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Keep It in the Family: A Case for Homeschooling in Kenya

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Many parents who choose homeschooling seek to be directly and consistently involved in moulding their children’s character throughout their formal education on the basis of the conviction that with good moral and mental habits, high academic achievement and success in career are almost guaranteed.

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Keep It in the Family: A Case for Homeschooling in Kenya
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While most Kenyans associate formal education with institutional schooling, a significant number of their compatriots have opted for homeschooling. Homeschooling is not a specific curriculum, but rather the implementation of a curriculum by the parents themselves and/or their own directly chosen delegates. With the dominance of institutional schooling, many now view homeschooling as part of alternative education.

Several Kenyan families have homeschooled their children from the early 1990s using a variety of curricula, including 8-4-4, I.G.C.S.E., and Accelerated Christian Education. A number of Kenyan children have completed their high school education through homeschooling and have been admitted to universities inside and outside Kenya, and several are already employed, while others have ventured into entrepreneurship.

The Constitution of Kenya recognises the right of the child to education. Article 43 (1) (f) lists education as one of the fundamental rights of every person. Furthermore, Article 53 (1) (b) states that every child has the right to free and compulsory basic education. Nevertheless, neither of the articles limits education to the school environment.

However, Homeschooling Kenyan parents have expressed concern over provisions in the Basic Education Act 2013 that presume education can only be attained through institutionalised schools. For example, Article 28 of the Act, titled “Right of Child to Free and Compulsory Education”, states that “The Cabinet Secretary shall implement the right of every child to free and compulsory basic education” (Article 28(1)), but the tenor of the Act is that such education can only happen in the context of an institutional school.

The homeschooling community in Kenya is already feeling the effects of the Basic Education Act 2013 limiting education to the school environment. The Daily Nation carried a story on the 18th February this year, about the arrest of Silas Shikwekwe Were in Malaba, later arraigned in a Butali court in Kakamega County for allegedly abdicating his duty to enroll his children in school. Mr. Were and Mr. Onesmus Mboya Orinda filed Constitutional petition No. 236/19 at the High Court, Milimani Law Courts, asking the court to recognise home schooling as a legal and viable alternative method of according children in Kenya their right to education. They argue in their petition that the provisions of the Basic Education Act 2013 requiring a parent to enroll a child to an institution of learning limits the scope of what education is. They aver that sections of the Basic Education Act 2013 infringe on the rights of parents to determine the forum and manner in which their children will be educated. During the first mention of the Constitutional Petition on 25th June 2019, the courtroom was packed with homeschooling parents.

A number of considerations have led some Kenyan parents to choose homeschooling over institutional schooling.

A short history of schools

Schools have been a part of human societies for thousands of years. Among some of the peoples of Africa, the age groups system used to pass on knowledge, skills and attitudes to the young adults. It entailed a degree of deliberate, formal passing on of knowledge, skills and attitudes in a manner reminiscent of a contemporary school. There were schools in the ancient societies of Egypt, India, China, Greece, and Rome. The Byzantine Empire had an established school system until the fall of the Empire in 1453 C.E. In Muslim societies, mosques combined both religious observances and learning activities, but by the 9th century, the madrassa arose as a separate institution from the mosque. In Western Europe, a number of cathedral schools were founded during the Early Middle Ages in order to teach future clergy and administrators. Mandatory school attendance became common in parts of Europe during the 18th century, with the aim of increasing the literacy of the masses.

Formal schools become widespread only during the past two centuries. With the advent of the Western Scientific Revolution, certain fields of knowledge became highly specialised, making it significantly more difficult for parents to help their children to master them. The rise of factories during the Industrial Revolution led to the need for mass formal schooling to inculcate requisite habits in the workforce – punctuality, adherence to instructions, among others.

Education is the primary responsibility of parents, not schools

The word “education” comes from the Latin word ēducātiō, which literally means “breeding”, “bringing up”, or “rearing”, all of which are primarily associated with parents rather than with schools. Indeed, theorists of education frequently define education as the deliberate, planned equipping of the young with knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable them to participate effectively in the life of society. Again, such equipping is primarily the responsibility of parents, not schools. For most of human history, parents have been in charge of their children’s education. Their homes served as spaces for imparting social values and etiquette and particular trades. Families were known for certain trades. The presence of English surnames such as Tailor, Cook, Baker, and Smith partly explains this naming practice.

Formal schools become widespread only during the past two centuries. With the advent of the Western Scientific Revolution, certain fields of knowledge became highly specialised, making it significantly more difficult for parents to help their children to master them.

