2019 is upon us, and tradition calls for us to list our New Year’s resolutions. At the very top of my list for multiple years is never going on a job interview again. Instead, I imagine a future where climbing the career ladder involves applying for seed grants for my first, second or third business, instead of applying to work “for the Man.” One where my professional fate no longer rests on whether that hiring manager actually read my cover letter.
Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a hypothetical exercise. There is such a thing as entrepreneurship, defined as starting a new business venture, but described by me as the art of taking destiny into your own hands. As eager as I am to become the new me (i.e. successful entrepreneur), that title usually feels like it belongs only to the white, cis male millennial from an upper middle-class household with friends and family eager to be the first investors in his ambitious side hustle. It’s not an unfair characterization. Men in the United States still dominate this space, and according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, people of color own a little more than a quarter of the small businesses operating in 2018. Approval rates for business loans are 19% lower for black-owned businesses, and women only receive 16% of loans awarded to small businesses.
But these are all American statistics. And dare I say, I am lucky to be a citizen of the so-called “greatest democracy in the world”, in which I believe the field will be leveled for all players (eventually). As a matter of fact, the U.S. is already the global bellwether for fostering entrepreneurship, faults and all. I worry, though, about the more fragile institutions in my homeland, where my parents migrated from yet where I hope to return.
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For some, starting a new business may simply be a new year aspiration. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, many others see this as a life or death decision. The 2010 Arab Spring, which affected North African countries like Egypt and Tunisia, illustrated this to the extreme, with severe levels of un- and underemployment among 18–45 year-olds that resulted in violence. This is just one example of why entrepreneurship could and should be a solution to rapidly growing youth population and high poverty rates that continue to plague Africa.
From a high level perspective, there is good news coming out of the continent. The World Bank’s 2019 Doing Business Report lauds Sub-Saharan Africa with decreasing the amount of time and cost of registering a new business, and introducing a record number of reforms to improve private sector development. However, not one African country is in the top ten of countries with the easiest climate for business development. (Rwanda, the highest ranked in Africa, sits at #29; Kenya is the next highest-ranked and 32 points below at #61). Botswana is the only African nation to beat other European nations for the number of best practices encouraging entrepreneurial activity, though the Global Entrepreneurship Network still ranks it at #52 worldwide.
Common barriers to entrepreneurial success is access to money, resources, and information. Initiatives like the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Program, African Leadership Academy or the training program at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology are commendable approaches to tackling these obstacles. However, I challenge us to see the new hurdle they present.
First, identifying all the available programs one is eligible for takes time and readily available research tools (e.g. the Internet, computers, etc). Second, once one finds and applies to these programs, admission is not guaranteed. Not every aspiring entrepreneur will be an Echoing Green Fellow, for example, because of the competitive nature of the screening process. Creating highly selective programs may help organizations weed through hundreds of applications and determine how best to allocate resources to a handful of participants. But it creates a climate in which those rejected can find themselves at the mercy of an unstable job market, and remain in desperate need of a breakthrough.
What about an alternative, where the criteria for providing information, resources and bare minimum support is simply a desire to live a better life? What if, for the sake of the crisis in Africa, we suspended application requirements and competitive criteria to ensure as many Africans as possible have the tools needed to become financially secure?
What if we democratized entrepreneurship in Africa?
There are several, amazing programs cultivating leaders who are highly trained and undertaking projects that will push Africa to the forefront of industry and research. This might be individuals who either had the help of a prestigious education or network to get them through those doors. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t another segment of untapped talent who, barring illiteracy or lack of social capital, would found the next MTN Group or Andela.
I do realize that developing this talent will take significant effort and patience — all costly inputs to produce a fruitful, scalable output of human resources. Yet it’s not a futile pursuit. It will take altruistic and committed folk to consider innovative mechanisms for accomplishing this feat.
I believe Karfi is on that path, and as part of my New Year’s resolution of being gainfully self-employed, I resolve to use my self-employment to equip others to do the same. I also resolve not to attempt this on my own. There are a number of opportunities for partnership in 2019, and I hope that you’re convinced to join this movement with me. I pray that, together, we place the destiny of thousands of Africans back in the palms of their own hands.