The uncertain future of young African entrepreneurs

Young African entrepreneurs: To foster business success, a holistic ecosystem of support is essential, including relevant education, mentorship, access to finance, markets, and specialist advice. Photo: Supplied/Ventureburn
To foster business success, a holistic ecosystem of support is essential, including relevant education, mentorship, access to finance, markets, and specialist advice. Photo: Supplied/Ventureburn

African youth are highly adaptable and tech-savvy, but face high unemployment rates. Whilst many aspire to entrepreneurship, starting a business straight out of school may not be the best approach. Instead, instilling an entrepreneurial mindset and providing relevant education and mentorship can foster success, writes Catherine Wijnberg and Bridget Wijnberg.

The formative years of today’s youth in Africa were molded during the exponential rise of the internet and mobile penetration into the continent. This period of rapid change was their foundation. Consequently, they are highly adaptable, tech-savvy, and represent a huge talent pool of latent potential. In fact, many countries have pitched their economic hopes in the lap of their progeny: these young people are the solution, to start businesses, create jobs and save communities.

But they face an uncertain future. With an estimated 11 million young people joining the African labour market each year, this is a glaring mismatch to the 3.7 million new jobs generated annually. In South Africa alone, youth unemployment is one of the highest in the world at 66% (among people aged 15-24).  The effects are felt across the continent, with only one in six youth in wage-paying employment.

Faced with the realities of joblessness, many youths see entrepreneurship as their future. It is perceived by some to be the easiest option without the need for years of experience or to do battle with the job pool. Social media messaging plays a role in further influencing perceptions that entrepreneurship is an appealing option.

Supporting this, the 2020 Oliver Wyman report, Youth Employment in the African Private Sector, states that 91% of youth aspire to start a business, and 1 in 5 see self-employment as their only job option.

Sweet spot for entrepreneurs

Yet whilst this lack of experience and a belief that entrepreneurship is the easy option gives youngsters the courage to start a business, it may also contribute to their high failure rate. At Fetola, a development growth agency that has worked with hundreds of aspiring and emerging entrepreneurs over the past 16 years, results show that the ‘sweet spot’ for entrepreneurship is not in the period straight out of school, but rather later, once this crucial life experience has been gained.

This mirrors results from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM, 2011), which indicates that the most popular age to start a business is 25 to 34 years old, with 35 to 44 years old being the second most popular age group.

Whilst the exact numbers differ, it is generally accepted that around 30-35 years of age seems to be a powerful watershed, when the desire to succeed is matched with life experience and the courage to try something new.

Fetola is seeing more young South African professionals (engineers, doctors, logistics, pharmacists) in this age bracket choosing to leave their corporate jobs to start a business. These experienced candidates bring a wealth of working knowledge, a strong network and an understanding of the importance of systems, methods and business structure.

Of course, there are always outliers – and a confident, passionate entrepreneur can emerge at any age, provided the individual is keen, resilient and courageous.

However, placing unreasonable expectations on aspiring young entrepreneurs ahead of time or giving false impressions of an easy path to success can be unwise. Instead, laying a solid foundation for these young entrepreneurs is essential if we are to provide the springboard for success.

So, what are the elements of success, and how can we foster these? Certainly, an entrepreneurial mindset can be instilled through repetitive experiential exposure, influencing success, but not all individuals are suited to entrepreneurship. It requires mental fortitude, unique character traits, and an in-built drive to create self-sufficiency.

Furthermore, business-related tertiary education that is both relevant for Africa and adopts a teaching methodology of “learning by doing” is important, whilst work-shadow and internship schemes contribute to life and business experience and significantly increase success rates.

The Youth Start-up Accelerator

For rapid growth, business accelerator programmes can be transformative. If well-designed and applied, web-based training and mentorship such as The Youth Start-up Accelerator, a partnership with FNB and Fetola, set the groundwork for rapid success. Wraparound support from accelerators, such as the community of peers, leaves participants with a positive mindset, a real sense of hope and self-belief.

Similar success has been achieved through other programmes. Puleng Motupa, a youth entrepreneur from Polokwane, has been in operation for just 3 years. He specialises in manufacturing sustainable products including their signature non-electric slow cookers and washable pads.

Whilst a participant in the SAB Foundation Tholoana Enterprise Programme, Motupa PJ Enterprise was listed on the e-commerce platform Takealot, driving significant growth. The milestones achieved through the accelerator saw Motupa selected as South Africa’s Youth Advisor for the JA Worldwide programme – inspiring others to become entrepreneurs and changemakers.

Whilst individuals can and do start successful businesses without support, self-employment is often poorly paid and precariouss. Entrepreneurs need guidance to funnel their enthusiasm and commitment in the right direction. Consistent success is fostered within a holistic ecosystem of professional support that encompasses a balance of training and mentorship, access to finance, markets, and specialist advice.

The potential of African youth is enormous, and the pathway to unlocking this is filled with challenges.  Yet, by using Africa’s digital transformation to maximum advantage and partnering with professional business accelerators, we can build a roadmap for Africa’s young entrepreneurs.

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