“Africa Can’t Entrepreneur Itself Out of Basic Problems” – Ory Okolloh Mwangi


At a recent African entrepreneurship summit, Ory Okolloh Mwangi, one of Kenya’s top tech innovators (also a former Google Manager for Africa), had this to say about the recent, if excessive, focus on entrepreneurship across the continent (excerpt originally published on Quartz):

“I’m concerned about what I see is the fetishization around entrepreneurship in Africa. It’s almost like it’s the next new liberal thing. Like, don’t worry that there’s no power because hey, you’re going to do solar and innovate around that. Your schools suck, but hey there’s this new model of schooling. Your roads are terrible, but hey, Uber works in Nairobi and that’s innovation.

During the Greek bail out, no one was telling young Greek people to go and be entrepreneurs. Europe has been stuck at 2% or 1% growth. I don’t see any any entrepreneurship summit in Europe telling them you know, go out there and be entrepreneurs. I feel that there’s a sense that oh, resilience and you know, innovate around things—it’s distracting us from dealing with fundamental problems that we cannot develop.

We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad leadership. We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad policies. Those of us who have managed to entrepreneur ourselves out of it are living in a very false security in Africa. There is growth in Africa, but Africans are not growing. And we have to questions why is there this big push for us to innovate ourselves around problems that our leaders, our taxes, our policymakers, ourselves, to be quite frankly, should be grappling with.

… I think sometimes we are running away from dealing with the really hard things. And the same people who are pushing this entrepreneurship and innovation thing are coming from places where your roads work, your electricity works, your teachers are well paid. I didn’t see anyone entrepreneur-ing around public schooling in the US. You all went to public schools, you know, and then made it to Harvard or whatever. You turned on your light and it came on. No one is trying to innovate around your electricity power company. So why are we being made to do that? Our systems need to work and we need to figure our shit out.”

Watch the full video here (this discussion starts from around 17.30).

I find myself agreeing with a lot of her points. Many parts of Africa need local entrepreneurs to innovate and solve problems, to employ people and therefore create jobs, to create sufficient wealth which can be converted to capital for investments in the local economy, to become global players and so on. Tony Elumelu, one of Africa’s top investors and philanthropists recently launched a programme to train and provide business support to 1,000 aspiring entrepreneurs from across the continent. Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Botswana are among several countries with variations of government-sponsored, private-sector and donor-funded entrepreneurship competitions, grants and training programmes. These are all excellent initiatives to identify and support talent.

However, ‘entrepreneurship’ can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t replace the basic functions of government – to maintain law and order, provide basic security, provide basic public goods including infrastructure, healthcare, transportation, housing and education. It is not a substitute for development, but an element of it.

I understand some of the recent drive towards entrepreneurship as the silver-bullet to development challenges stems out of frustration with so many approaches that have been tried – and failed. Yet circumnavigating these basic public policy issues is really not THE solution to service delivery challenges, to basic accountability, representation and effective management of public resources.

It is not only the intense focus on ‘entrepreneurship’ which is interesting, but specifically on ‘tech startups’ and mobile apps as the magic bullet to address deep-seated problems. To be clear, I think it is wonderful that many people across Africa are using technology as an outlet for their creativity, are solving problems, are responding to demand for services and in some cases are even generating jobs – the Iroko TVs, Kongas, Jobberman, Maliyo Games, the dozens of m-health startups etc., we need more of those.

However, these are a part of the solution, they are not THE only solution. That Jumia and Konga are becoming the Amazon in Nigeria doesn’t detract from the need to improve the country’s postal service. That some Nairobi or Lagos residents can rely on Uber doesn’t obviate the need for effective mass transit systems in many African cities, especially as taxi services are a luxury most people cannot afford.

Technology is an important tool but it will not by itself train teachers badly needed in many public schools. Mobile phone apps will not by themselves convince parents not to pull their daughters out of school, neither will they build the 17 million housing units per annum to address Nigeria’s housing deficit .

I think what Ory Okolloh is trying to say, which I generally agree with is while we explore all the numerous opportunities provided by entrepreneurship and technology, we should not lose sight of the need to make governments effective, responsive and accountable for public resources at their disposal.

What do you think?

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5 thoughts on ““Africa Can’t Entrepreneur Itself Out of Basic Problems” – Ory Okolloh Mwangi

  1. The Problem with our leaders is that they want to transform the country overnight without putting the basics in place. There are some of these things that we are not ready for, some levels we are yet to attain, some developments that won’t work in our context. They want to make Africa a mimicry of the west overnight without undergoing the process and patience. An example is the Governors who claim to invest in the Airport business when they are yet to tackle roads and rail system issues. What percentage of the masses use to air? Why embark on big things when you don’t have the basics in place?

  2. I totally agree with you and Mwangi that technologies and entrepreneurship are not THE ONLY solution to our basic problems.
    But Innovative contextual use of technologies (new and existing) and entrepreneurship have a MAJOR thrust toward better government or social services improvement – the financial inclusion leap MPESA brought to Kenya, an app like BudgIT being extensively used by millions of Nigerians to track government finance or NNPC making use of drones monitoring Oil Pipeline routes against illegal bunkering. Let us imagine basic infrastructure and better government services are put in place and effective across Africa – I am very sure monitoring technologies would be at the forefront ensuring their sustainability.
    Aliko Dangote the richest African entrepreneur is providing basic needs for Africans – I can’t imagine him not leveraging technologies (new and existing) across his entire business value chain to drive macro and micro efficiency.
    We need to strategically leverage workable technologies and viable entrepreneurship for Africa’s short, medium and long term prosperity

  3. Indeed the success of these few leading entrepreneurs despite glaring governance failures often has enabled under-performing politicians and public servants who point to these few exceptional entrepreneurs as examples of the “government’s hard work” and even sharing platforms with them at conferences and seminars using these entrepreneurs as cover or crutches to continue with zero service delivery. The government must manage commonwealth to provide appropriate quality infrastructure, finance environment, security, health and education.

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