I am a young Ghanaian student, observing the realities of two “worlds”, scaling my business to Europe, leading me to comment on the contrasts of the entrepreneurial landscape between Europe and Africa.
I tend to believe that it is young people who are most active in entrepreneurship and for most times, enterprise activity increases from the ages of 18 to 35 (40 in some regions); then begins to tail off. Sometimes people romanticise this while looking at successful entrepreneurs and thinking it happened overnight, but of course, it did not.
This thought leads me to wonder if the youth in Europe see entrepreneurship through the same lens as we do in Africa? Or could we say that the entrepreneurial spirit in West Africa is higher than that of Europe? My definition of European in this article would focus specifically on Western Europe notably Luxembourg where I am currently studying and observing. If we broaden the perspective, it becomes obvious that the best performers when it comes to Entrepreneurship are dominated by high-income countries. According to the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Index by GEDI, the UK has been named the top performer in Europe when it comes to entrepreneurs and fourth in the world; behind the US, Canada and Australia. West African countries collectively tend to be further from the ranks even though it is biased for me to compare developed countries against the developing nations. For the purpose of this article, we will put the performance factor aside to explore the parallels and juxtapositions of the entrepreneurial spirit in West Africa and Western Europe.
I will narrow my focus to the youth aged 15-25, most of whom are still students bursting with ambition. This does not encompass the middle class in both cases. Research proves that young Africans have a strong entrepreneurial zest. While this may be true, the key driver tends to be a need for survival in tough economic conditions than straight up passion. This is also driven by opportunity as there are many basic needs in the sub region to answer to. From an African perspective, there has always been a reason and a will to undertake, however, what often lacks is the means.
A need for financial survival
The depressed state of the formal job market in West Africa could be a good starting point for me to view what motivates the youth. At a time of such high youth unemployment and worrying social disenfranchisement in many West African countries, it fuels a desire in the youth to search for alternate means of survival. Let’s consider for instance financial support for the youth. Those in Western Europe are more likely to be supported by their families as well as the state to pursue extended higher education, with the intention of securing high profile jobs.
In Africa however, this is far less the case for most youth, propelling most of them to seek alternate sources of finance to sustain themselves in their quest for education. This clearly suggests that the challenges and motivation of the young on both sides would not be the same. Again, considering that Africa’s working age population is expected to balloon to 1 billion in the next 25 years, it becomes more critical that we encourage the next generation of high potential African entrepreneurs to become successful and teach them the skills of the future.
Solving a local need
Based on my observations and popular media, it seems young Europeans have a new-fangled dream of becoming super heroes or overnight billionaires. This mindset is influenced by their technological exposure which drives their zeal to search for scalable concepts and innovations. However, in Africa where the informal sector underpins the economy and technology is not widely accessible, businesses are largely focused on traditional and low value adding jobs, which mostly have low growth potential. These youths adapt rapidly to the market situation and they face the reality that they need a means of survival rather than being super heroes. This explains to me that while entrepreneurship rates in West Africa are high, the majority of it is still driven by necessity. Nevertheless, there is a new generation of tech savvy engineers and visionaries who are beginning to look at how they can leverage technology to resolve major developmental challenges in education, health care, infrastructure, food security (agriculture), electrification, water and waste management, not forgetting economic and financial inclusion through the rise of FinTech.
Fear of risk and failure
I have noticed among the young Europeans that most consider ‘fear of failure’ as a reason to not start a business. Others prefer the comfort of being an employee rather than the stress and uncertainties that come with launching a business. Young Africans experience these same fears and limitations; however, they have a higher risk appetite because they cannot always afford the risk of being afraid. At very tender ages, children begin to learn their parent’s trade, usually an informal one. This equips them with a practical experience in running a day-to-day business. They are exposed to risk taking and risk bearing as they see their parents strive through harsh conditions. Failure is part of the learning curve and this boosts our confidence to handle risk, unlike most Europeans who are not usually exposed to such extreme conditions for survival.
You have to give it everything you’ve got
Problem identification is not usually an issue in Africa. As soon as you land, you will find bugs to solve or optimise. How to solve it, is usually the issue. This reminds me of what Thomas Edison said [about] “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. The spark of an idea is the easy 1%, the remaining 99% is sheer blood, sweat and tears required to bring it to fruition. You have to work at it to shape it. For instance, light bulbs before Edison were expensive. This meant that only the wealthy could realistically afford them. So, Edison’s idea was to make a lightbulb that was made from a cheaper material and didn’t need many skills to assemble. That’s the inspiration, the big idea. Of course, if he had stopped there, nothing would have happened. The idea was great but it took years of experiments and determination to make a cheap light bulb that could be mass produced.
That’s the challenge. As Africans, we are all susceptible to have great ideas at various points in our lives. We may not all become as successful as Edison. Nonetheless, the inspirations we have throughout our lives matter. They really do. In engineering, this is known as “the brute force method” – trial and error. Edison simply came up with an idea and he tried it in practice. If it didn’t work, he tried something else. If it worked, he improved it, and he repeated this process until he had a scalable model.
The Downside of entrepreneurship among young Africans
Potential young entrepreneurs in Africa sometimes underestimate the need for business skills while – less surprisingly – they recognize access to finance as a key impediment. The reality is, that the latter is not mutually exclusive from the former. I think that the unwillingness to acquire higher education and/or business skills is part of the reason why most of us are unable to explore scalable business models. From my personal opinion, education matures perspective and allows us to grow our skills, develop new ones and exchange with like-minded people. This is where I think Europeans come out on top; whereas pursuing higher education in Africa is often financially constrained. It is nevertheless worth noting that no University degree can teach someone to be passionate about entrepreneurship or spike a desire for a fearless undertaking. however, it will provide the tools to structure an already deeply rooted passion and state of mind.