Despite the rise of universal compulsory education through schools, the responsibility of providing education primarily rests with parents as part of their wider responsibility to provide for their children. Parents who take their children to school are delegating rather than abdicating this responsibility, and this is evident in the practice of schools regularly meeting parents to brief them on their children’s progress. As such, parents who choose homeschooling are simply choosing to discharge their responsibility directly rather than delegating it to the schools.

Direct and consistent parental involvement in moulding character

In Philosophy and Education in Africa, R.J. Njoroge and G.A. Bennaars point out the four dimensions of education: the cognitive dimension entails the acquisition of knowledge; the normative dimension has to do with the inculcation of values; the procedural/creative dimension involves the approach or methodology through which the knowledge and values are acquired; the social/dialogical dimension entails the fact that education is an interactive process within human groups rather than in solitude.

The rise of factories during the Industrial Revolution led to the need for mass formal schooling to inculcate requisite habits in the workforce – punctuality, adherence to instructions, among others

Regrettably, in our day, many think that education (formal education) is exclusively geared to equipping students with knowledge (the cognitive dimension). It is no wonder we have so many highly skilled people whose ethical orientation is grievously wanting. Many parents who choose homeschooling seek to be directly and consistently involved in moulding their children’s character throughout their formal education on the basis of the conviction that with good moral and mental habits, high academic achievement and success in career are almost guaranteed.

There is consensus among theorists and practitioners of education that the ideal model of education is one in which the child gets maximum personalised attention in order to take care of his or her uniqueness. Harvard’s educational psychology Prof. Howard Gardner pointed out that human beings have multiple intelligences (“learning styles”), and that each of us uses one or two of them to learn most effectively. Following Gardner’s approach, the US-based Institute of Learning Styles Research has identified seven learning styles, highlighting the various ways in which different people learn most effectively using their five senses.

The seven learning styles are print (looking at printed or written text), aural (listening), visual (looking at depictions such as pictures and graphs, haptic (touch or grasp), interactive (verbalisation), kinesthetic (whole-body movement), and olfactory (smell and taste). Schools typically focus on the three competencies referred to in Western tradition as “the 3Rs” – reading, writing and reckoning (calculating), and mainly approach learning from a verbal and logical perspective, thereby largely neglecting people whose learning styles cannot cope with this approach.

By the very nature of the size of a typical family, a home-schooled child gets much better personalised attention than a child in a typical institutional Kenyan public school where one teacher attends to tens of pupils in one lesson. When Kenya’s National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government introduced Free Primary Education in Kenya in early 2003: the number of pupils rose dramatically, but the number of teachers, classrooms and other facilities by and large remained unchanged. The quality of learning was significantly compromised. Some short-staffed schools had to ran shifts to accommodate the pupils. By and large, the school system moves the pupils from class to class regardless of how much they have actually learnt; and the few who are required to repeat a year for extremely poor performance suffer the humiliation of doing so among their peers.

The dire implications of a grossly unhealthy teacher-to-pupil ratio quickly showed. From 2009, Uwezo initiative implemented large-scale household surveys to assess the actual basic literary and numeracy competencies of school-aged children across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, culminating in annual reports. A July 2013 newspaper headline on one of those reports declared: “Over 50 Per Cent of Class 8 Pupils can Barely Read – Report”. The article stated “The report by Uwezo Kenya also reveals that over 50 out of 100 children in Classes Four and Five can’t comprehend stories written for class two pupils.” In its Sixth Annual Report covering the year 2015, Uwezo observed, “Assessments across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have highlighted the learning crisis since 2010. The key observation has been that budgets and other inputs to learning have been increasing steadily, but learning outcomes have remained essentially stagnant.”

Personalised attention is critical for exceptionally gifted children and for children with disabilities. Exceptionally gifted children who master concepts and skills grow bored when subjected to the average pace of learning: they might be able to complete the tasks assigned for one year in three months. Requiring them to sit in school and learn at the pace of the average child is torturous mass production, not education.

Children with disabilities often need special, even specialised attention to learn effectively. The Kenyan public school system is grossly ill-equipped to provide education for children with autism, so parents of autistic children have to equip adequately for the task of schooling. The class size at Thika School for the Blind where I went to school was fifteen rather than the prescribed forty in a typical public school. In certain subjects such as maths, geography and biology where teachers rely heavily on chalkboards and other visual teaching aids, children with visual disabilities would be left behind unless there was a resource teacher to offer extra support. At Thika, the teacher spent considerable time with each student helping them to appreciate maps, diagrams, graphs and maths formula. The parents of children with different disabilities ought to have the liberty to home-school them if they are able and willing to do so. Indeed, such liberty would affirm the right of children with disabilities to high-quality education in line with Articles27 and 54 of the Constitution.

