I carried out a little exercise on Google. I searched “Africa”, and then “African countries”. Top among the 3.4 billion results in the first search and 272 million in the second were stories about the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 and bans on African countries. Then about wars and conflicts, and some sporting stories.
For a long time, the dominant narrative about the African continent has been one long tale of gloom and doom. The world’s epicentre of poverty and disease, a stain on the conscience of the world. A continent desperately in need of aid, and to which the rich and powerful countries must urgently stretch a helping hand of benevolence.
But Africans are not throwing a pity party. Of course, challenges and difficulties remain, but they are not peculiar to African countries. A new generation of African entrepreneurs are rising to the challenge. They’re setting a new tone for how the continent engages with the rest of the world.
Away from dependency-inducing aid models, African entrepreneurs are charting a new course for inclusive growth on the continent. In a new handbook on African entrepreneurship, we brought together 46 scholars to explore issues ranging from institutions and ecosystems to technology entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship in conflict zones and gender and diversity issues.
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The book is a reference for researchers and practitioners with interests in international business, entrepreneurship and emerging economies. It is also a resource for students, course coordinators and programme leaders facilitating modules in entrepreneurship and business management. It is intended to guide policy makers across Africa and beyond. The book provides insights into how African entrepreneurs are navigating often turbulent institutional environments and volatile markets. It also sheds light on innovative networking and resourcing strategies business owners are using.
Challenging environment for business
This handbook offers a view of the often simplified but quite complex, multi-layered world of African entrepreneurship. It unpacks problems and prospects, cultures and contexts, and the features and future of African entrepreneurship. The contributions draw on empirical field work and practitioner reflections.
The Palgrave Handbook of African Entrepreneurship features country-level cases and insights from Western, Eastern, Southern and North Africa. It looks at key emerging themes such as technology entrepreneurship, gender and diversity issues, and entrepreneurship in conflict zones.
African entrepreneurship shares similar characteristics with any other type of entrepreneurship. Perhaps one defining element is the heightened, albeit not exclusive, sense of community.
This partly explains why the African technology entrepreneurship landscape is particularly exciting. Hubs of tech-savvy, typically young, entrepreneurs are springing up all over the continent. They are thriving on the ideals of knowledge sharing and co-creation. As we reported in another study, these tech hubs have rapidly expanded on the African continent over the past decade. In 2015, the World Bank reported the existence of 117 in Africa. By October 2019 this number had risen to 643. That represents growth of 450%.
These hubs have been hugely successful in creating new jobs, stimulating the entrepreneurial ecosystem and improving the quality of life through technology. They are also challenging traditional universities as sites of knowledge production. This has been achieved by adopting a flat structure where hub members exercise creative autonomy. They have also adopted a transdisciplinary approach to bring together academia, industry and government sectors to find solutions to societal problems.
African tech entrepreneurs have achieved this in often extremely challenging institutional conditions and turbulent business environments. They have to grapple with derelict and inadequate infrastructure and higher risks arising from weak and poorly enforced laws, among others. There are also challenges of limited economic integration among African countries, but these are now being prioritised by regional bodies. One important challenge that has attracted limited attention but is hugely significant is the hostile protectionist measures imposed by western governments. They are often on products and in areas where African countries are competitive.
One chapter in our handbook explores how African tech entrepreneurs survive this proverbial valley of death. Another contribution wonders how much progress could be made if African countries gave more open, universal access to their own citizens to enterprise and innovation across the continent. This is an especially timely and pertinent consideration, in the light of often hostile attitudes of African governments to technology entrepreneurship.
For example, in June 2021, the Nigerian government bannedTwitter indefinitely, leaving many businesses scrambling for survival in Africa’s most populous country. One source reportsthat 20% of 39.6 million Nigerians use Twitter to advertise their businesses.
Across the continent, entrepreneurs are trying to forge ahead in conflict zones, in camps for the forcibly displaced, and in refugee settlements. The handbook highlights examples of resilient and innovative entrepreneurship from places such as Northeast Nigeria, where the Boko Haram insurgency has displaced nearly 2.4 million people; Libya, where businesses are reeling from the impact of an ongoing civil war; and Kenya, where refugee entrepreneurs are drawing on social networks to overcome constraints of an encampment policy that restricts their movements and economic opportunities.
These are not just rosy stories of great successes and triumphs. Many of these businesses fail or struggle to grow. The majority of African entrepreneurs are still informal micro-enterprises. However, the true picture of the continent is not of helplessness. African entrepreneurs, with all their challenges and difficulties, are giving it a good go.
Is the world ready?
If they are truly ready to do business with Africa, the rich and powerful countries need to shed the paternalism that has defined and driven interaction with African countries for decades. This dependency-inducing model is damaging and not fit for purpose. The “developed” countries need to give more attention to issues such as liberal trade policies and removal of tariffs and other non-tariff barriers to African products and African businesses. It is not enough for rich countries to pay lip service to the ideals of free trade and do the opposite in practice.
African entrepreneurs are ready and able to hold their own at the international stage. Just give them the chance.