Prof. Hamid Bouchikhi, Director of the ESSEC Impact Entrepreneurship Center, asserts that for an African entrepreneurial area to materialize requires in-depth work with the younger generations. Because innovative entrepreneurs are, for the most part, young graduates from higher education, the mental setting up of an African entrepreneurial area calls for massive encouragement of infra-African student mobility...
The flagging pace of advanced economies and the slowdown observed among the BRICS countries has turned gazes towards Africa whose demographic vitality, the emergence of a solvable middle class and economic growth rates that are hardly dreamt of elsewhere, we rightly admire. The development, throughout the continent, of a new generation of innovative, ambitious, self-confident entrepreneurs, connected to the world and perfectly harnessing new technologies, leads us to hope in the beginning of an African development model which is less dependent on public or foreign investment and the beholder of stronger local innovation.
However, it should be noted that ambitious African neo-entrepreneurs are coming up against numerous endogenous obstacles representing real competitive disadvantages in relation to their American, Asiatic or European counterparts.
Too long to enumerate, the remainder of this article will be devoted to the adverse effects of the extreme fragmentation of the African continent, a major stumbling block to the development of an African entrepreneurial area.
Globalize the African approach
There where an American, Chinese, European or Indian entrepreneur operates on a continental, even world level, African entrepreneurs operate in a much narrower domestic space which reduces their potential market and prevents them, practically, from accessing sources of financing and talent in other African countries. In truth, intra-African movements of people and resources are so complicated that an African entrepreneur with a major innovation can much more easily deal with other continents, even move there, and thereby exacerbate the brain drain which penalizes African economic development to such a great extent.
The initiatives to make Africa a large entrepreneurial and economic area are many and we can all think of administrative measures and agreements that have sought to render intra-African movement more free-flowing. Nevertheless, these initiatives, some of which are already in place, are meaningless if they are not activated by entrepreneurs having internalized Africa as their natural field of action. Otherwise said, the African entrepreneurial area must first root itself in the mindsets of those entrepreneurs active on the continent. Having taken part in events gathering together young African entrepreneurs, I have regularly observed that that the continent constitutes a blind spot in their field of vision. As a large majority, they have no direct experience with other African countries and lack networks even though they may be very connected with players on the American or European continents where, very often, they have studied or even worked for many years.
Consequently, for an African entrepreneurial area to materialize requires an enormous effort to be made with the younger generations. Because innovative entrepreneurs are, for the most part, young graduates from higher education, the mental setting up of an African entrepreneurial area calls for massive encouragement of infra-African student mobility.
The study of several statistical sources from African higher education gives room for hope. According to estimates from the World Bank, the continent counts 18 to 20 million students in higher education. If we consider that the proportion of future entrepreneurs is 5% within this population, there would be one million potential entrepreneurs on African campuses! Compared to their counterparts on the other continents, African students are more mobile (5.7% according to UNESCO) but almost exclusively choose European, American and, recently, Asiatic destinations. Orienting 6% of students towards countries on the continent for all or part of their studies would mean exposing, each year, 60,000 potential entrepreneurs to Africa (6% of one million).
The level of these figures demonstrates the interest and the necessity for a voluntarist effort to produce an African Erasmus able to encourage and facilitate the intra-continental mobility of students. Initiatives exist and should grow more. The European Union has set up an intra-academic mobility program for the ACP areas (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific). For lack of a public assessment of this initiative, the elements available point to it not having (yet?) had the expected impact. The African component of the Erasmus Mundus program seems, for its part, much more used – something that can be easily understood given that it is addressed to African students wishing to study in Europe.
The MINDS Institute, headed by Graça Machel Mandela, has announced the launch, in 2017, of a program closely resembling Erasmus by and for Africans. It should be hoped that the institute finds the necessary financing and, especially, the effective means to better ‘sell’ continental destinations to young African students. The scale of the continent and the rapid growth in higher education headcount require other initiatives, notably private establishments, both profit and non-profit, which have reached a critical mass in Africa and enjoy wider margins of freedom to form trans-frontier African partnerships.
The media must also contribute to the intra-continental mobility of students by the highlighting of pockets of higher education and research excellence which exist throughout Africa, and by the celebration, under various forms, of young innovative entrepreneurs having had a direct experience with other African countries and for whom this experience has served as a stepping stone in an entrepreneurial adventure.