“Entrepreneurs need to take their rightful place as role models in South Africa so that when young people leave school or university, they consider it as a viable career option.” – Nazeem Martin, Business Partners Managing Director.
The canon of entrepreneurial research clearly shows a direct correlation between the level of education of an individual and his or her ability to found a sustainable business.
There is also a definite link between the level of education of a business owner and the number of jobs the operation can potentially create.
But, experts say that there is a real and dangerous lack of entrepreneurial education in South Africa.
The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) for example, has cited education a major inhibitor for nearly a decade.
Entrepreneurial education is a complex subject and the problem is two-fold: educated individuals often do not see the entrepreneurial arena as a viable income-generating option; and individuals engaged in entrepreneurial activities do not always have the requisite skills to run their businesses.
The introduction of the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Codes of Good Practise has lead to a greater focus on the latter inhibitor as businesses receive points towards Enterprise Development when providing non-financial support and training to SMEs.
However, this does not mean that the pool of educated, high-growth entrepreneurs entering the economy has increased.
Academics seem to agree that successful entrepreneurs share a range of common attributes.
Presenting a research paper at the Wits Business School Centre for Entrepreneurship’s annual entrepreneurship conference, Dr Shelley Farrington pointed out that to promote entrepreneurial activity, a population needs to possess a particular set of attributes that promotes entrepreneurial behaviour.
The study Dr Farrington participated in looked at the entrepreneurial attributes of undergraduate business students at different universities in South Africa.
Several different attributes were investigated including risk taking, self-confidence, the ability to overcome failure and commitment.
The study found low levels of risk taking, knowledge seeking, initiative and continuous learning amongst students – all key entrepreneurial drivers. It also found very little improvement in the development of these attributes when compared to a 2001 study.
The conclusion was that while a number of entrepreneurial attributes are present in the students (and that it helps them to succeed at university), the individuals do not really see themselves becoming SME operators.
The paper recommends that educational institutions need to create an environment that fosters entrepreneurial attributes. More importantly however, is the proposal that students with the potential to become entrepreneurs need to be identified and mentored during their entire educational process.
Entrepreneurial education, the researchers say, need to be incorporated into as many different learning experiences as possible, as often as possible.
Teach the teacher
The way in which entrepreneurial education takes place should not be underestimated, according to Prashanth Naidoo. He looked at how business simulation techniques could help entrepreneurial education.
The premise is that simulations help students to gain practical experience.
“There is a lack of entrepreneurs in South Africa. We need to look at ways to get young people excited about entrepreneurship,” he said, adding that the skills needed to start and run a business can be taught.
But, the environment in which this takes place, needs to reflect the business reality. It should also be creative and multi-disciplinary.
However, Naidoo’s research points out that the facilitator of the simulation plays an exceedingly important role as it is their job to make the experience relevant and effective.
So, significant attention must be given to training the trainers to ensure entrepreneurial development amongst students.
This is something that the Euveta project in Tanzania has done exceptionally well.
Hook, line and sinker
Run by the Triodos Facet consultancy, the project sought to train graduates from a number privately owned vocational training centres in practical business skills.
Southern Africa representative, Anouk Verheijen, explained that many students struggle to find formal employment after graduating. They revert to self-employment in the informal sector.
Through entrepreneurial training however, it was hoped that these individuals would start small, sustainable businesses with growth potential.
Initially, action learning, role playing and practical exercises are used to evoke the idea of owning and running a business. Over time, training becomes more formalised. More than 3 000 students were trained in the project’s pilot phase.
But, the project found that one of the key differentiators was the trainers themselves and the teachers had to undergo a significant mindset change.
Going forward, the initiative will be rolled out to 120 schools where a mere 360 teachers will attempt to train nearly 14 500 students.
The private Covenant University in Ota, Nigeria, follows a similar mantra and introduced a mandatory entrepreneurship course for all its students.
The course is customised to 15 different fields and vertical industries because this provides the students with the practical knowledge to pursue entrepreneurial activities.
While a number of private institutions are increasingly looking at the importance of entrepreneurial education, there is still much work to be done on local soil.
The GEM report recommends that the starting point is basic education where skills such as numeracy and literacy need to be improved.
From there, effective, countrywide entrepreneurial training and business skills must be rolled out at secondary school level.
In general, educational support should address the needs of individual entrepreneurs and the challenges faced at a particular point in time in order to lower start-up failure rates.