Africa must do more to harness young people’s entrepreneurial drive

12 August 2016 | Story François Bonnici
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Photo credit: Free Stock Photos

As the world marks International Youth Day on August 12, it’s important to consider the role that African youth can play in driving sustainable development. There’s no doubt that – given the right tools – young people have the skill and ingenuity to solve the continent’s biggest challenges. And research has proved that young Africans have a strong spirit of entrepreneurship. This is mainly driven by necessity in tough economic conditions.

Up to 60% of 18- to 34-year-old Africans who participated in a joint study by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and Youth Business International said they were optimistic about the availability of good business opportunities. They also believed they had the skills and knowledge to start a business. In fact, the study found, youth in Africa are much more entrepreneurially minded than their counterparts in the rest of the world.

But African governments and businesses must do more to assist young people by creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem to support them. Without this support, all of their potential may stutter and die.

Harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit

Some African countries are stepping up to make the structural and other adjustments needed to harness this entrepreneurial spirit.

Rwanda, for example, has recognised the potential of information and communications technology (ICT) as a tool for socioeconomic development. The Rwandan government has played a leading role in making ICT available and inclusive. It’s laid out a national fibre-optic backbone of more than 4,500km, deployed both underground and over power transmission lines. This reaches all 30 of the country’s districts and its nine border posts.

The country has also launched six technology incubating centres. These bring together like-minded innovators, giving them the resources they need to explore their ideas, learn from one another and develop innovative ICT solutions. Rwanda is also home to the first solar-powered internet school in East Africa, which was launched in collaboration with Samsung.

Ugandan civil society is doing good work around youth entrepreneurship, too. A nongovernmental organisation called Educate!, for instance, provides secondary school students with practical and entrepreneurial education. It addresses the mismatch between what is taught in school and what skills are demanded by the labour market. Perhaps no country faces this challenge more acutely than Uganda: it has the world’s youngest population coupled with a youth unemployment rate as high as 62%.

Educate! offers hands-on learning and intensive mentoring so that youngsters can develop their business and leadership skills – and ultimately start their own businesses. The organisation has been lobbying for its model of experience-based entrepreneurial education to be integrated into Uganda’s national education system.

Its results have been impressive. Since 2009, Educate! has reached an estimated 25,000 students per year. It is being replicated and adapted in other African countries, beginning with Rwanda.

Such examples show how African governments and civil society can foster or nurture young people’s entrepreneurial spirit – and address development challenges in the process. Sadly, not all countries are making this sort of work a priority.

Building a youth entrepreneurship ecosystem

South Africa, for example, has made great strides in improving access to education. More than 98% of children who should be getting a primary education are doing so. But entrepreneurial-specific education is lagging. There are some exceptions, such as the Cape Town nongovermental organisation Christel House, a school for disadvantaged children that launched an entrepreneurial programme in 2016.

This is a rarity. There are few school-level initiatives that actively focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. And because the level of education and skills training is low, the South African economy is falling further and further behind those of other developing countries like China and India.

The government must play an active role in promoting entrepreneurship and building an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Happily, there’s increasing recognition that this makes sense. Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu said recently that there was a growing determination to “build a nation of entrepreneurs”.

She acknowledged that this would require greater coordination and support to provide the right environment for aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs to succeed. This starts with ensuring that the education system is fit for purpose and youth focused. Governments must commit to, and enact, targeted education policies that support future generations of young entrepreneurs and help create a bedrock culture that fosters entrepreneurship from the ground up.

Vital roles

Beyond schools there is a vital role for civil society, academia and business to play. I am the director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. With our partners, like the Raymond Ackerman Academy for Entrepreneurial Development and MTN Solution Space, we’re in a position to provide research and context.

We and other academic institutions can also offer practical pathways for entrepreneurs as they leave school by delivering relevant training and mentoring.

The corporate sector also needs to be encouraged to nurture entrepreneurs in their companies. Gaining business experience is vital.

This is not a challenge that is going to be solved in isolation. Africa has one of the highest percentages of young people in the world – and they are eager to make a difference. Let’s find ways to take that energy and natural ability and collectively give them the tools and pathways they need to succeed.

François Bonnici, Director and Senior Lecturer, Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Cape Town.
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