Some surprising misconceptions about youth entrepreneurship in Africa, and why they matter

2015 Anzisha Fellow, Fabrice Alomo with employee

I recently attended a very informative session hosted by African Development Bank (AfDB), sharing their newly published strategy on Jobs for Youth in Africa. The work they are doing is admirable, and their targets are ambitious. I look forward to seeing them succeed on their 25 million youth job target. Africa needs these efforts. As part of their process for sharing this important work with the African community of youth entrepreneurs and youth supporters in government, business and the social sector, AfDB convened a Southern African ministerial dialogue on the topic. Ministers and leaders in education and business incubation attended from all over the region. Everyone seems to agree that this is an important topic, and ministers of  various portfolios that are relevant to youth and education were there in good numbers. The discussion was eye opening and thought provoking. It seems our leaders get it, mostly. Most of the perspectives shared were enlightening, but some were surprising, almost alarming, in the extent to which they misunderstood the problem of youth unemployment (at least by my estimation).

Firstly, there is agreement on some of the issues and opportunities:

  • There is a growing youth population that faces disproportionate challenge in securing employment. This is much discussed and agreed.
  • Our educational system is not necessarily preparing youth for the careers of the future and the job needs of the market. Education is just not keeping up with the times and the demands of a modern world and market at multiple levels including learning content, format, and diversity of disciplines.
  • Skills need to not only be aligned to the market need but to be grouped and organised as to be easily accessible.
  • Entrepreneurship should be encouraged for youth, and supported if it is to achieve its full potential in Africa.
  • The agricultural sector is still the largest opportunity for job creation in Africa, but only if we look at the full value chain and not just the primary production phase.
  • The only way to achieve jobs is to ultimately grow whole economies, and this requires increased regional trade and freedom of movement of both goods and skills across our borders.

Most of the above, can be argued and fine-tuned, but is largely not too controversial. Some views shared did however get the room excited at the prospect of some hearty debate. Here are the most salient misconceptions that I heard:

  • “Youth have too many options to choose from for support and skill development services”  – Seeing how much need there is among young people in Africa for employment options and upskilling programs, I was surprised by this  misconception. In conversation with some of the other attendees while we were in queue for coffee, we surmised that this view might be held by those who are providing the programs as they are reaching out to the same groups of young people over and over, and are not necessarily utilizing new outreach methods to increase reach to the un-reached. This misconception stems from an access problem, and not an over-supply problem.
  • “The most successful entrepreneurs we see are not educated” – This perspective is worrying on a number of fronts. Firstly, I inferred that these highly successful entrepreneurs being referred to were the likes of college dropouts Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. But to be frank, these examples are just not relevant to a 19 year old low income peri-urban youth in Malawi. Context matters! Secondly, this suggests that education is non-essential for running good scalable business. There was a general tone of berating education and its value that was rather alarming during the entire conversation. I find it indisputable that though it has its weaknesses in preparing youth for varied career opportunities in our present day world, school is still the best place for kids to learn essential basics such at numeracy, problem-solving, evaluating trade-offs, etc. The school of life on its own is a very costly and unforgiving learning space and is better suited to honing skills through practice, than to building a fundamental knowledge and skill base.
  • “Policy is not what you need in order to scale entrepreneurship in Africa” – It was interesting that this perspective was voiced as part of the same conversation that discussed red tape as a problem for youth entrepreneurs. The youth jobs problem is an ecosystem problem. It cannot be tackled simply by addressing needs at the individual level but by also requires removing systemic access barriers and growing the economy as a whole. One can’t ignore the role of government as enabler in this important conversation.

Though we generally agree on the issue we are working on, it is really important to challenge the points that those at the helm are stating as fact. Some of these misconceptions can derail progress by misguiding efforts. I was really pleased with AfDB for convening such high level panels for crucial conversation. The panel discussion sessions themselves did not provide for audience debate, but it certainly allowed for very spirited lunch time discussions during which we hopefully all took in an alternative perspective or two on our base beliefs.