12 July 2012

Rwanda: The Economic Potential of Student Entrepreneurship


WHAT do Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Dell all have in common? They are all multi-billion dollar global businesses that were conceived and launched by students while they were still at university. Successfully managed university based entrepreneurship can act as a powerful economic cornerstone to drive greater prosperity.

The macroeconomic benefits are obvious. As new businesses are created new jobs are created and as a result greater tax revenues can be generated. More jobs and more tax revenue directly contribute to an increased capacity to provide better public services for all.

Furthermore, university entrepreneurship can prove highly beneficial to the universities themselves. Cambridge University in the UK has been successfully commercializing scientific research that emanates from its many talented scientists for well over twenty years. This brings direct revenues into the university which can be reinvested to improve the quality of teaching and resources available thus creating a virtuous cycle of growth.

For students, starting a business whilst at university might seem daunting but there is arguably no better time to give it a go. Firstly, universities provide a rich platform to test out ideas and develop multiple iterations with support from your peers.

Famously, Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, whilst at Yale University composed a paper exploring how the shipping industry would be transformed due to advances in technology. Secondly, universities provide an environment where it is acceptable for your start-ups to fail. It is crucial to remember that for every Facebook and Google there are hundreds of start-ups that didn't make it. It is better to fail whilst young and studying.

Failing isn't even necessarily a suitable term as those who 'fail' learn crucial lessons invaluable in any future start-up and to any future employers.

In Rwanda the opportunity is even more compelling. The local graduate job market is incredibly competitive as a result of the increasing number of graduates and narrow private sector. Throw into the mix those returning from studying abroad and suddenly the average graduate's job prospects begin to look fairly limited.

It is the unique challenge for today's graduates that they must endeavour to become job creators as well as job seekers.

This provides the conceptual background to the organisation I helped set up and now run in Rwanda called the African Innovation Prize. The African Innovation Prize (AIP) is a UK charity that inspires and supports university entrepreneurship across Africa by providing a world-class business plan competition supported by focused training and mentoring specifically for students.

It all began in 2009 when AIP launched at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) after being inspired by a public policy lecture delivered by President Paul Kagame at Cambridge University in December 2008.

As mentioned previously Cambridge University benefits hugely from its vibrant entrepreneurship culture and it is AIP's vision to help create a similar ecosystem across African universities. Since 2009 the organisation has begun to take the initial steps in realising this goal by expanding into three universities in Rwanda (SFB and NUR) and into Sierra Leone as of this year.

Next week AIP will be running its end of programme training 'AIP: Enterprise Rwanda' at KIST which delivers two weeks of teamwork orientated entrepreneurship training for students who entered the competition, working on developing business concepts to help tackle current issues facing Rwanda.

During this program the winners of AIP's business plan competition will be announced and awarded during a closing ceremony and networking event to be held today.

Perhaps Rwanda's very own Bill Gates, Marc Zuckerberg or Michael Dell will be crowned winner? Regardless of such comparisons one can be sure that this year's cohort will go on to play key roles in continuing Rwanda's journey towards greater prosperity.

Alex Handy is co-founder and Trustee of the African Innovation Prize

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