5 ways we can build South African entrepreneurship in the ‘new economy’

Published Aug 1, 2020


By Bheki Mfeka

As we continue to roll up our sleeves and contribute to the ‘new economy’ proposed by President Cyril Ramaphosa, we must ponder on the role of South African entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship should be the main engine that drives growth and supersede politics in the economy. Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) states that many of the world’s governments, think tanks, non-governmental and international organizations now look towards entrepreneurship as a key part of the solution to ending poverty and social inequity, promoting women’s empowerment, and implementing business solutions to the world’s environmental challenges, including climate change.

Since apartheid days to democracy politics has intruded deeply into our economy such that people confuse it with the role of government or state in the economy. Recently, politics gave birth to notions of ‘tenderpreneurship’ into the South African lexicon, a pseudo name for tender/procurement corruption, something the noble gift of entrepreneurship is far from.

As a point of departure, we need to settle the spelling and the meaning of the word. For indigenous language speakers like myself the word is difficult to spell and pronounce, and requires time and passion to get to understand its meaning and application. In Zulu and Xhosa, it is used interchangeably with the word “businessman” (usomabhizinisi or usomashishini), which is not exactly the same thing. We need as a nation to have proper translation for South African entrepreneurship that accommodate all official languages.

The word’s origin is traced in the early 19th century, it combines French and English. “Entreprendre” French meaning “undertake”, and English “enterprise”. An entrepreneur is an individual who creates a new business, bearing most of the risks and enjoying most of the profits. The entrepreneur is commonly seen as an innovator, a source of new ideas, goods, services, and business/or procedures. Entrepreneurs are a rare breed. They play a key role in any economy, using the skills and initiative necessary to anticipate needs and bring good new ideas to market. Entrepreneurs who prove to be successful in taking on the risks of a start-up are rewarded with profits, fame where they are appreciated, and continued growth opportunities. In the process they captive customers and generate value and returns for investors, improve lives and generate employment for people. I’ve seen a lot of innovations and ideas but few entrepreneurs in South Africa.

Entrepreneurship knows no boundaries of race, class, and location. It is only consumers, governments, and banks that may discriminate entrepreneurs, but they come in all forms everywhere. We shouldn’t have a problem as a society in mentioning in the same breath and sentence Amaxhosa’s Laduma Ngxokolo and Discovery’s Adrian Gore as proudly SA entrepreneurs.

How many people know these global South African entrepreneurs and many other unsung heroes who are shaping the future? We need to make them more famous to inspire young people and the rest of the nation.

I’m aware of many organizations who are doing fantastic job in profiling and promoting entrepreneurs. Also, on several occasions President Ramaphosa has mentioned entrepreneurship as key to reviving our economic fortunes, and in actual fact advocated for its teaching in schools from early stage.

There are five ways I’ve identified in which we can entrench South African entrepreneurship culture and centralize it as centrepiece of public and private imagination and conversations.

Firstly, we must value South African entrepreneurs of all races, culture, and location; and set them apart from the “other” ordinary business people. We should not confuse them with people who start businesses in general in order to tap on procurement opportunities that are made available to them by government and social networks. Valuing them means, promoting their businesses and personal brands, putting them at the centre stage of stardom to inspire young people. India has done that successfully, such that a 3rd of the Indian youth looks up to entrepreneurs as role-models compared to politicians, and athletes.

Secondly, government and financial institutions should identify and fund/resource them with much flexibility to risk aversion. I don’t buy the notion that you mostly don’t need money to start a business. This notion is usually reserved as motivation to business start-ups, where they express frustration about lack of funding. Previously advantaged social groups would have strong financially valuable social networks (“angel investor” and family friends) who would support their start-ups. South Africa needs to deliberately grow the venture capital market and invest generously to its entrepreneurs. In 2005 we undertook an international study of science parks and incubators in the United States and China. My key take-away from that study, something I picked up in interviews with deployees of government in those institutions, is that they invest generously to their top talent.

Thirdly, give emerging South African entrepreneurs exposure. Growing up I learnt early that nothing important as travelling and knowledge sharing. I say this because a lot of entrepreneurs in townships and rural areas would be fascinated and stimulated through exposure to other nations, cultures, ideas, and fellow entrepreneurs. This would increase cross-pollination of ideas and advancement of their enterprises as they create linkages and access to markets. They do thrive on extensive social networks.

Fourthly, provide basic courses and mentorship on entrepreneurship in all schools and tertiary levels of education. Although this is advancing as many institutions have picked up on the significance of teaching and mentoring entrepreneurship, more work needs to be done to make it mandatory. Key aspects of entrepreneurship education would be value and management of money or finances. Without basics of entrepreneurship, those who are talented and those committed to the craft of entrepreneurship may take time to prosper as they repeat common mistakes on the ABCs of business management along the way.

Finally, reward successful South African entrepreneurs. There’s nothing as important in any artistry and endeavours than knowing that your success is acknowledged. It goes beyond what money could offer, and inspires everyone to follow in the footsteps of great South African entrepreneurs.

Dr Bheki Mfeka, is the Economic Advisor and Strategist at SE Advisory; and former Economic Advisor to the Presidency.Twitter: @bhekimfeka | Website: www.seadvisory.co.za | Email: [email protected]


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cyril ramaphosa