History offers a number of cases of exceptionally gifted children who performed very poorly in school because the school system could not cater for their learning disabilities. People with dyslexia (reading and writing difficulties) or dyscalculia (difficulties with maths) are cases in point. English scientist Michael Faraday was a person with dyslexia, and yet through personal study he made numerous ground-breaking discoveries and inventions, including electromagnetic rotary devices that were fundamental to the development of electric motor technology used to generate electrical power. Albert Einstein had difficulty in school due to dyslexia, and his achievements can be attributed to his ability to teach himself. Some of the other famous Western scientists with dyslexia include Alexander Bell, Galileo Galilei and Thomas Edison.

A friend of mine confessed that he could not read at all by Standard 3; his first attempt at the then Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) exam at a Nairobi Eastlands primary school yielded dismal results. His mother then took him to a high-cost primary school to re-do the CPE and he excelled: today he is a university lecturer in pure Maths – the most abstract branch of mathematics.

I know of several parents with university degrees who have chosen to stay at home to provide their children with quality education. I am acquainted with a parent who holds a Masters degree in educational Psychology who has chosen to provide homeschooling for her children instead of pursuing a career in the schools or colleges. Some parents would give up pursuing their careers to home-school their children to shield them from the associated dangers of institutional day and boarding schools. It is evident that the home-schooled children of such parents enjoy certain advantages over their counterparts in institutional schools.

The commute to school is associated with several challenges. Day schooling children are exposed to undesirable social elements and dangers in their daily commute. Those parents determined to find quality schooling for their children beyond the limits of a neighbourhood, get up as early as 4:30 a.m. to prepare children to board buses at 5:30 a.m. to schools on the other side of town, in a continuous dawn to dusk routine.

Boarding schools come with their own set of social challenges such as unhealthy competition and bullying that have lasting effects on many young lives.

Home-schools as private schools

The culture of private schools is entrenched in Kenya. The children of prominent Public officials attend private schools rather than public ones. Private schools have better educational facilities, better teacher-to-pupil ratios, leading to better performance in public examinations.

Economic realities and high tuition fees prevent many parents from the privilege of private schools but rarely considered is the option of responding with privately tutored high-quality schooling at home. Home-schooled children register as private candidates for public exams, and some of them have done exceptionally well.

There is really no essential difference between private schooling and homeschooling: both models of learning are a move away from public schools. Denying a section of society the right to educate children at home is discriminatory contrary to Article 27 of the Constitution of Kenya.

Parents with highly mobile careers that require them to relocate frequently find changing schools almost always a traumatic experience for children, as they must make new friends, and adapt to the new physical environment and new teachers. This challenge is greater in situations where children are frequently moved from one cultural context with its education system to another with a different education system. If one of the parents in a family going through this kind of experience is available to home-school the children, the homeschooling experience provides a point of stability for the children which significantly mitigates the trauma.

Parents of home-schooled children form networks that facilitate regular joint activities among their children: they visit places such as museums, factories, universities, go boat-rowing, and attend music concerts. They enroll their children in various activities outside their homes such as football, swimming, and music lessons. In addition, there are joint annual events for various homeschooling communities.

Contrary to the belief that the school environment is the best for learning social skills, it often inculcates unhealthy competition rather than co-operation. The idea that all children progress intellectually at roughly the same pace is ingrained in the thinking of the school system, and yet it necessarily works against the need to cater for the children’s individual differences. Pupils are often contented to come out top of their class irrespective of the fact that any class will have a top student however low the quality of learning. An emphasis on coming out top in class easily encourages contentment with mediocrity rather than the pursuit of excellence. Schools function in a specific social context, and is a reflection of that context.

Thus with the increasing erosion of social values, schools are now places where children learn some grossly anti-social habits such as violence and substance abuse.

Homeschooling and social class

Members of the Kenyan middle class are more likely to be inclined to homeschooling: this is mainly due to the fact that they are likely to appreciate educational theory and practice. Middle-class parents are likely to afford the availability of one parent devoted to homeschooling their children. Parents in low-income brackets cannot live off the salary of one spouse. Nevertheless, homeschooling is not the exclusive province of the middle class and the wealthy.

Most homeschooling parents use officially sanctioned curricula. Some of the curricula used in home-schools require that parents get training before embarking on using them. Homeschooling parents also benefit from the resources of homeschooling organisations outside Kenya, including Global Home Education Exchange, Home School Legal Defense Association, and National Home Education Research Institute.

