The Entrepreneurship Dilemma


Writer: Kagisho Nkadimeng

Looking around, one can see an array of companies and enterprises. Some are just start-ups while others are global conglomerates with a history that spans over a hundred years. These companies have managed to change and revolutionise the world, and although they might sell different products and services across different industries, they all have one thing in common; entrepreneurship. Through modernisation entrepreneurship has become a science of its own. Governments are promoting entrepreneurship as they know it has the potential to create much needed jobs while it also improves a country’s economic prospects. Entrepreneurship is like oxygen to any economy – it is a vital force for the survival of that economy.

Most economic powerhouse countries have a firm foundation in entrepreneurship. Where a large percentage of their population is entrepreneurially active. For example, when America began its global dominance, a large percentage of its population were entrepreneurs and the great American global corporates we see today are from that era.

Perhaps a more relevant example for us is that of China. In the past decade China has enjoyed a rapid economic growth of phenomenal proportions. If you look at the products around you that are consumed daily, especially in South Africa, you are bound to find at least three items that were made in China, from clothing and textiles, shoes, computers, cell phones, cars etc. The ‘’made in China’’ wording on most products is fast becoming a trademark for the Chinese. 

The Chinese economy managed to show growth even during the recent global economic meltdown. If the Chinese economy continues to grow at this rate, economic analysts say it will surpass the American economy. This is by no means an accident and it has not been easy either. The Chinese government worked extremely hard to get to where they are. Visionary politicians and businessmen worked together to start up programmes that continue to flourish even after they have left their political sphere.

So the question is ‘’why can’t South Africa be an economic powerhouse of the future’’? Is it because we have been spoilt by our large natural resource deposits and so we have been lazing around? The recent mining unrests and their culmination at Marikana should remind us that someday our deposits will eventually run dry. Perhaps maybe not in our life time but some day they will (we hope not). Why is it that we do not strive to be globally competitive economically? With such vast socio economic issues to deal with, it baffles the mind how there has never been a key focus on supporting entrepreneurship and creating an environment where small start-ups can co-exist and compete with the big established companies, even collaborating at times.

In this country you get what we call ‘’pedestal politicians’’ who go on stage to say all the sweet, charming and enticing speeches that leave you the listener wanting more of it. But after they get off the pedestal all is forgotten. How sad.

Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint-hearted, especially in South Africa. The environment is not entrepreneurially conducive, particularly for the small companies that are just starting out. It is ironic because arguably, we have some of the best entrepreneurship support structures globally but somehow they fail to get to the real entrepreneurs. We have phenomenal organisations such as the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA), Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), National Empowerment Fund (NEF), Gauteng Partnership Fund (GPF), Gauteng Enterprise Propeller (GEP) and so many great organisations that aim to support entrepreneurs financially and non-financially. But one may feel that they are not effective because, having visited a few of them without any progress they may be government liabilities that cost money that can be effectively utilised elsewhere.

Statements from ministers ‘’we need to develop entrepreneurs’’ are hilarious to hear coming from their mouths. They talk as though entrepreneurs are extinct. Entrepreneurs do not need to be spoon fed, they just need a few factors to favour them and they will create a path for themselves.

Another ignored group of people are the informal traders e.g. spaza shop owners and hawkers. South Africa has hundreds of thousands, if not millions of them. Some of these people have been hawkers for more than 10 years, because sadly, they could not find jobs and so they chose it as a survival mechanism. And some of them have managed to magnificently succeed at it by not only putting bread on the table but also sending their children through varsity. Another irony is that these informal entrepreneurs can never access funding from state entrepreneurial organisations despite their vast experience because others are illiterate, and others cannot draw up business plans. But yet they perfectly understand basic business fundamentals like keep your overheads as low as possible, provide an excellent customer service and product so that your customers can always return. If given a chance, hawkers can successfully run any business just like an MBA graduate would! There is a wonderful organisation called Awethu Project that helps develop informal entrepreneurs. It is the only one of its kind in the country and is certainly doing a great job.

It is not enough for people with power and influence to simply talk about entrepreneurship and do nothing to actually support it. They do not realise that entrepreneurship will not only propel us into a really dominant global position but it can also help with the burden of the many socio economic issues that we currently face as a nation. It is not enough to talk about creating five million jobs with no clear action plan. Because when the economy goes into a recession companies will retrench workers to keep afloat. You should rather talk about creating five million enterprises that will absorb the entire workforce that is currently unemployed.

We are also quick to talk about entrepreneurship that we forget to mention the perks that come with it. Think innovation. Through innovation the world has been blessed with many great products. Imagine how we would be getting around the world had the Wright Brothers not invented the aeroplane. How we would be travelling short and long distances had Daimler Chrysler, Karl Benz and Henry Ford had not contributed to the invention and production of the automobile otherwise known as the car. There are many other great innovations which saw their innovators become great entrepreneurs. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Hewlett Packard, Mark Zuckerberg the list is endless.

And so the human race continues to improve and move forward as a result of entrepreneurs. So let us South Africans not miss the chance we have because the cycle of entrepreneurship is just like the cycle of time – if wasted, we can never get it back.

This article was also published in the Skills Summit website

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