Youth Month brought with it the usual barrage of commentary on Africa’s youth bulge and concomitant dearth of jobs on the continent. The narrative is frequently that young Africans have no option but to step up and create their own future. Entrepreneurship is the answer. It’s easier said than done.
Young Africans are buoyantly entrepreneurial: Data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, for instance, shows that three-quarters of Africans of working age consider entrepreneurship a good career choice. But at the same time, these entrepreneurial intentions don’t often translate into sustained businesses or innovations. In fact, innovation in sub-Saharan Africa—according to the same data set—is among the lowest in the world.
So, what’s getting in the way of these optimistic and energetic young people being able to do what everyone expects of them, building sustainable businesses?
Young entrepreneurs in South Africa and parts of the rest of the continent face something of a perfect storm. GEM lists a number of obstacles in the region: unfavourable legislation, a lack of R&D support, and other structural difficulties. Respondents to the most recent GEM survey listed difficult access to funds as their number-one challenge. Poor education and training also comes up repeatedly as a contributing factor.
At the same time, economic conditions are worsening. Where, then, will we find our top under-30s? Perhaps the answer lies in what we can do for under-30s to make innovation, disruption and entrepreneurship easier. If the Gen Y’s and I’s are to deliver serious disruption on a larger scale, especially following South Africa’s downgrade to junk status, they need all the support they can get.
Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies recently pointed out the necessity for increased R&D support as we face the fourth Industrial Revolution, promising a renewed focus on digitisation, innovation and big data capabilities in the release of the department’s ninth iteration of South Africa’s Industrial Policy Action Plan.
“We have no option but to prepare ourselves as quickly and creatively as possible,” he said.“Are we able to respond to the opportunities presented by the digital age in a way that supports our national priorities by providing better responses to challenges of poverty, underdevelopment and unemployment?” It’s a great question.
A further intervention could lie in educating youth on how funding and other systems work. Environmental and management science, life orientation and a certain amount of career guidance are included in the school curriculum, but too little of this focuses on the realities of starting and running a business. How helpful if promising young people were assisted with entrepreneurial advice alongside tertiary education applications.
Based on the feedback from aspiring entrepreneurs, the information required by SMEs should also be made easily accessible to all aspiring business owners. Comprehensive and up-to-date government web and print resources should be set up in easily accessible places so that entrepreneurs can find clear and accurate information about business registration, human resources legislation, insurance and other essentials. This information should be housed centrally, so that the entrepreneur isn’t in danger of missing key aspects.
More supportive policy can take into account the importance of the informal sector, which contributes a significant portion to our economy and is saving millions from destitution. The informal sector holds important potential for skills development and, with some mentorship, may also hold potential for formal business development.
According to Sarah-Ann Arnold, who runs the MTN Solution Space (an incubator based on the UCT Graduate School of Business Waterfront campus and in Philippi), experiential incubators and accelerators that are easily accessible to potential entrepreneurs— where they can develop new business opportunities, forge new links with industry and academia, and trial ideas in a relatively safe environment as well as reinforce skills already obtained—are crucial.
Entrepreneurship can give our youth a better future. But those of us on more established footing need to give them a hand-up: through legislation, education, financial assistance and mentoring. Building a business environment that’s more connected, more knowledgeable, and more competitive can only do good.