Kenyan universities typically assess students for admission using the results of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results whether a candidate sits for the exam in a public school, private school, or is privately registered as would typically be the case for Home-schooling candidates. For those home-schooled students going through other curricula, the Kenya National Examinations Council has a system of interpreting results to indicate their 8-4-4 equivalents, thereby enabling universities to make informed decisions about admissions.

For overseas education, various clusters of universities use a variety of entry tests to assess students who have gone through different education systems to determine whether or not they have the requisite skills (such as language profficiency, comprehension, reasoning, and basic maths) to handle university work. American universities rely on tests such as the SAT set by The College Board to assess applicants for undergraduate courses, and the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) for applicants to post-graduate courses.

There is no evidence that children who have gone through Home-schooling are disadvantaged in comparison with those who have attended institutional schools. The U.S.-based National Home Education Research Institute, score the home-educated 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests (the public school average is the 50th percentile; scores range from 1 to 99). Home-schooled students typically score above average on the standardised tests such as SAT. The measured conclusion of the Institute is: “It is possible that Home-schooling causes the positive traits reported above. However, the research designs to date do not conclusively ‘prove’ that Home-schooling causes these things. At the same time, there is no empirical evidence that Home-schooling causes negative things compared to institutional schooling.”

I first met a home-schooled child in the mid-1990s. She was the daughter of friends of mine and also neighbours in Nairobi’s Buruburu Estate. At the age of five, she was already confident and articulate. This began to dispel my doubts about Home-schooling. About ten years ago, I was requested to help look at some research papers written by some home-schooled high school finalists using a different curriculum from 8-4-4. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that unlike their counterparts in the 8-4-4 system, they were considerably well acquainted with library research and writing: they intelligently cited various books and articles using footnotes, and meticulously laid out their lists of references in a manner reminiscent of what is expected of first-year university students in Kenya! I have also had an opportunity to facilitate a “Thinking Skills” course for five home-schooled high school students, and was impressed by their confidence, clarity of thought and expression, and keenness to learn.

In view of my reflections, parents who are willing and able to provide personalised education for their children at home, often at great sacrifice to themselves, ought not to be denied the right to do so. The Home-schooling community is not lobbying for the abolition of schools: it appreciates that not everyone can home-school because some are ill-equipped for the task, while others are obligated to work to provide for their families. Nonetheless, society is enriched by diversity, including diversity in approaches to formal education. What we must all ensure is that whether through institutional schooling or Home-schooling, the child gets the knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable him or her to contribute positively to the holistic development of both himself or herself and society.

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Dr. Reginald M.J. Oduor is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Nairobi. He is the first person with total visual disability to be appointed to a substantive teaching position in a public university in Kenya. He was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the New Series of Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya from 2009 to 2015. With Drs. Oriare Nyarwath and Francis E.A. Owakah, he edited OderaOruka in the Twenty-First Century. He is also Co-founder and current Chair of the Society of Professionals with Visual Disabilities (SOPVID). Email: rmjoduor@gmail.com. Blog: http://kenyancrossroads.blogspot.co.ke

Ideas

Let’s Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees

If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society.

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Let's Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees
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After two decades of the neoliberal gutting down of Kenyan universities, Kenya’s president has now gone for universities’ jugular. He has cut off the university as as a route for social advancement among the non-elite class. The slicing of the jugular came with the recent university admissions when the government announced that more than a half of them would be turned into technical programmes and institutions. At first, the government announced this move as a choice of the students themselves, but later on, it became evident that many students were caught by surprise.

Kenyan universities have maintained a semblance of independence from direct patronage by Kenya’s aristocracy. As long as universities have existed in Kenya, and especially after the expansion of university education by Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, a child from a village had a shot in the Kenyan imagination of becoming next in line to the presidency. (For the moment, the integrity of the process is not considered here.) Now that President Uhuru Kenyatta has ditched his deputy, he has got his bureaucratic robots to slice the jugular of Kenya’s schooling system and let it bleed to death.

As is to be expected, the Kenyan media has celebrated the event, thus becoming the conduit for fairly unbelievable stories that clothed Kenya’s feudal politics in the parlance of employment and The Market (as opposed to the regular markets that we all love). Like clockwork, the media published headlines such as “Are degrees no longer hot?”, wrote op-eds justifying technical and vocational education and training (TVET) as a better alternative to a regular university degree, or held town hall meetings that gave a semblance of public participation by fielding questions from youth who had clearly not understood that they are pawns in a system that just does not care about them. This move will not surprise anyone with knowledge of the aristocratic class system in Kenya and the neoliberal turn of the 1980s. It has been a long time coming.

