Fostering Entrepreneurship in South Africa: Storytelling

By Nicolette Chinomona    28-Jun-2013 12:02 UTC+02:00

The economic outlook of the country isn’t encouraging, falling gold prices, a struggling Rand and the unemployment rate climbing up from where it was at the beginning of the year. Clearly other alternatives to boost employment and the economy must be found, and this is where entrepreneurship at a grassroots level comes in.

The African continent is bursting with opportunities, and investors the world over are turning their gaze towards our commercial young business environment. Africans have begun to look inwardly at their resources and are cultivating the desire to develop those resources and use currently available infrastructure to innovate in ways that are uniquely African. More interestingly is that the innovation and entrepreneurial push is being led by the youth.

To find out more about how entrepreneurship as a concept is faring among the youth in South Africa, I spoke to Indira Tsengiwe, CEO of Youngpreneur Media, an online platform that enables young entrepreneurs to share their stories with each other, struggles as well as successes. In this first look at entrepreneurship in South Africa, we discussed the importance of storytelling in passing on the interest in entrepreneurship to young people.

For many years, Africa’s lack of first world infrastructure and technology, was perceived as a drawback, but in many ways has provided futile ground for entrepreneurship. The starting point for entrepreneurship and innovation is often, using the little that you have to create something new and exciting- in that regard, having little often turns into a massive opportunity for thinking out of the box. And over the past few years, a whole range of new and exciting products have been launched from the continent that have pleasantly surprised the world. One would expect that with South Africa’s dynamic economy- that the youth would be leading the African pack, but it turns out according to Ms. Tsengiwe that the numbers of young people interested in entrepreneurship in South Africa was lagging behind the rest of the continent!

It makes one wonder, what heights the country could reach if more young people got interested in starting businesses. In first world economies, small businesses account for substantial job creation percentages and as Ms. Tsengiwe pointed out during the interview, “If you have young people that are interested in entrepreneurship- that is the future of a country.”

One would be hard pressed to disagree with that sentiment on an economic point of view. Take for example the United States, innovation there has created products that have changed the world and produced significant wealth for the creators. Apparently, what is preventing young South Africans from entrepreneurial behavior according to Ms. Tsengiwe, is a wrong mindset, she elaborated why;

“The mindset about Entrepreneurship in South Africa right now is wrong, traditionally entrepreneurship isn’t something that people grew up with, it is something that people had to turn to, when they couldn’t find jobs. So it’s not because they are passionate about what they are doing- but because it’s the only option left to them, it’s considered the poor man’s option. The numbers of young people interested in entrepreneurship in South Africa is lagging behind other countries in Africa. In countries like Kenya and Nigeria, starting a business is something that young people grow up with, something that is made an aspiration for them at an early age. They have so many examples of people that have tried it and made it, whereas here, we don’t get to hear those stories so much. For instance, there is an entrepreneur in Mali that has developed a system to purify water, with the basics that were available at the time and has created a million dollar business. Another example is a young person in Botswana that has developed a hearing aid that is ten times more affordable than other products on the market. These are stories that young people in South Africa have to hear.”

Stories are a huge part of African culture- through them our history has been passed down to us, from our rites and rituals, to our customs. In that regard, we find ourselves in a unique place as Africans where the people that would have passed on those entrepreneurial stories and spirit to the younger generation are not knowledgeable about it.

When questioned about what it is that reading and hearing success stories from Africans in Africa does to foster entrepreneurship, this is what Ms. Tsengiwe added to the discourse:

“The stories foster a culture of entrepreneurship. Taking stories from the West and trying to transplant them into an African context, doesn’t work. Young entrepreneurs in Africa, are tired of hearing stories from American publications. Every story is different, every story will inspire a different person and what’s lacking is the telling of these successful entrepreneurial stories in a real manner. In the past our parents encouraged us to do certain things, take certain jobs, based on the information that they had- being a nurse was what they knew was the best. Then as they got more information, they began to give us more options, then came the push to become teachers and doctors. Basically, the more information is out there about Entrepreneurship, the more young people will begin to aspire to become entrepreneurs, for instance more girls will move from wanting to be entertainers to wanting to become business women.”

In general, the choice between being an employee and being entrepreneurial is often decided on the question of risk. Employment offers to many a great deal of safety and stability, whereas starting a business often feels like a lucky-dip as far as the possibility of prosperity is concerned.

South Africa is a very hardworking country, whose wealth has been built on the backs of mining and agricultural employees. As to be expected, the individual prosperity model that is predominant in the nation is based on finding suitable employment and staying true to that model. Naturally though, as a country and its resources evolve, hopefully so does the model, but as the old idiom goes, “how will they know, if no one tells them?”

The country cannot purposefully evolve into a more innovative and entrepreneurial state, if young people are not told stories. If the youth don’t hear about the successes of others and feel a push to exit not just their personal comfort zones, but professional ones as well- the country will, as Ms. Tsengiwe’s and economic logic would have it- “have no future.” This is where professions in the business are responsible to society, this is where the mandate to give back comes in, by sharing their stories, by mentoring, which again was a topic that we discussed and will be expanded in the next part of the interview with Indira Tsengiwe.

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