How can South Africa drive youth innovation and entrepreneurship?

Nearly a third of South Africa’s population is under the age of 14. As things stand, their future is uncertain. The economy is stagnant, the political landscape is shifting, and unemployment is at a record high.

It’s possible to turn all that around, but doing so means equipping young people with skills beyond those found in the schooling system creating an environment which doesn’t just see entrepreneurship and innovation as viable options, but as necessities.

There was the consensus of a panel on driving innovation among South Africa’s young people at a Road to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit held at Cape Town’s Workshop 17 on Monday.

The panelists should know what they’re talking about too. CodeX‘s Elizabeth Gould, RLabs‘ Marlon Parker, nnfinity‘s Nwabisa Mayema, Code4CT‘s Emma Jane Dicks, and FixForward‘s Josh Cox have all dedicated themselves to using technology to fuel entrepreneurship and innovation in the country.

Doing what schools can’t

According to a number of the panelists, a large part of the reason they exist is because they’ve identified skills that are valuable to young people, but which aren’t taught in schools.

On one level, those are technological skills — Code4CT, RLabs, and CodeX all have major coding and development components within their programmes — but there are also a whole host of other skills that need to be taught before young people are able to either enter the job market or start their own businesses.

That’s especially true when the young people involved come from impoverished backgrounds with few role models for success.

“We need to think about the complexities in our communities,” says Parker. “It’s one thing to give someone a skill, it’s another thing entirely to help someone find their passion.”

While a very small number of people might be able to find that passion on their own, the reality is that without personal development and leadership skills even people who have serious digital skills will slip through the cracks.

“We couldn’t just give them the digital skill and hope everything will be okay,” Parker says.

RLabs’ Grow Leadership Academy. Founded in 2008, the academy has trained …. and has operations in 22 countries around the globe.

The fact that it’s managed to achieve that growth and have 95% of the academy’s staff made up of alumni shows how valuable that kind of all-round education is.

Investing in women

Using that kind of holistic approach to innovation and entrepreneurial development is, if anything, even more critical when it comes to epowering young women.

As Ventureburn’s 2015 Startup Survey showed, women still make up a much smaller fraction of the country’s technology entrepreneurs than men. It’s a situation which is changing slowly, but there needs to be a wholesale mind-shift if it’s going to get to where it needs to be.

Right now, says, Dicks, “women are self de-selecting out of tech roles.” In a reflection of what is a global phenomenon, many young women have spent so long being told that technology and entrepreneurship aren’t viable career paths for them that they don’t even consider it.

Code4CT aims to change that not only by teaching young women to code, but also by providing with female mentors willing to share their own entrepreneurial journeys.

“The lack of tangible role models plays a huge role in preventing young women from moving into the tech space,” says Dicks.

Failure and success

For many of those entrepreneurs, failure will have been an important part of the journey. But as the panel noted, there’s a low tolerance for failure in South Africa.

Big rewards in the entrepreneurial space require big risks, but if entrepreneurs are consumed with a crippling sense of failure, they’ll never find those rewards.

We need, in other words, to equip young people to be brave, not perfect.

The right conditions

But if that’s going to happen, we also need the right structures in place, both within government and the family.

If South Africa is to create a large pool of entrepreneurs, then the government needs to set up legislation which makes it as easy and cheap as possible to start a business.

Unfortunately that’s just not the case right now. “Setting up a business in South Africa is very difficult and very expensive,” says Gould.

Reducing that cost, could also prove a major boost to black entrepreneurs from less wealthy backgrounds. Those who make it through university face massive familial and societal pressures, make entrepreneurship much less enticing.

That experience is borne out by Mayema, who faced a fair amount of resistance when she told her family that she wanted to start a business straight out of university. As it the case with many young people, especially from the country’s impoverished rural areas, she was expected to use her university education to get a well-paid job in a respectable business with, in her words, “a nice car and business cards”.

It’s perfectly understandable: every parent wants the best for their children. And if they can make your life a little more comfortable at the same time, so much the better.

It’s a major stumbling block that needs to be overcome, but once it is, the opportunities are beyond measure.

The time is right

Despite all those challenges, the panelists all seem to think that there are massive opportunities to be found in growing young entrepreneurs. Technology is more affordable than ever, especially in the hardware space, where Parker believes opportunities abound.

As the social entrepreneur notes, there’s an already existing culture of hardware hacking in the townships. “People buy devices and ‘hack’ them to meet their needs”. The trick, he says, is to get them to see that other people have those needs too.

“Timing is everything,” says Parker. I think the world is now ready for hardware from the continent”

The rise of the gig economy could also prove useful in helping foster entrepreneurship in the country.

With the right platform, people can work the hours they want so they at least have some form of income while they build their business.

And that’s where something like Cox’s Fix Forward comes in. The platform provides vetted tradespeople with access to markets they wouldn’t otherwise have, thus saving them the hassle of trying to hustle for business, but also gives them entrepreneurial training, so that they can continue there growth.

So while the future doesn’t always look great for young people right now, with the right changes in place, that could change very quickly.



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