EARLIER this month, between November 18 and 24, South Africa and 137 other countries took part in Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW), an initiative aimed at getting more people to talk about entrepreneurship.
The initiative was started by US think-tank the Kaufmann Foundation in 2008 and last year more than 7.4-million people across the world took part in more than 19,600 workshops, competitions, seminars and exhibitions run by 7 609 organisations.
However, South Africa continues to have one of the most poorly attended GEWs in the world.
Although the number of participants in GEW events in the country peaked at 11 620 in 2011, last year 2 309 people attended 16 events and workshops hosted by 29 organisations.
This is far behind the participants that Brazil attracted last year, or even the 199 000 by the small island state of Barbados.
This year in South Africa, only a handful of organisations hosted events during the week, going on the number of events publicised on the official GEW website Unleashingideas.org. Notably missing were the names of large companies and that of the government’s small business organisation, the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda), whose staff had only taken part in events hosted by other institutions, Seda spokesman Marius de Villiers said.
In some cases a number of other organisations ran events during GEW that were not included on the GEW site or branded with the event’s logo — and in so doing minimised the impact the event could have had.
A campaign of this magnitude is necessary because far too few South Africans see being an entrepreneur as a viable career option.
Only 14% of Africans intend to start a business in the next three years, according to the 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (Gem) report — compared to 43% of Chileans, 36% of Brazilians, 20% of Chinese and 19% of Thais.
GEW is hosted locally by Endeavor South Africa, the sister organisation of Endeavor Brazil, which hosts the event in Brazil.
Managing director of Endeavor South Africa Catherine Townshend admitted that the event did not have the impact it could have had in South Africa, but she said the organisation was limited by its small budget, which is drawn from donations from its board members and a small fee that its member companies pay.
Townshend said support from corporates and the media is also not that forthcoming.
A number of years ago Endeavor South Africa’s former managing director, Malik Fal, complained that media groups did not want to devote space in their publications to cover entrepreneurship that week.
Fal said this month that Endeavor Brazil had been assisted by newspapers, which offered free space in their publications and television channels that offered free time, while designers and an advertising agency had pitched in free of charge.
In contrast, the media in South Africa gives the week little attention, he said.
Endeavor Brazil has already won four awards from the Kaufmann Foundation, including those for the best host country and those for the highest number of participants.
Since its launch in Brazil in 2008, the number of participants has catapulted from 466 000 to more than 1.6-million last year as well as from 168 to 553 partner organisations.
Last year in Brazil newspapers, websites and magazines carried 10.8-million reals (R48.4-million) worth of media coverage in Brazil during the week, according to Endeavor Brazil’s 2012 GEW impact report.
The report revealed that 80% of participants in Brazil were inspired to become an entrepreneur after attending events or workshops during the week, while about a fifth said they would start a new business.
Fal said the key difference between Brazil and South Africa is that there is more commitment from Brazil on the role that entrepreneurship can play in transforming society.
“South African society is very divided so there is not real sense of national unity,” said Fal, who added that organisations here are too self-centred or took the view that “this is not my problem or kind of thing”.
Other national campaigns to promote entrepreneurship have never really had success.
A plan three years ago by the government’s former small business agency, Khula, to partner with Business Unity South Africa (Busa) to launch an entrepreneurship campaign with struggle stalwart Andrew Mlangeni as its patron, came to nought.
South Africans have even battled to work together to promote entrepreneurship on a local level —evident by the City of Cape Town’s struggle to get its Cape Town Activa initiative up and running.
The initiative is modelled on a similar one in Barcelona, Spain and aims to provide an ecosystem of support for the job seeker and the entrepreneur by helping to link those from the city with relevant organisations.
Earlier this month in a speech during GEW Zenariah Barends, the organisation’s programme manager, admitted that, two years later, it was difficult to get organisations to work together.
“Yes, there are collaborations between a few organisations, but it is widely acknowledged that for the most part, the organisations operate in isolation of each other, consciously implementing their particular mandate, their specific targets and less attention is paid to the need for collaboration on the ground,” she said.
Even one of the country’s most sustained entrepreneurship programmes — courses run by Junior Achievement South Africa for school learners — has had limited success. The organisation has been active in South Africa for 33 years, yet despite this it reaches about 5 000 school learners a year.
Last year its figures were inflated by the addition of 14 000 learners who took part in a sponsored programme on environmental entrepreneurship — pushing the organisation’s reach to 19 441.
Managing director of Junior Achievement SA Linda McClure said because the organisation is a non-profit, its reach is limited by the amount available in funding. A big challenge, she said, is the quality of the education system, adding that it was often difficult to work with some schools that were near dysfunctional because of poor leadership.
Entrepreneurship is hardly taught in schools in South Africa. But Taddy Blecher, who chairs an entrepreneurship sub-committee on the Human Resources Development Council that reports to Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, pointed to a pilot being carried out by the International Labour Organisation and the department 0f basic education in 63 schools in the Free State to add entrepreneurship to grade 10 studies.
Primestars Marketing, which initiated the bring a girl child to work campaign, will together with the department also run a one-day start-up awards programme aimed at learners from disadvantaged communities.
Primestars Marketing’s Martin Sweet said a date for the day has not been set yet. Added to this, Seda, in partnership with the department, is also running an entrepreneurship in schools programme, which includes a business competition and is aimed at grade eight to 12 teachers and learners.
Enabling business environment
Blecher, a director of the Maharishi Institute, which helped set up the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in South Africa, said his sub-committee is working with the department of trade and industry on a number of initiatives to boost the small business sector.
He said that while South Africa had hundreds of entrepreneurship initiatives, what it lacks is integration and the ability to scale up some of these initiatives.
He surmised that GEW in South Africa had a limited impact because it was the time of the year when school learners and university students were writing exams.
“I’m certainly seeing that there are so many individuals — people who are passionate about getting it (entrepreneurship support) right,” said Blecher, who said the corporate sector had shown “amazing” support.
But Allon Raiz, chief executive of business support organisation Raizcorp, isn’t convinced that a mass entrepreneurship campaign is necessarily the way to go.
The risk, he said, is that such a mass campaign will attract too many of the wrong kinds of people — those without the requisite characteristics needed to start up and run their own business.
Too many will then start ordinary “me too” businesses with little to differentiate themselves from their competition.
When they fail to get funding they will simply blame the funders, creating unnecessary negative perceptions of funders, he said.
He said instead of trying to get more people to run their own business, the government should make it easier for entrepreneurs to flourish, by creating a more enabling business environment.
Originally published in the Mail and Guardian: http://mg.co.za/article/2013-11-29-00-south-africas-poor-performance-in-entrepreneurship-events
Stephen Timm is a