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Not all are cut out for business

Saturday, September 29, 2012 - 00:00 -- BY ANDREA BOHNSTEDT

Njeri Rionge had asked me to speak about the private equity and venture capital industry in Africa – which I write about on www.africa-assets.com – and the nascent ICT industry in Kenya at her Ignite ‘Scaling Your Business Upwards Summit’ last week in Nairobi. I gave the participants a short overview of the private equity sector and looked at some of the issues that particular affect SMEs considering that kind of investment. Making the link to Kenya’s nascent ICT industry, I argued that I expected to see far more traction in those companies who don’t get that much enthusiastic media coverage, and who also don’t run from pitch event and competition to the next.

I actually suspect there may be an inverse relationship between IHub-related buzz and the potential for PE/VC investment. My Africa Assets partner Rachel cited a speaker at the DEMO Africa investor roundtable that also took place in Nairobi recently (how do people get any work done with all these conferences?): ‘There’s hype and then there’s business.’ Rachel found that ‘The event was well-attended, but the message was clear: Nairobi’s Silicon Savannah’ is in desperate need of a large dose not of money, but of modesty.’

I keep coming back to this subject: a lot of policy discussions, whether on government or on donor level, had focused, and continue to focus on, entrepreneurship. Of course this is necessary to develop an economy, there is no question about that. But I find that there is often very little thought as to whether entrepreneurship really is for everyone. In the past, vast aid programmes concentrated on fostering ‘income-generating projects’ at the so-called ‘grassroots’ level – are these necessarily enterprises or, as Tom Dichter once called them, survival activities?

These days, much attention by do-gooders is given to turning smart youngsters with laptops into techpreneurs. Is this realistic? Not every mobile app is actually a company, nor is every techie an entrepreneur. Yes, the idea of building a website on your kitchen table that later becomes a global enterprise with more profit than Kenya’s entire GDP is alluring – but how realistic is that? I find in much of the foundation, World Bank and other funding that goes into this sector, there is very little attention being given to the old-school approach of, yawn, being employed.

This is not an either-or question. There’s nothing wrong with entrepreneurship – the more, the merrier. But even if you end up being an entrepreneur, or plan to do so, there’s an enormous lot to be learned from working in a company that can make you a better entrepreneur: technical skills, people skills, management skills and, if you’re with the right company, work experience in other countries and cultures. And if you happen not to be entrepreneur material, then you want to be an employee who’s skilled and in demand.

So now, ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your sofa, clutch your pearls, grab your coffee mug tightly, because I’m going to do this: I’m going to stop the snark for a moment and say something nice. No, really. Because I found some encouraging corporate initiatives recently:

SAP, for example, have committed to training 100 ‘bright but underprivileged students’ to become certified SAP software engineers. SAP will do this in partnership with the ICT Board and the Multi Media University. Oddly, there was a bit of a flap on the KICTAnet mailing list about this – what about open-source software, what about local solutions, what about brain drain? Yes, what about it? Hell, training for 100 kids out of tens or hundreds of thousands who are looking for a job? In an area where they can work globally? What are we even arguing about? Here’s what I find important: ’The programme will seek to substantially improve the employability of young, bright university graduates.’ Employability is good. Actually, employability is great, especially if it’s global employability. You prefer open-source software? Knock yourself out – train 100 kids. 100 kids are a drop in the Indian Ocean. And since listers also complained about expensive foreign consultants being flown in, surely this is the way to go if you want to make sure that this kind of work is done by Kenyans, whether here or abroad (one woman’s brain drain is another woman’s remittances).

I also really like the Equity Bank scholarships. Equity Bank recently published the list of students they support and the universities they send them to: it’s an impressive selection of some of the most respected universities like Harvard and MIT – and interestingly also Ghana’s Ashesi University. A Forbes article says this about Ashesi’s founder, Patrick Awuah: ‘He first thought he would start some sort of business to help economic development; but when he visited, he noticed his experience being educated at Swarthmore and working at Microsoft built critical thinking, leadership, and practical skills that were missing from his secondary school peers who stayed.’

Sending people to university (or SAP trainings) will obviously not be the only way of building an economy, but I really like these initiatives to make sure that young Kenyans get some of the best of what the global economy and global corporate have produced. And I have no doubt that many of them will turn these opportunities into gains for Kenya.