Missionaries, colonial settlers and the colonial state

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil, dubbing, for example, herbal medicine as “witchcraft,” and all the while shipping indigenous knowledge and crafts to London.

When formal British education was introduced to Kenya, there was tension between the competing interests of the missionaries, the colonial settlers and the colonial state. The missionaries were primarily interested in converts, and so reading was essential to their education. The settlers, however, were interested only in manual labour, and were frustrated that the colonial government was not forcing Africans to work on the huge tracts of land that had been dispossessed from Africans. They were therefore hostile to schooling beyond trade schools, and accepted formal education for Africans only on the promise that the inclusion of Christian religious education would ensure that Africans remained compliant with the colonial interests.

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil…

It is from the colonial settlers that Kenya inherited the narrative that education would make Africans unable to do manual work (or what today is called “useful” or “relevant to the market”), because all the African would acquire from education is big ideas and a desire for the status of the Europeans. And, from a certain perspective, the settlers were not wrong. In a stratified system such as colonial society, being at the bottom of the hierarchy, as Africans were, meant a cruel life of dispossession, forced labour and taxes. Africans could not be enticed to go to school if there was no carrot in the form of exemption from this oppressive life. And once that door was opened, it would only be a matter of time before Africans demanded, as Frantz Fanon famously said in The Wretched of the Earth, “to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible.”

There was a second element of truth to the settlers’ fears. The settlers were familiar with the fact that even in the belly of the empire, aristocratic education had the effect of paralysing one’s thoughts and sense of reality. In Victorian England, the industrialists complained that aristocratic education from prestigious public schools and Oxbridge had rendered their children incapable of running the companies their parents expected the children to inherit.

The settlers did not need to point to London to see the truth of this: the bulk of the colonial administration was made up of graduates of elite British schools, and even the settlers called their own colonial administration stifling and suffocating. The list of complaints by the British settlers are depressingly similar to the complaints that a Kenyan today would make: the government borrowing loans at high interest rates, failing to address the economic depression, moribund, “dependent on an uninstructed electorate situated 6000 miles away, and characterised by a continuous epidemic of public meetings, which produce much eloquence, heady talk and little practical benefit to the [white settler] community as a whole”.

The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst.

The aristocratic values which the settlers were wary of would return to Kenya in the 1980s when the World Bank proposed to African Vice-Chancellors to eliminate universities, since African countries needed basic education, not higher education. The audacity of the proposal notwithstanding, it is hardly surprising that the university administrators would not comply and phase themselves out of a job. But later, as Ayesha Imam and Amina Mama report in their book chapter, “The role of intellectuals in limiting and expanding academic freedom”, the World Bank got their wish by starving African universities of money and going to the extreme of demanding that purchases of books and journals be first approved by the Bank.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To see that the complaint of “useless” and elitist graduates has not changed a century later gives us food for thought. But it is not as disturbing as the fact that Kenyan citizens today are strange bedfellows with colonial settlers and British industrialists, sharing the same complaints about the Kenyan ex-colonial state and its aristocratic schooling system. When communities of different geographies, cultures and political inclinations have the same complaint about university graduates, it is time for academics to abandon the old strategy of accusing society of not understanding what university education is for. We need to either concede that society is right, or we explain the truth.

I choose the latter.

Justifying why Kenyans don’t need university education

To explain the mess of the system that is now receiving its last kick from the president, I will address three justifications for the bizarre turn of events in university education:

  1. People shouldn’t get degrees because there is no employment.
  2. Degrees make graduates become employment seekers rather than employers.
  3. Degrees do not give Kenyans skills which are “useful” or “relevant” to The Market, such as entrepreneurial skills for business or technical skills for building infrastructure.

The lack of employment justification

This justification should be fairly easy to explain by pointing out that the availability of employment is an economic, rather than an educational, function. In Kenya, however, this argument routinely falls on deaf ears for psychological and ideological reasons.

Psychologically, tackling the economy is too daunting for simple minds fed on the Anglo-American logic of easy and instant solutions to complex and long-term problems. It would require addressing the political economy, being an active citizen and making certain demands politically.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In contrast, blaming schools for unemployment is comforting. The majority of the school population is made up of minors who cannot speak back, and of teachers who are fairly powerless in terms of employment conditions and even the syllabus, especially in these neoliberal times when teaching has been transformed into slavery by managerial and regulatory regimes of accountability.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market. Unfortunately, the trade union movement has been too paralysed to come up with an effective counter-argument, and those who are still in permanent employment have failed to establish worker solidarity with their colleagues suffering on gig terms.

