While surfing the web the other day, I came across an interesting story. Two young, hopeful, college-aged Africans entered into an entrepreneurial contest and went on to win some money to help launch their ideas. They were able to win the advertised prize money, because each won in a separate category.
As they accepted their prizes, each talked about their hope for the future – how they intend to launch their own startups and their wish that this startup will change the world and revolutionize the way Africans work and play. The audience applauded. Pictures were taken. Everyone mentioned how lucky these young individuals were. How bright their futures!
Fast-forward a few years.
Each is enrolled in university and neither is pursuing his dream. Rather, they hope to graduate, land a great job and while gainfully employed, explore the possibility of launching their startup. So what about the prize money? The funds, they shared, were given to their parents to “hold” as they work on finishing their higher education; a more prudent and practical path based on advice received.
“Someday”, they went on to say, they intend to return to reclaim the funds, which will serve its original purpose as seed money to launch their dream. They still had their dream and they had every intention of pursuing it; they just had a less “pie-in-the-sky” way of doing so.
The African culture, communistic, convivial and patriarchal, is sorely lacking an entrepreneurial bent. The undertones of one exist but it lies, it seems, so deeply in the shadows that it’s unable to leap out boldly onto center stage. Our culture is one that values following the well-trod and beaten path – getting a college degree and working for a firm that pays well – over paths yet untrod.
We have a habit of gravitating towards professional positions, such as doctors, lawyers, middle managers and the like, with foray into business only viewed as an option after one has followed that beaten path and the path has (probably) beaten back. We are a risk-averse society.
A community that values security over risk, tradition over vision, the known over the possible and sticking-with-the-pack vs. venturing out on one’s own; this latter characteristic perhaps a latent trait from early civilization when to leave the group was to die from unknown warrior tribes or roaming animals in the wild.
Regardless, that culture is still with us today and it stifles individuality, uniqueness, self-expression, creativity, originality, distinction, peculiarity and identity.
We are a culture of homogeneity; one in which we assume everyone has the same values and wants the same things – to obtain a university degree, become a spouse and have a family. Whereas in reality, a person may want all of these, none of these or just one or two of these.
For those who dare to step out of this approved line, society cajoles them back into form by persuading that this is the path to follow and these are the dreams to be desired if one is to attain the pot of gold – – happiness, societal respect and fulfilment – at the end of the rainbow.
Our community is one that finds comfort in likeness, normality and sameness – all perfectly decent qualities because they facilitate and promote association and empathy. But at what point does this sameness begin to affect our progression and advancement as a society? At what degree does the rate of return on divergence supersede the desire and wisdom in concentration?
Could it be that we equate being a trader with being an entrepreneur? So we only encourage foregoing the beaten path when we have examples in our immediate community to which we can point, and use as proof and comfort, that the idea being explored by our loved one is not risky at all; after all, we know a person or two doing the same thing and they seem to be doing quite well.
Walk into any market stall in the heart of Africa or any shop (frequently called “boutique”) in most African cities and chat with the proprietor. He/she will most assuredly refer to him/herself as an entrepreneur. But are they really? Is this label true of them? They have an idea and own a business that executes on this idea.
They have (an) employee(s) whom they pay a wage for services rendered and they have solid clientele with repeat business. However, can the buying and selling of goods and services on a micro scale be equated with the buying and selling of good and services on a macro scale? Is being a shopkeeper the same as being a pioneer? Is a merchant the same as a speculator?
In my opinion, a trader is not an entrepreneur. A trader (or businessperson) is someone who simply creates a business out of an unoriginal product or problem. He/she sees an opportunity, chooses a profitable idea – which could be theirs or borrowed from someone else – and creates a profit and livelihood from it.
An entrepreneur, on the other hand, is someone with an idea that’s able to create a movement. An idea that’s dynamic and able to not only impact society, but also change the way we live, work and play. A concept so profound and a dream so bold that it reaches beyond the individual and his immediate community to cross borders – locally, nationally or globally – penetrate alien cultures and inspire adoption and integration.
It appears that when we venture into business, the application of our ideas is mostly local to our immediate community. Could it be that our thinking is automatically conditioned to seek solutions to problems that we believe are unique to Africa/Africans?
The rationale being, since Africa lags behind the rest of the world in terms of development, economics, infrastructure and governance, solutions to problems experienced locally will only work locally as the problem being solved is a problem that would only exist in Africa.
Or could it be that we lack the resources – capital and human – to advance our ideas beyond our immediate environment; these resources that act as the catalyst to implementing ideas.
Times are changing, and Africa with it, as innovation and entrepreneurial hubs are springing up all over the continent; programs and spaces designed to cater to the nurturing and growth of Africa’s entrepreneurs.
For example, MEST in Ghana, iHub in Kenya and Co-Creation Hub (CcHub) in Nigeria, to mention just a few. There’s also Tony Elumelu, an African billionaire, who pledged $100 million to grow African startups. These efforts, and more like them, have become a mainstay of Africa’s emerging technological ecosystem and the continent is starting to feel their resonance.
Youth is often associated with dreams, creativity and risk – traits necessary for entrepreneurship, especially in today’s global society in which individuals compete against competitors in far-flung corners of the world.
These traits, though present at any age, are ascribed particularly to the young because their thinking is yet to be hard-wired into society’s expectations and they’re yet to adopt the responsibilities that come with adulthood.
If Mark Zuckerberg were African, would he have received the support he did to found Facebook? If the idea for a search engine – Google – was conceived within our culture, would it have seen the light of day? These companies are based on a simple idea and have gone on to create employment for millions of families. How many ideas have we killed in a well-meaning attempt to protect a loved one?
If Africa is to advance, and advance exponentially, we cannot rely solely on the government, public or private sector for our means of livelihood. Individually, we need to jump right in and begin shaping the future we wish to see by daring to dream and seeking the support we need to make those dreams come true.
Collectively, we need to begin cultivating an entrepreneurial ecosystem that’s able to nurture talents and minds into their full potential; because, who knows — these talents and minds just might be the next set of entrepreneurs the world is waiting for!