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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Educating the Next Generation of Africa’s Entrepreneurs

The global financial crisis, unemployment, rising inflation, rising food prices and the increasing income inequality has precipitated palpable global gloom. This has sapped confidence in our collective ability to attain the Millennium Development Goals, especially in Africa.

It is amidst such gloom and sagging confidence that we must draw upon our collective ingenuity and leverage academia and business to generate novel solutions, beyond “business as usual”. However, African universities offer a plethora of training programs, which prepare students for “business as usual” white-collar jobs in the public and private sectors.

But “business as usual” just won’t do! Now more than ever, Africa needs innovative solutions and new ways of operating to grapple with the most daunting challenges of our time. We are in uncharted territory and need human capital at all ages, who “think out of the box” to solve problems in paradigm changing ways.

The last half-century of Africa’s higher education and economic history shed light on why we are stuck with “business as usual” and the dearth of innovation. Inherited imperial structures of the colonial era, extractive industries and foreign aid have buttressed pervasive central control and stifled the emergence of functional civil institutions and enterprise in a majority of sub-Saharan Africa. Untrammeled executive control and state-owned monopolies have forestalled innovation and entrepreneurship.

The spoilt meat of aid to unaccountable regimes, the consequent public waste and corruption has begotten more poverty, which has in turn justified more aid. Consequently, the notion of entrepreneurship vaporized from international development discourse. In his book, The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economist’s Adventure and Misadventure in the Tropics, William Easterly argues that the mind-set of aid and help has imposed and enforced rules and regulations that have undermined both incentives and opportunities for entrepreneurship.

The convergence of globalization, technology, broadband internet, knowledge-based economies and demographic trends has led to a global focus on the potential for entrepreneurship to drive economic growth in developing countries. In 2010, US President Obama convened a summit on entrepreneurship. Following Obama’s leadership, global organizations such as United Nations Development Program, European Commission, the World Economic Forum and Global Entrepreneurship Monitor have produced extensive literature extolling the promise of entrepreneurship and the role of education.

According to the management expert Peter Drucker, the term entrepreneur was introduced by French economist Jean Baptiste Say to denote a special economic actor – not someone who simply starts a grocery business, but someone who “shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into a higher productivity and greater yield”.

Joseph Schumpeter, twentieth century growth economist, characterized the entrepreneur as the purveyor of the “creative destruction” and systemic change necessary for a major economic paradigm shift, a game changer. By reimagining the computer as mass-market goods, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs “destroyed” dominant patterns, unleashing new business models and unprecedented leaps in productivity.

Africa’s educational institutions, at all levels need to adopt 21st century approaches to create the appropriate learning environment to encourage creativity, innovation and a proclivity to “think out of the box”. Combined with innovation, entrepreneurship provides an adaptive platform for grappling with Africa’s most daunting development challenges; high diseases burden, hunger, malnutrition, poverty and rapid population growth and unemployment.

Clearly, Africa needs a greater focus on entrepreneurship to help spur competitiveness, growth and job creation. However, low exposure to entrepreneurship, combined with the lack of role models, makes the barriers to entry in African countries significantly higher than in developed countries.

But can entrepreneurship be learned, or, more importantly, taught? Entrepreneurship, according to Peter Drucker¬ is not magic, has nothing to do with genes and like any discipline, can be learned. Education can undoubtedly, play a crucial role in molding the prerequisite attitudes, skills and culture – from the kindergarten level up. Entrepreneurship thrives in ecosystems in which multiple stakeholders play key roles. This requires collaboration and multistakeholder partnerships.

Entrepreneurship education is critical for developing the human capital necessary for the society of the future. But entrepreneurship must not be added into curriculum in a perfunctory manner. Candidate modules for embedding in the school curriculum should include: disruptive technologies and their potential economic and social ramifications; case studies of entrepreneurship in developing countries; comparative history of entrepreneurial progress; business literacy, including accounting, marketing, and financial skills; angel investors; and relationships, networks and social capital.

The modules could be taught and facilitated by an ensemble of international and local professors of entrepreneurship, economic history, case writers and experienced entrepreneurs, and professors of economic history. Excellent mentors and distinguished professors for such a program would include entrepreneurs like Mo Ibrahim of Sudan founder of Cel-Tel, Rwanda’s Miko Rwayitare who founded Telacel, co-founder of SoleRebels, Ethiopia Bethlehem Alemu and my compatriot and senior at Maseno School, Ayisi Makatiani, who founded Africa Online.

The advancement of entrepreneurship may seem tangential to universities committed to promoting science, humanities and the arts. However, entrepreneurs can help situate intellectual endeavors in reality by bringing novel knowledge to bear on urgent societal problems. Most importantly, universities have a pivotal role as intellectual hubs in an entrepreneurial ecosystem

Policy-makers have an important role to play in setting the appropriate fiscal and regulatory frameworks to encourage fundamental reform. Incremental change in education is inadequate in a globally competitive knowledge economy. Africa needs schools and universities that are entrepreneurial in their approach to preparing individuals for an unknown future. Also in dire need of rethinking is the way teachers are trained.

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