Just over a week ago, Forbes published its highly anticipated “30 Under 30” list for the African continent. As the publication’s editors put it, this list showcases the “best and brightest” young “trailblazers” in Africa working on everything from medicine to fashion.
The annual publication of “Africa 30 Under 30” is just one part of Forbes’ larger effort to highlight and encourage entrepreneurship in Africa. It comes shortly after the company’s first ever Under 30 Summit in Botswana in April, which brought together the world’s “most elite young entrepreneurs” to hear from and network with leaders in government and business. Its goal was to “harness the power of entrepreneurial capitalism [on] the continent whose growth will help define the 21st century. ”
And by no means is Forbes the only actor fiercely focused on “harness[ing] the power of entrepreneurial capitalism ”in Africa. Policymakers and business leaders across the world frequently promote youth entrepreneurship as the solution to the shortage of jobs in Africa. It is even a core component of the African Development Bank Group’s nine-year “Jobs for Young People Strategy,” which was launched in 2016 to create 25 million jobs for young Africans and equip 50 million with the skills needed for employment and, especially, for entrepreneurship. That strategy was accompanied by the establishment of a new fund for “youth entrepreneurship and innovation,” which has been used to finance initiatives like the bank’s Youth Innovation Lab. And in 2017 alone, more than 490,000 aspiring young entrepreneurs — including many women — received entrepreneurship training paid for by this fund.
On the surface, promoting entrepreneurship in Africa seems like a smart policy for the continent in general, and in particular for its growing population of young people. Between 2017 and 2035, Africa’s working age population is expected to grow by 450 million, but data suggests the number of new jobs will only grow by 100 million. Unless major steps are taken to address that deficit, Africa could experience a major joblessness crisis, which could lead to cascading and devastating economic and social effects.
However, with change also comes opportunity. Rapid job creation policies could allow Africa to harness the economic potential of a growing working-age population and reap a “demographic dividend.” And entrepreneurial activity, which is proven to catalyze job creation, especially among young people, could go a long way to helping Africans secure that dividend and avoid economic strife.
On an individual level, too, entrepreneurship can open doors for young people who find themselves starved of other opportunities. Particularly in the context of a global health crisis that has precipitated significant job losses, entrepreneurship could help the continent’s young people get back on their feet and take control of their own future, while creating jobs for their peers and providing leadership in their communities. That, in turn, could alleviate the socio-economic anxieties of young people in places like Uganda, which has one of the highest youth unemployment rates on the continent at 13.3 percent.
The potential, then, of entrepreneurship in Africa is undeniably huge. However, the abundant, wholly positive narratives of entrepreneurship’s possibilities tend to ignore the difficult realities that face aspiring entrepreneurs, and even successful ones.
By positioning entrepreneurs as the solution to Africa’s burgeoning employment crisis, aren’t policymakers and economists just shifting the burden of addressing joblessness onto young people?
Many cultures around the world, and especially in the West, tend to idolize entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk are worshiped as pioneers or even messiahs. To borrow a term from Tom Blomfield, co-founder of the UK fintech company Monzo, there is a “superhero syndrome” surrounding founders: They are expected to know all the answers to the world’s ills. This belief can misguide budding entrepreneurs and place them under undue pressure, even as they face profound challenges in setting up and developing their businesses.
As Solomon Thimothy, a sales and marketing expert, wrote in Forbes last year, those challenges can include loneliness as a result of personal sacrifice; envy from colleagues; constantly worrying about everything from growth rates to stock prices; and pressure from family and loved ones whose livelihoods depend on the success of the business. And his article, of course, was written from the perspective of someone who has built a number of successful companies. What about the realities facing young entrepreneurs in Africa, especially those from rural communities with limited access to traditional financial services, the internet and mentorship opportunities?
Moreover, research shows that in some parts of Africa where entrepreneurship has taken hold, it has actually exacerbated the vulnerability of young people to economic shocks, especially young women. According to the International Labor Organization, the primary source of employment for women in East Africa is informal entrepreneurship based in and around the home. But those working in the informal sector often contend with unsteady income flows, poor working conditions and limited protection from social security or labor legislation. Entrepreneurship, then, is not necessarily a great equalizer; it does not always lead to greater inclusion and empowerment.
More fundamentally, though, by positioning entrepreneurs as the solution to Africa’s burgeoning employment crisis, aren’t policymakers and economists just shifting the burden of addressing joblessness onto young people? And if so, why should young people be responsible for a crisis that they did not cause? Entrepreneurship can be valuable for all the reasons mentioned above and more. But it is foolish to promote youth entrepreneurship without carefully considering and addressing the challenges that accompany it.
Policymakers and business leaders should ensure that entrepreneurship programs are coupled with initiatives to provide aspiring entrepreneurs with holistic support. That might include robust training programs through mentorship and peer-to-peer learning networks, assistance with the mountains of paperwork young business owners must complete, and mental health support.
It is unfair to expect young people to change the world without giving them the tools and guidance they need. We would not expect this from our leaders, so why the young people of Africa?
Aishwarya Machani is a UN Foundation Next Generation Fellow. She led a consultative process bringing together hundreds of young people from around the world to contribute to the UN secretary-general’s “Our Common Agenda” report. She also co-authored “Our Future Agenda,” an accompanying vision and plan for next and future generations. She recently graduated from the University of Cambridge. Her weekly WPR column appears every Tuesday.