Entrepreneurship’s image problem
(discussion blog in youth employment series of Wathi, think tank citoyen de l’Afrique de l’ouest)

Youth entrepreneurship has become the new buzzword when talking about job creation strategies. Given the structural lack of waged jobs in Africa, young people will have to create jobs for themselves. Entrepreneurship is an opportunity. With the right mentors, resources, and support, ideas can become reality and earn an income. However, in many African countries, entrepreneurship is not considered an opportunity but rather a necessity. To unleash the potential of youth entrepreneurship we need to start with the youth. What is holding them back?

Youth entrepreneurship has an image problem.
For most young people, entrepreneurship is a matter of last resort. Unable to find a job in the government or private sector they end up in the informal sector; becoming an entrepreneur because there is no other choice. This type is called the ‘survival’ entrepreneur, being the vast majority of entrepreneurs in Africa. This entrepreneur has little interest, nor opportunity to grow and become successful because he is actually waiting for something better to come. For those, entrepreneurship is not considered an opportunity. This is not only true for low educated youth.

The higher the education, the higher the expectations for finding a good job are. Those expectations are almost exclusively focused on securing a stable waged—preferably public sector—job. Becoming an entrepreneur is perceived as an inferior option. Becoming an entrepreneur is perceived as an inferior option In recent years engaging young people in agriculture has become a priority in many job-creation initiatives by development actors. It would offer pathways to entrepreneurship and market opportunities. However, few young people see a future for themselves in agriculture or rural areas. Is it really worth investing in pathways young people do not aspire to themselves?

Clearly, young people enter the labor market with social and cultural stigmas attached to them that limit their job search more than a lack of qualifications. Does this mean we should discard youth entrepreneurship in Africa? No, certainty not. But it does mean that programs promoting youth entrepreneurship should be better informed by young people’s aspirations. A job or skills training strategy alone—without a concurrent vision to address these barriers—will be inadequate to improve youth employment outcomes.

Interventions aimed at improving youth employment outcomes must be aligned with the hopes and ambitions of young people.
Young people’s aspirations should inform job creation strategies. Too many policy strategies operate under the flawed assumption that for young people any job is better than no job. No matter what the target group, the success of a youth employment program depends on whether the intended beneficiaries actually aspire to the type of jobs on offer. A job or skills training strategy alone—without a concurrent vision to address these barriers—will be inadequate to improve youth employment outcomes.

There is no room for creative thinking and practical skills at universities, let alone in secondary and basic education An important avenue to overcome the entrepreneurship stigma is education. Much can be done to improve entrepreneurship’s image in schools and universities. Most education in Africa is geared towards administrative government jobs.

There is no room for creative thinking and practical skills at universities, let alone in secondary and basic education. Vocational education is regarded as inferior to sciences by society, family, and youth themselves. From the very beginning youth should be better guided to identify their vision, talent, and ambition. By doing this before they enter university they can select the appropriate educational track according to what really drives them, instead of following the masses to educational tracks destined for administrative government jobs. If entrepreneurship becomes a dream for many, it might become the vehicle towards those structural changes.

Of course, improving the image of entrepreneurship is only a first step. However, young people who do have the ambition to become entrepreneurs face severe obstacles. They often have limited access to finance and business opportunities, nor by the local private sector or by the government. Procurement lacks transparency and generally favors connected and more experienced entrepreneurs rather than young, creative entrepreneurs without connections.

Moreover, many young people lack the skills or the education to become successful as an entrepreneur or are obliged to share revenue that could have been reinvested in their company. There is a whole business environment that needs structural reform and better governance. Yet, if entrepreneurship becomes a dream for many, it might become the vehicle towards those structural changes.

(This blog by Alinta Geling and Marije Balt was published on 26 April 2016 in the youth employment series of Wathi, think tank citoyen de l’Afrique de l’ouest – photo credit: ONU mission au Mali – Gao peace project)

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