’ve also encouraged them to pivot their businesses. So, if you’re knitting, can you make a mask? If so, we’ll pay you to make a mask for someone near you who needs it … It’s a different form of philanthropy.”
Local success stories and case studies are important, he added. Stories such as Pandor’s SweepSouth. These were the entrepreneurs that youngsters could relate to.
UCT supporting entrepreneurship
UCT is also moving on this. In a recent communiqué deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning, Associate Professor Lis Lange, said the university would be “pushing the boundaries of education to support our students and staff” in the entrepreneurial journey.
“Entrepreneurship has become increasingly prevalent in the 21st century, and to become successful in this widely varied field a person requires a specialised set of skills … In this context, creating opportunities to learn about and develop entrepreneurship both as a skill set and a social value has become an essential aspect of the education [that] we offer at UCT.”
UCT launched the 2020 Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Study as a guide.
“Having a good understanding of this ecosystem will allow the institution to better support its diverse entrepreneurship offerings to both students and staff,” Lange said.
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