In any case, there is an argument to be made against using educational accomplishment for employment. The reliance of employers on academic certificates is a form of discrimination, since those who are employed will always be those with the resources to get an education. Reliance on academic achievement also makes the school system subsidise employers by sparing them the cost of equipping their employees with the requisite skills.

Any country that has a backbone should tell businesses to shut up and train their own employees at their own cost. But in this era of state capture, that is unlikely to happen.

The education for employment justification

It is important to clarify that employment was never the immediate goal of the British-oriented university education system that Kenya inherited. In Victorian England, university education and admission through the examination system were primarily a tool of assimilation for the rising middle classes into the aristocracy. It was through the university system that members of the middle class gained access to the social and symbolic power of European aristocracy, which remains the source of cultural legitimation in today’s world. In turn, the middle classes were offered an opportunity to become part of the burgeoning British Empire. As a consequence, most of the colonial administrators were graduates of public schools and Oxbridge, and even now, the rising inequality in Britain has been attributed to the fact that this same cohort still dominates British politics and institutions.

Similarly, university education in Kenya was an opportunity to be assimilated into the colonial state. The first university graduates were the children of Chief Koinange, a colonial collaborator. One of his children, Mbiyu, received education from elite schools in three continents: Alliance High School in Kenya, London School of Economics in the UK and Columbia University in the US. He was also a Rhodes scholar at the University of Cambridge. He later became the brother-in-law of the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and was in the president’s core cabinet for most of his life in independent Kenya.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market.

With the outbreak of the Mau Mau war in the 1950s, and with the rise of the United States as a global power, the British government jacked up the availability of university education to raise a Kikuyu middle class that would provide the civil servants for the colonial state. After independence, the first president saw the university as fulfilling precisely the same role, and as Mwenda Kithinji argues in his brilliant book, The State and the University Experience in East Africa: Colonial Foundations and Postcolonial Transformations in Kenya, the first president had no intention to expand university education since he had the Kikuyu elites that he needed. The second president, a member of a minority ethnic group, then expanded university education in order to widen the Kenyan middle class to include people from other ethnic groups. It is therefore wishful thinking, if not delusion, for Kenyans to believe that the government schooling system was ever about employment. The schools have always been about class status and power.

However, the popular belief in education for employment is understandable, because the expansion of the control of the (ex)colonial state and global capital by the British and Kenyan elite was experienced by ordinary Kenyans as employment.

But almost 60 years after independence, there is no longer a need for the Kenyan elite to provide Kenyans with university education. In the 1960s, when there were not enough British-educated Kenyans to run the civil service, the Kenyan elites were the first generation in their families to go to British schools. . Today, however, there are enough British-educated Kenyans to run the ex-colonial state. The children of the elite are in power, and they also have children and grandchildren whom they want to ascend to power. Moreover, the inequality in Kenya’s education system necessarily means that those who perform well are children of middle-class parents who can afford private school education and can take over the bureaucracy and civil service through patronage, rather than through academic achievement.

The elites of Kenya, whom the current education system serves, have enough of their children and relatives to work in government, and enough of second-generation middle-class children to do their work. With families of a minimum of four wives and dozens of children, the elites have enough personnel.

Moreover, the elites cannot afford an educated Kenyan population outside of government. The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst. The goal of the government education system in Kenya has never been employment. Employment was simply a side effect. And employment seekers were not supposed to be ordinary Kenyans; they were supposed to be the elites entering top government posts through family ties and club networks.

The “useful” and “relevant” skills justification

Given this history of the imperial education system, it is almost laughable that university scholars have sought to justify themselves as providing skills that are useful for graduates in The Market. That said, it is a lie to which I dedicated a significant part of my career, until I realised that studying the arts can never be “marketable” in an anti-human economic and political system.

That aside, the fantasy of making university education appear “relevant” has been a public relations exercise in which even the British academy was engaged in the 19th century after industrialists complained that universities were not training their sons to take over the family industries from their fathers. In fact, John Brown argued in 1970 that the British elite university could not find a strong enough argument to defend the imperial education based on the Roman and Greek classics. However, it won over the industrialists by what he calls “the parlance of advertising” and an “imaginative sales effort”. Rather than argue for university education on its own merit, the universities assimilated the critique about their lack of “practical skills”, and claimed that elite class manners were a skill in and of themselves.

To put it simply, the universities told the business elite that they needed knowledge and habits of aristocrats for them to be “successful”. It was not enough to make money; one had to be sophisticated and convincing, able to talk across cultures and social class.

