By Andrew Rugasira
Rhetoric aside, not all youth can become entrepreneurs. Estimates are that in most countries, only 4% of the population are entrepreneurs, 16% imitators and 80% employed. The key driver, then, is to encourage the 4% to create job opportunities for the 80% and mentor the 16%.
The current debate on youth unemployment in Uganda has largely focused on what the Government is doing or not doing to solve this problem. Rarely do we ask what the youth can do to empower themselves. The Government has an important role to play. But in reality, many of its plans, while appearing impressive on paper, suffer from poor execution; leading to implementation failure. And there is good reason.
Employment problems are complex. Just think of trying to implement a skills development programme, establishing a mentoring, incubation and innovation centre, creating work-based training programmes and many other initiatives to address job creation. These are difficult and complex issues that require highly skilled bureaucrats with strong competences. Yet planning by government agencies tends to be done by a small cadre, ministry officials, development specialists and specific line organisations, with few functional attributes and limited exposure able to deliver change.
Instead, well-meaning initiatives become spheres of patronage and influence-peddling and undermine the very cause they were set out to address. This in turn broadcasts to the youth that hard work, investments and savings are a waste of time; one can get rich quickly through poor ethics, corruption and outright theft.
Back to the 4%. The key to unlocking their entrepreneurial potential lies with them. But this will require a critical shift in the mind-set of our young people; a shift from looking at themselves as victims and instead as the solution. They might not have all the assets they need to get a fair start, but a liberated mind is the key to creating opportunities and driving innovation and change.
First order of business, then, must be to immediately arrest and expeditiously bury the “tusaba gavumenti etuyambe” mantra. I would like to paint three pictures that can contribute to the mind-set change.
The advantage of insufficient information
I have five children. Often, I ask them what their ambitions are and what they would like to do when they grow up. From the oldest to the youngest, I am always intrigued by their level of ambition — some want to be doctors, another wants to be a pilot, another a lawyer, another wants to take over my business and run it better than me.
The commonality in their responses is in the scale of their ambition and their lack of fear. Their dreams are not inhibited by too much information about what it will take to be any of those professions. Their ambition is not blunted by too much data, so they can dream big. It is not by accident that as parents, we always encourage our children to dream and think big. Entrepreneurs are, by definition, big thinkers and risk takers at the same time.
They see opportunities, then they muster their financial and sweat equity to bring the opportunity to life. Sometimes, too much information at the beginning of the entrepreneur’s journey can generate risk aversion and fear, which in itself can paralyse potentially innovative business ideas.
Nine years ago, I started my coffee business on the mountains of Elgon. I failed there. I then moved to Kasese and there struggled for a long time to gain traction. The terrain was difficult, I had limited capital and limited knowledge, which produced a set of very sobering realities and key lessons for me.
Even in the next phase where I attempted to place a value added coffee product on the supermarket shelves in the UK (the first, for an African owned coffee brand) it took a dozen trips and over two-and-a-half years before we were able launch in Waitrose. If I knew then what I know now, I might have made a different set of choices — who knows!
What is clear is that we must encourage our young people to believe in themselves; they do not have to have all the information, nor see the whole picture at the beginning.
The value of pursuing their dreams despite an incomplete picture is the testimony of the majority of successful business and political entrepreneurs of our time.
Now, do not get me wrong. I am not condoning ignorance; rather, I am subordinating the need to have “all the ducks in a row” to big thinking. If Thomas Edison knew that it would take him 10,000 times before his light bulb could finally work, he probably would have made different choices and so would the man who risked most of his family’s venture capital on the project, a Mr. JP Morgan.
About 95% of new businesses fail within the first year of their operation. Why? Because the entrepreneurs just give up. It is too tough, too difficult, too many risks, they presume that there must be a better option – and they could be right. Of all the quotes on courage, my favourite one is by American author Mary Ann Radmacher:
“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes, courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I will try again tomorrow.” And to paraphrase a famous Chinese proverb, the opposite of the courageous one is the coward, jumping up and down saying it cannot be done, all the while interrupting the one doing it.
Starting and sustaining a business is hard. Entrepreneurs spend a lot of time practicing what psychologists refer to as “impression management”, which, in common English, is essentially “fake it until you make it”.
Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Airlines and the Virgin brand, loves using that statement. And he knows. He started and failed in over 13 businesses, but today, we know him for the several hugely successful ones that have endured. Our youth need to appreciate that sometimes, the most courageous act is the ability to embrace failure. It takes courage to start something, fail at it, start again, fail at it and start again.
Today’s society is full of phonies and false prophets that create the impression that success is a smooth path — effortless at times and without pain. This is fake guidance and merely puts pressure on our young people to acquire success by any means necessary — including theft and dishonesty — as opposed to hard work and the lessons that come from failure. Just consider the story of Steve Jobs.
Unlocking your design
In painting this last picture, I have no choice but to smuggle in my worldview. I believe we have all been created by God with specific gifts and talents for a purpose. We are not an accident as our extraordinary and complex design attests. Saying that we are here by accident, is as preposterous as someone coming across a dictionary and assuming that it is a result of an explosion in a printery!
One of the most important inquiries we all must engage in is the determination of what our gifts and talents are; which ones give us fulfilment and which ones do not. This inquiry lends credibility to our calling and helps match our talents with our vocation.
In a way, it is a process that establishes our personal balance sheet – what character attributes are assets and what are liabilities. This enables us unlock our design and allows us to flourish in our chosen area. To paraphrase leadership guru Leonard Sweet, entrepreneurs are neither born nor made. They are summoned. They are called into existence by opportunities and those who rise to the occasion are entrepreneurs. It is not who great entrepreneurs are but what they do that counts.
Encouraging indigenous entrepreneurs to start businesses even when they face incomplete information, inadequate resources and the need to be courageous to survive in the marketplace, is not just a catalyst for job creation, but also a spur to innovation and the development of local brands.
Brands bring dignity and self-esteem to the process and community. This is critical for innovation and the development of a knowledge based society. If you have never produced anything, you will not have the confidence to believe that you can produce something.
Harnessing local entrepreneurial capabilities ultimately creates jobs, wealth and leads to a proud, confident and flourishing economy.
Tracking youth unemployment