14 November 2013

Zimbabwe: Understanding the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem


Entrepreneurship is growing in ascendancy both as an academic discipline and as a practice. Both the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) and the Entrepreneurship Barometer are unequivocal on the importance of mainstreaming entrepreneurship in national economies. For most African countries, the debate on the efficacy of pursuing an entrepreneurial and innovation strategy has led to practical policies by governments which leverage attainment of development goals on such a strategy. Take for instance South Africa whose ambitious National Development Plan emphasises job creation on the basis of a vibrant SMMEs sector. It is important that developing countries create conducive environments which unlock significant levels of total entrepreneurial activity if they are to address rampant unemployment, especially amongst the youth, deepening poverty, and huge inequalities in there economies.

For practitioners of entrepreneurship like myself and the Centre for Entrepreneurship which I am associated with, our biggest preoccupation is in identifying ways in which the level of total entrepreneurial activity can be enhanced. At the centre of this thinking is the need to strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The concept of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is based on the work done by Professor Daniel Isenberg from Babson FW Olin Graduate School of Business who developed the Babson Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Project (BEEP). The concept was developed after studying many different experiences around the world that stimulate entrepreneurship and realising that it was not any one single thing that is required but rather an entire ecosystem.

It is the combined effort of all stakeholders in the entrepreneurial ecosystems that supports a sufficient level of entrepreneurship, or high growth entrepreneurship, which is self-sustaining and has huge social and economic impact. An ecosystem has many different parts to it, amongst them Education, Financial Capital, Network of Contacts among high level decision makers, Government, Leadership, Culture, Big business, etc. These factors are prevalent is all successful entrepreneurship environments.

The Centre for Entrepreneurship at Wits Business School has developed a unique ecosystem approach as part of its community partnership mandate. This basically posits a 360-degree perspective on entrepreneurial development and emphasizes the need for specific initiatives targeting the individual entrepreneur, the enterprise, and the sector while taking into account the macro-environment. Our activities are tailored around five core pillars: Research; Training; Information and Support; and Programmes; and Advocacy and Lobbying. These pillars essentially constitute the implementation architecture of our interventions.

Our pillar on Research is based on the realisation that although the subject of entrepreneurship has been fairly extensively studied, much of this research is specific to developed-world economies and opportunities. Programmes built on this research may have less chance of succeeding in the developing world, given the vastly different circumstances, resources and infrastructure available. We believe the only way to overcome this is to have educational programmes developed by empirical research on what entrepreneurs need to succeed in Africa. Our planned programmes of research are therefore all aimed at understanding what constitutes excellent performance in entrepreneurship practice and education in a developing world. Our research programme involves doctoral and masters-level projects, as well as longitudinal studies of entrepreneurial aspirations, needs and behaviour. We publish a series of working papers on leading edge research, we offer a number of research fellowships each year and host an annual conference designed to draw together the knowledge and insights of entrepreneurship scholars across Africa.

Training is an important aspect of the ecosystem and the Centre for Entrepreneurship currently offers public programmes at doctoral and master's levels, as well as a range of certificate programmes that complete the entrepreneurial cycle from conception, through start-up to emerging sustainability and growing venture. Our goal is to encourage the establishment of new ventures and to nurture the growth of existing ventures in such a way that wealth is created for individuals and the communities in which they live and work. Through extensive practically training, entrepreneurial skills are built incrementally.

The theoretical component of certificate programmes is complemented by exposure to the problems and opportunities facing real-life entrepreneurs through analysis of case studies and open forum discussions with the entrepreneurs themselves. Certificate programmes are supplemented by workshops designed to develop specific skills, build confidence and crystallise plans. These include: Business planning for entrepreneurs; Finance for entrepreneurs; Strategy for entrepreneurs; Marketing for entrepreneurs and Selling for entrepreneurs.

Another key pillar in our ecosystem approach is Information and Support. Beyond skill development, entrepreneurs need on-going support during their journey from start-up to sustainability. The Centre for Entrepreneurship offers coaching, mentoring, and peer support programmes through its Business Clinic programme. Entrepreneurs have regular face-to-face access to relevant information and wise counsel from other established entrepreneurs, experienced executives and experts in each business discipline. This support system is a vital developmental tool for entrepreneurs confronting the myriad of challenges involved in creating a new venture and will ultimately extend to an electronic support network that stretches across the most remote corners of the country and the continent. Such an on-line network allows new entrepreneurs to tap into the collective wisdom of successful businessmen and women across Africa. The Centre for Entrepreneurship is also a responsible citizen and building social equity is an intrinsic element of its activities. We are working with the public sector at all levels, as well as non-government organisations, in developing and implementing programmes that have the potential to transform the quality of life of communities across the country.

Since its inception in 2008 under the Dr MthuliNcube who was Head of the Wits Business School at that time, the Centre for Entrepreneurship has embarked on focused growth initiatives which have seen it establish public-private partnerships (PPPs) locally, regionally, and across the continent. Through these strategic partnerships, the Centre for Entrepreneurship is well-placed to play an eminent role in solving some of today's pressing problems in the ecosystem through original and applied thinking in entrepreneurship.

-Anthony Jongwe is with the Centre for Entrepreneurship at Wits Business School, University of Witwatersrand. He can be contacted via email: tony.jongwe@wits.ac.za.

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