Before my road to Damascus conversion, I made this same laughable argument myself. Now when I think of it, this defence of university education belongs to the same whatsapp group as the products of business coaches and motivational speakers who promise “soft skills”, like how to speak convincingly, how to make an elevator pitch, how to dress to look presentable, and all other forms of self-improvement for The Market. We academics making those arguments are no different from those who give tutorials on how to have English “afternoon tea the correct way”.

We should do away with universities – as they are now

If universities, as they currently stand, are useful only to the elites, it should come as no surprise that the elites are now destroying them. After all, the universities are theirs.

But rather than fight for universities to remain public institutions in their current form, we the people need to fight for them to become truly public by removing degree programmes and turning them into a space for knowledge and culture. We should break down the walls of admissions and examinations. We should diversify and increase opportunities for people to learn through cultural centres, festivals and public libraries. We should make public engagement, like dialogues under a tree, and visits to what Odero Oruka called “sage philosophers” a part of formal education. For skills training, we could resort to apprenticeships as a way to enter a profession and facilitate peer review as a way to improve services.

Two things must definitely be removed from the university as an institution: 1) certification; and 2) the interference and regulation in university education by the state. Both have reduced university education to a cynical process of gaining papers to access elite status and titles, and of measuring outcomes and indicators like a balance sheet.

Most of all, we must remove the institution of the imperial elite, which is made up of people who gain wealth and power through their manipulation and control of the commons – land, natural resources, labour and knowledge.

​Africa may not always have offered degrees, but it has had universities for millennia. We can do away with degrees and retain universities. If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society. Right now, universities are hardly different from members-only clubs for those who survive the hazing ritual of examinations and gain the right to become snobs who undermine democracy and social justice for the rest of their lives.

​But to scuttle such fundamental and dynamic reforms to education, the economy and politics, the president has now sacrificed the dreams of an entire generation of Kenyan youth – however contradictory those dreams may be – in order to sustain the exploitative social status of his family and the ruling elite. This situation is not only unjust; it is also untenable.

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Reimagining Home in a Time of COVID

COVID-19 has compelled us to think about the home as an enclosed political economy. The pandemic has placed an additional strain on the caregiving role and labour of women, who have been disproportionally affected by domestic and other forms of violence. What might a just home in a post-COVID future look like?

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Reimagining Home in a Time of COVID
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One of the contradictions of the past few weeks is that while we have become isolated within our own borders, neighbourhoods and homes, we have also become joined globally in the incantation of new words: social distancing; lockdown; quarantine; curfew; shielding. To this list of what the Welsh Marxist theorist Raymond Williams might call our COVID keywords, we must also insist on adding evictions, demolitions, and forced internal migrations, all of which have unfolded before our eyes in the first pandemic to occur in the age of social media.

At a recent webinar on Africa and the Pandemic, ROAPE’s Heike Becker described African governments as being more intent on flattening houses than on flattening the curve. I was provoked by this to revisit the literature on domicide, a word used to describe the deliberate destruction of homes and the suffering of those who dwell in them. In this pandemic, there has been an under-theorisation of the meaning of home. Instrumentally, instructions to stay at home were not made on the basis of careful knowledge of how homes function as what Kathleen Lynch, John Baker and Maureen Lyons have described as enclosed places or political economies.

Feminists have long argued that affective relations and the conditions under which reproductive labour is provided are neglected and under-researched. This failure risks making the attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 not just instrumentally unworkable but also unjust.

Olu Timehin Adegbeye has written that the World Health Organization (WHO) is “promoting social distancing as an essential response to this pandemic, forgetting that there are many parts of the world where this single solution is contextually inadequate or even dangerous”. As Tshepo Mdlingozi pointed out when he wrote in relation to South Africa, “spatial colonialism makes it impossible and inhumane to enforce a lockdown in shack settlements”.

COVID has also thrown up critical existential questions about what we talk about when we talk about home. David Ndii has written that the Kenya authorities have an assumption that everyone has a true rural home. This has meant that working people and the urban poor are treated as temporary residents of the city who have no rights to the city – an assumption with deep colonial roots. In India, the authorities announced a lockdown that Arundhati Roy has described as “towns and megacities…extrud[ing] their working-class citizens — their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual”. (In contrast, India’s repatriation by air of its overseas citizens has been meticulously organised.)

Feminists have long argued that affective relations and the conditions under which reproductive labour is provided are neglected and under-researched. This failure risks making the attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 not just instrumentally unworkable but also unjust.

When the stay-at-home orders were made, little thought was given to what it means to ask poor families to educate children from home in overcrowded conditions at a time when care work is itself risky, disproportionately exposing women to greater risks of the disease.

