Nigeria: Of SMEs and Youth Unemployment

9 November 2020

I recently attended the founders meeting of an innovation and business academy in Kaduna. The founders wanted to create a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs. We had elaborate plans of how the building will look; to spark creativity and what furniture to fit in it to inspire innovation. There was an impressive lineup of proposed activities from hackathons to acceleration and incubation programmes to ignite a Silicon Valley fire out of Kaduna. They were going to create hundreds of entrepreneurs in so many sectors, fund them and help them scale. It was all too fantastic and noble, and the energy in the room was electric.

"I don't think we should proceed," I said loudly and deliberately enough to earn me a scorching, perhaps dismayed, stare from the co-founders.

"Hear me out," I protested, thinking of the best way to express thoughts I have harboured around our peculiar ecosystem and its very specific sets of challenges and the way we always come up with these "all-encompassing" solutions that end up neither successful nor sustainable.

I thought we should not allow ourselves to become buried in the design and establishment of organisations that answer vague, general questions when we are faced with specific, biting problems. Establishing a hub or academy does not guarantee quality or successful enterprises. This is because the entrepreneur is not the only recipe for a successful venture or economy. In fact, entrepreneurs are not even the most essential part of any successful enterprises. The teams of people in the enterprises are more crucial. Therefore, the workforce is more essential than the entrepreneur and an ecosystem approach towards starting businesses is ever so essential.

Moreover, there is a great shift in the types of skillsets that have real, applicable value in a rapidly advancing world like ours today, especially in the wake of various technological advances in areas like communication and manufacturing. I advised that we should focus on education, training and skill development in these areas, as simple or complex as they may seem, rather than only creating entrepreneurs that are bound to fail because they lack the people to build their enterprises with. Train, for instance, a university graduate of any course to be skilled in data labelling for artificial intelligence before you encourage an entrepreneur to set up an Artificial Intelligence startup. Or train a Polytechnic engineering graduate in Digital Design and Fabrication, before you accelerate a 3D printing startup.

Meanwhile, we must not view this as a pitch for the workforce against the entrepreneur. The two are, in fact, symbiotic, and one cannot flourish without the other. However, because of the endemic problems that have beleaguered Nigeria and are causing the dysfunction of our education systems and economy, I dare say that a skilled workforce is more important than entrepreneurs in Nigeria. Most of us broadcast the rhetoric of entrepreneurship being the panacea for our unproductive economies, unemployment, and insecurity when the very necessary ingredient for a successful enterprise; a skilled workforce, is pretty frail and inadequate.

On the one hand my concerns are purely economic. The thought of an educated and skilled population that provides a capable workforce for innovation and prosperity. On the other hand, they are chiefly moral. I have never been in any doubt as to it being a responsibility and duty upon us to do something about.

Therefore, as I did with my new co-founders, I plead with our policy makers, cooperate companies, investors and educational institutions to refocus our energies towards building and promoting a skilled workforce even more than we promote entrepreneurship because no matter how noble their intent, all enterprises need good people working in them for nurture and sustenance to scale and have meaningful impact.

I succeeded in convincing my co-founders that entrepreneurship is a team sport, an ecosystem activity. It requires entrepreneurs, innovators, investors, policies, big businesses, colleges, universities and a community for it to thrive and succeed. We also all understand that entrepreneurship cannot be taught as a science, nor can it be taught as an art. It is inbetween. More of a craft, like pottery that is best taught by hands-on 'doing' and apprenticeship-style learning. However, this realisation is a tiny drop in an ocean of entrepreneurship programmes, institutions and campaigns hell-bent on making entrepreneurship popular only for the sake of making it popular.

While I agree that most of these SME-minded initiatives are honest attempts to check youth unemployment, I don't think the clamor and blind spending is working at all. Besides, I feel like the entrepreneurs and enterprises we are creating are just not valuable enough to create the kind of economic transformation we seek. No amount of tailoring outfits, shawarma joints, make-up saloons, printing centers, or corner kiosks can give you the value in terms of revenue, employment and growth of a single enterprise grounded in innovation with a global outlook and utilising this great shift in local and global human consumption and lifestyle.

Our approach towards enterprise and jobs makes me feel like the world has rolled out a new medium of communication and exchange which we comprehend, but are not fluent in. We seem too comfortable and satiated with our status of consumption and non-creation of valuable goods and services. To break away from this complacency, even as a rocket breaks from gravity, we must be deliberate and precisely calculated.

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