“We need entrepreneurs who will come up and create businesses, yes; but not everybody’s an entrepreneur”. (Strive Masiyiwa: Founder & Executive Chairman, Econet Wireless Group)

In a world that is plagued by many problems, “entrepreneurship”, as a topic for Global Fora, government committees and non-government organisations, has never been more fashionable – not more so than in Africa. It is challenging to keep up with the myriad of kick-starts, incubators, accelerators and community projects aimed at harnessing the entrepreneurial energy of a largely youthful population. Unfortunately, many of these attempts fail because the barriers to doing business effectively in Africa (and elsewhere in the world) are great – deficient or non-existent policy-making, inconsistencies and a lack of transparency, heavy-handedness, infrastructure issues and non-existent institutional frameworks (as I write this post, I am battling to get a business visa for a West African country from a Consulate based in South Africa that attempts to confound the best of us with their seemingly petty requirements). There seems to be mounting evidence that the obstacles to setting up and building a business remain formidable in many countries. In fact, many of Africa’s economies remain difficult, if not hostile, environments for entrepreneurs.

In an interview with Strive Masiyiwa, (quoted above), the magazine, African Business (November 2015), relayed the following: “Entrepreneurship can at times feel like a convenient solution to major challenges, such as job creation, at a time when governments are struggling to provide economic opportunities to Africa’s young population”. These narratives have been heard before – “a few years ago, we had a whole narrative about the informal sector as a solution, in a way to take governments off the hook. It’s almost like – well, you know, it’s your responsibility, it’s got nothing to do with us”.

While governments play their underhand political charades, manipulating circumstances, tenders and grants to suit predetermined individuals and benefactors, most state-owned companies are badly managed and cost the tax-payer enormous sums of money to prop them up. Perhaps if these institutions were managed with appropriate doses of business acumen, they could potentially contribute in a significant way to providing a partial answer to the job creation imperative. Money earmarked for infrastructure development and its maintenance is siphoned off into the secret bank accounts of the powerful and then governments have the audacity to blame business for not creating sufficient job opportunities for the continent’s young workers.

Approximately 60% of Africa’s population are less than 25 years old. According to the African Development Bank, less than a fifth of the workers in this age group find waged employment. Hundreds of millions of jobs will need to be created in the coming years to absorb this growing youth potential. Governments, often as the largest employers in their respective countries, do need to take responsibility for their citizens, especially those that fall into the burgeoning youth category – they can commence doing this through:

  1. Cleaning up their house – stopping corruption at all levels. No government official is ever above the law. All in government must be held accountable. The auditor general’s department must ensure that money for development is spent wisely and accounted for correctly.
  2. Appointing leaders with business acumen and management skills to boards and leadership teams of state-owned businesses – like any company, their task should be to grow the sustainability of the business, its products and services, generating profit, expanding and thereby enabling the employment of more staff.
  3. Holding government departments and employees accountable in terms of performance – performance management principles need to be applied consistently throughout every ministerial sector.
  4. Focusing on skills development – not just education, but skills that are relevant to the job market. These are skills that enable a person to feed a family.
  5. Creating a framework for job-shadowing – the system already exists in accounting and law firms. The same should be true of all industries. At least, then, young people would start getting work experience.
  6. Enabling the ease of doing business through the reduction of bureaucracy – policy-making, institutional frameworks and travel requirements need to be streamlined and aligned to encourage business (trading) growth.
  7. Engaging communities – communities have many good ideas for business opportunities (tourism and conservation projects, etc.). Inherent skills need to be utilised to grow their economic potential – when community is engaged, business profit improves all round.

Only some people are true entrepreneurs – only a few of them are really good. Most people just need jobs. They want to work and improve the lives of all their family members. Business has its role to play, but it’s not a sole responsibility. Governments need to adopt a holistic approach to address the job creation imperative.