Action urgent to eliminate bottlenecks to self-employment

Africa needs to adopt a holistic approach if it is to build a strong culture of youth entrepreneurship and help tackle the current youth unemployment crisis gripping many countries on the continent.

To have an impact, the approach needs to address the problem starting at its root: training at university, government policies on education, youth employment, entrepreneurship, and the business environment, as well as access to resources such as capital and land.

Academics and industry leaders agree that the approach should focus on deliberately addressing bottlenecks to self-employment, paying particular attention to what universities, governments and the private sector need to do to ensure that more graduates use their skills to become entrepreneurs instead of jobseekers.

This is in line with the current emphasis on cultivating entrepreneurs and innovators on African soil to combat rising unemployment on the one hand and stimulate economic growth on the other. Professor Olusola Bandele Oyewole, secretary general of the Association of African Universities (AAU), said innovation and entrepreneurship remained pressing priorities to maximise the potential of Africa’s human capital, University World News reported earlier.

Oyewole said the higher education sector is critical in enhancing innovation and entrepreneurship in the region.

Several countries are already placing a high premium on the start-up culture. For example, in Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt many leading universities run entrepreneurship-focused courses and have established entrepreneurship and innovation centres. However, much more needs to be done.

Eradicate skills mismatch

“Addressing bottlenecks to youth employment will require governments to invest in youth and show commitment to providing financial support, and increase spending on youth initiatives,” said Professor Patience Mshenga, dean of the faculty of agriculture at Kenya’s Egerton University.

Further, it would call for linkages between industry and training institutions, including intensified training in technical business and leadership skills, and, equally important, both ‘soft’ and life skills, she said at a discussion session on ‘Youth Entrepreneurship: Universities and Youth in Conversation’ hosted by Egerton University in partnership with the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP), a consortium of Michigan State University (MSU), 10 leading African universities and a network of research institutes.

For this to happen, added Mshenga, universities and other learning institutions would have to find a solution to the persistent problem of a skills mismatch between industry needs and the skills universities impart to students.

The problem of a skills mismatch can be solved if academia works in partnership with industry to address the issue of capacity development among the youth, Mshenga added.

Beyond the university, she observed, one solution lay in availing “productive resources” to the youth, including land and finance – especially for those interested in agribusiness.

Other barriers to self-employment can be solved by governments through the removal of “prohibitive taxes”, addressing the question of business licensing. Prevalent negative attitudes by the youth to certain forms of widely available entrepreneurship opportunities in agribusiness also need to be tackled, the professor added.

‘Youth bulge’ exacerbates mismatch

“At the moment the negative perception of the youth about some jobs, the lack of role models and biases by family, friends, and media against certain careers have kept youth away from the occupations, further worsening unemployment,” she explained.

Currently, she observed that the “youth bulge” experienced across Africa, bequeathing the continent with the youngest population in the world, coupled with the expansion of education services without due consideration to quality, has resulted in a skills mismatch with employer needs.

To nurture and foster the entrepreneurial culture in students, MSU developed an approach that could be used for benchmarking by African universities. This includes offering entrepreneurship and innovation as minors in different courses, said Professor Laurel Ofstein, faculty director at MSU’s Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

The minors are open to all major units across all colleges at the university, and the college supports students at all stages of entrepreneurship, including expert mentorship and funding, she said.

Opportunities created for students

As a result, the university had built an entrepreneurial ecosystem through which students participated in pitching events at MSU and in the Chicago area, and participated in innovation challenges, Ofstein explained.

The institute was empowering students to learn through action by providing programmes, courses, and resources to foster an “entrepreneurial mindset”, and create new ventures, she added.

The university’s concept of an entrepreneurial mindset helps to highlight what worked and what needed improvement, as well as identify the gaps that may exist in programming.

“Are we helping students to become better innovators by impacting all areas of the entrepreneurial mindset? Can we measure educational outcomes without only relying on indicators like businesses started, and can we demonstrate educational value for those going into existing organisations as entrepreneurs, for example?” she asked.

The concept also helped build “creative confidence” in students, allowing for opportunity recognition and encouraging trainees to embrace risk tolerance and acquire mitigation skills, as well as solution-seeking skills as future entrepreneurs.

According to Wilson Karimi, project and youth empowerment officer of the USAID Empowered Youth programme of Egerton University, entrepreneurship courses offered at many universities as only a unit was not enough to build strong entrepreneurs.

About 30 competencies are needed to build a good foundation for a successful future entrepreneur, he said, noting that facilities such as incubation centres were needed to complement theories taught in lecture halls.

“We need to recognise that entrepreneurship is a behaviour and to achieve this we need to incorporate hands-on mentorship and acknowledge that taking students through theoretical training alone will not make entrepreneurs,” he said.