Globally the perennial battle to alleviate poverty is an enduring one and in this respect South Africa is no exception. According to Statistics South Africa almost half of the adult population in our country is living below the upper-bound poverty line. While the battle against poverty has been a difficult one, the recent Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation, especially in terms of poverty rates, the economy, health, education and employment prospects.
In addition to the pandemic, the country is also in its worst economic recession in 100 years. South Africa’s unemployment rate rose to 32.6 percent in the first quarter of 2021 from 32.5 percent in the previous period (Trading Economics -2021). Statistics South Africa also confirms the official unemployment rate among youth (15-34 years) was 46.3% in Quarter 1 2021. Millions are at risk of losing their livelihoods.
The combined effects of the pandemic and economic recession may not only present a temporary shock, but have lasting implications for poverty rates in South Africa through its effects on people’s health, education, and employment prospects. Actions currently being taken to combat South African poverty and Covid-19 have proven that, with new options and renewed commitments, there is still much that can be done to alleviate poverty.
Indeed, poverty reduction has become a critical issue for almost all sectors of society. Guided by this new reality, entrepreneurship and innovation, especially through small business development has been touted as a significant part of the solution to poverty reduction. It is now an established fact that entrepreneurship and innovation generate the majority of decent and sustainable jobs and contribute significantly to economic growth, thus enabling a large portion of the population to move out of poverty.
Sadly though, until recently, business education has adopted a theoretical and laissez-faire approach to this proposition and has been lackadaisical in its attitude toward making entrepreneurship and innovation a catalyst for action. In essence business education has paid lip service to the creation of an empowering and inclusive entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem that can genuinely contribute to job creation, economic growth and poverty alleviation.
Given that business education is increasingly criticised for its curriculum content that is still based around the “shareholder primacy” model of capitalism and the pursuit of short-term returns rather than the long-term strategies needed to address issues such as poverty or inequality, there is an imperative for a paradigm shift - a tipping point that can become a quantum leap for business education to break out of its comfort zone and make entrepreneurial learning an intrinsic and inclusive component of its DNA.
Business education thus is obliged to positively impact the lives of not just its learners, but also the broader economy, local communities and society at large through entrepreneurship and innovation.
We cannot continually focus on the application of skills and efficient management to address solutions that only have commercial value yet lacking in social responsibility.
To be truly authentic and relevant in a world that is riddled with myriad problems and challenges such as poverty and inequality, the purveyors of business education have to forge inclusive strategic partnerships with all stakeholders, especially local communities that host them.
For example, Regent Business School (RBS) besides historically forging close ties with all its stakeholder communities through its business education, research and outreach programmes has held steadfast to its mission and made considerable investments to create an entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem to support the many facets of small business development for poverty and unemployment alleviation.
As part of this initiative, RBS has established Regent Enterprise Development Hub (redHUB), an accelerator which has leveraged the institution’s iLeadLABs or national technology hubs and harnessed its academic, research and outreach intellectual property to champion entrepreneurial development. The redHUB’s mission is to provide impactful education, training and mentorship for aspirant and creative entrepreneurs by nurturing their disruptive and innovative skills using resilient and anti-fragile strategies.
The overall aim of the redHUB is to contribute toward the greater good of wider society by enriching, shaping and transforming students who will go on to make a difference in society. RBS realises that this is a role we need to discharge conscientiously. It is not just possible but incumbent upon business education to foster, support and invigorate new enterprise creation.
Business education has an obligation to society and its students to provide relevant edification that includes a full recognition of responsibilities that it has towards solving the challenges of a disruptive 21st century. We need a new coterie of agile responsive and responsible disruptive entrepreneurs and innovators to deal with an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world through collaborative intelligence. Business education needs to adapt its traditional curricula to address this need.
In fact, many of today’s entrepreneurial learners can already see the changes that their business education does not address, and they are hungry for the chance to become the trailblazers that will usher them further into today’s unequal world as major disruptors. They are very receptive to the idea of a calling or vocation motivating their professional and personal lives. It is business education and the curriculum that are not keeping pace.
As business educators we must make the curriculum more responsive to the needs of society at large.
Business education must reflect the new context in which it and should therefore focus on developing the whole entrepreneur, one who both exerts a powerful influence on society and also is a member of the society that is shaped by his or her decisions.
Finally, we have realised through our transformed entrepreneurial ecosystem that by taking on this renewed sense of responsibility in business education we will certainly yield grassroots individuals who see new kinds of opportunities in domains that other entrepreneurs and innovators may not.
Ultimately all business education needs to do is provide its students with the intellectual building blocks with which to use the power of their education to find creative solutions to our perennial problems such as poverty. Failure to do so will lead to more of the recent riots we have witnessed in South Africa.
Professor Ahmed Shaikh is an academic and researcher and managing director of Regent Business School. He writes in his personal capacity.