A little over a week ago, Forbes has released its long-awaited “30 Under 30” list for the African continent. As the publication’s editors put it, this list showcases Africa’s “best and brightest” young “trailblazers” working in everything from medicine to fashion.
The annual “Africa 30 Under 30” publication is just one part of Forbes’ broader effort to highlight and encourage entrepreneurship in Africa. It comes shortly after the very first launch of the company Botswana Under 30 Summit in April, which brought together the world’s “most elite young entrepreneurs” to hear from and network with government and business leaders. Its aim was “to harness the power of entrepreneurial capitalism [on] the continent whose growth will help define the 21st century.
And Forbes is by no means the only player fiercely focused on “harness[ing] the power of entrepreneurial capitalism” in Africa. Policymakers and business leaders around the world frequently promote youth entrepreneurship as the solution to Africa’s job shortage. It is even an essential component of the nine-year program of the African Development Bank Group. “Youth Jobs Strategy” which was launched in 2016 to create 25 million jobs for young Africans and equip 50 million people with the skills needed for employment and, importantly, entrepreneurship. This strategy was accompanied by the creation of a new fund for “youth entrepreneurship and innovation”, which was used to finance initiatives such as the bank’s Youth Innovation Lab. And in 2017 alone, more than 490,000 aspiring young entrepreneurs, many of them women, received entrepreneurship training funded by this fund.
At first glance, promoting entrepreneurship in Africa seems like smart policy for the continent in general, and in particular for its growing youth population. Between 2017 and 2035, Africa’s working-age population is expected to increase by 450 millionbut the data suggests that the number of new jobs will only increase by 100 million. Unless major steps are taken to address this deficit, Africa could experience a severe unemployment crisis, which could have cascading and devastating economic and social effects.
However, with change also comes opportunity. Rapid job creation policies could enable 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 the youth, could go a long way in helping Africans secure this dividend and avoid economic strife.
At the individual level too, entrepreneurship can open doors for young people who find themselves deprived of other opportunities. Particularly in the context of a global health crisis which has precipitated major job lossesentrepreneurship could help the young people of the continent get back on their feet and take charge of their own future, while creating jobs for their peers and demonstrating leadership in their community. This, in turn, could alleviate the socio-economic anxieties of young people in places like Ugandawhich has one of the highest youth unemployment rates on the continent at 13.3%.
The potential for entrepreneurship in Africa is therefore undeniably enormous. However, the abundant and entirely positive narratives of the possibilities of entrepreneurship tend to ignore the difficult realities faced by budding entrepreneurs, and even successful ones.
By positioning entrepreneurs as the solution to Africa’s burgeoning jobs crisis, aren’t policymakers and economists simply shifting the burden of tackling unemployment onto the youth?
Many cultures around the world, and particularly in the West, tend to idolize entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk are revered as pioneers and even messiahs. To borrow a term from Tom Blomfield, co-founder of British fintech Monzo, there is a “superhero syndrome” surrounding founders: They are expected to know all the answers to the evils of the world. This belief can lead aspiring entrepreneurs astray and place them under undue pressure, even as they face profound challenges in building and growing their businesses.
Like Solomon Timothy, a sales and marketing expert, written in Forbes last year, these challenges may include loneliness resulting from personal sacrifice; envy of colleagues; constantly worrying about everything from growth rates to stock prices; and pressure from family and relatives whose livelihood depends on the success of the business. And his article, of course, was written from the point of view of someone who has built a number of successful businesses. What about the realities facing young entrepreneurs in Africa, especially those in rural communities with limited access to traditional financial services, internet and mentoring opportunities?
Moreover, research shows that in 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 main 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 face unstable income streams, poor working conditions and limited protection from social security or labor laws. Entrepreneurship is therefore not necessarily a great equalizer; it does not always lead to greater inclusion and autonomy.
More fundamentally, however, by positioning entrepreneurs as the solution to Africa’s burgeoning jobs crisis, aren’t policymakers and economists simply shifting the burden of tackling unemployment onto the youth? 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 come with it.
Policy makers and business leaders should ensure that entrepreneurship programs are linked to initiatives to provide budding entrepreneurs with holistic support. This could include strong training programs through mentoring and peer-to-peer learning networks, assistance with the mountains of paperwork that young business owners have to fill out, 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 wouldn’t expect that from our leaders, so why the young people of Africa?
Aishwarya Machani is a United Nations 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 report “Our Common Agenda”. She also co-wrote “Our future program», a vision and a support plan for future generations. She is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His weekly WPR column appears every Tuesday.