Our failure to imagine the homes of others is all the more striking because for those with access to technology, we are able to look into the homes of others for the first time. Virtual meetings challenge the notion of home as enclosed, private spaces.

Similarly, some of us have spoken frankly and sometimes for the first time about our family commitments and how our jobs are built on an unencumbered male breadwinner model now thrown into disarray. The instruction by our employers to “work from home” was striking: what do we imagine has been going on in homes other than work?

The pandemic has made responsibilities for care work more visible while increasing its quantity as women try to do their jobs whilst simultaneously looking after those in their home. The under-theorisation of what takes place in the home was evident in other ways, from the neglect of a shadow pandemic of domestic violence to the lack of awareness about the ways of life of multigenerational homes where shielding the elderly is not practical or where older people have long established roles in relation to care, quarantine and the dying.

Our failure to imagine the homes of others is all the more striking because for those with access to technology, we are able to look into the homes of others for the first time. Virtual meetings challenge the notion of home as enclosed, private spaces.

The pandemic should compel us to think more clearly about the home as a political economy. It has made visible and at the same time put under additional strain the work of social reproduction, that is, the socially necessary labour expended to provide food, clothing, and shelter. That little value is attached to this caregiving role is not natural but the outcome of political choices.

Caregiving and emotional labour are unequally distributed. They fall disproportionately on women and most of all on minority women, the poorly paid and the precarious. They subordinate women in society.

Women have, of course, struggled against that subordination. This is, for instance, richly evoked in Luise White’s study of early Nairobi, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi, which showed how women provided care labour for men in return for pay “in imitation of marriage” and then went on to use the proceeds of that labour to become independent property owners in a growing city. As one woman quoted in the book stated, “I built this house on my back.”

The gulf between the homes of the rich and the poor in the cities of the Global South has meant that whilst many cocoon at home in safety, with adequate food and access to plentiful resources, (purchases of luxury cars in Kenya have shot up since the beginning of the pandemic: the car too functions as enclosed space), in other parts of the city, women are caring for people without pay, taking care of loved ones, “provisioning supplies, and finding ways to offset the enormous economic and social burdens of this time’”.

At the same time, women have borne the brunt of the violence directed towards their homes. The pandemic has confirmed Patrick McAuslan assertion that the bulldozer is often “the principal tool of planning’”. Evictions in Kenya have taken place in defiance of court orders.

The militarisation of cities such as Nairobi and Johannesburg has led to an increase in rape and sexual violence. Women are safe neither from intimate partners nor from strangers in the form of police prowling the streets during curfews.

Central to a just response to COVID must be the work of reimagining what is needed to sustain a just home. Foremost amongst these is an economy that recognises, redistributes and compensates the labour that is essential to sustaining us. A better understanding of the labour needed to reproduce a home and ensure its survival during a pandemic must be carried forward into the future to ensure that the home thrives. A starting point is to recognise the differential impact of violence, repression, precarity, sickness and domicide on women in a time of COVID.

Central to a just response to COVID must be the work of reimagining what is needed to sustain a just home. Foremost amongst these is an economy that recognises, redistributes and compensates the labour that is essential to sustaining us.

Recovery should not mean a return to normal but should entail thinking about the ways in which the normal of others has been invisible to us, as Hannah Cross and Leo Zeilig remind us by asking: “Is not the experience of life with the Covid-19 outbreak, now being felt for the first time in many generations in the Global North, the common experience of life and death in the South?”

The Hawai’i state commission on the status of women, presenting its proposals for a feminist economic recovery from COVID-19, argues that we must speak “not only about response and recovery, but also of repair and revival: repair of historic harms and intergenerational trauma playing out as male domination, gender-based violence, economic insecurity, poor health and mass incarceration”.

What might a just home in a post-COVID future look like?

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy journal

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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past. One outcome of this has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs. In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs.

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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship
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In the last three decades, scholarly interest on entrepreneurship has exploded outside the traditional quantitative disciplines of economics and business studies. This is traceable to the global ascent of neoliberal capitalism, which has drawn remote corners of the world into global webs of capital and substituted self-help entrepreneurship with state-directed ameliorative economic projects. Humanists and qualitative social scientists have brought much-needed critical perspectives to bear on the study of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.

One of the legacies of this humanisation of entrepreneurship studies is the extension of the observational and analytical lens to the Global South, a region of the world simultaneously regarded as a place dominated by a poverty-incubating pre-capitalist economic ethos and as a fertile ground for recruiting new entrepreneurs. The emphasis on producing indigenous entrepreneurs emanates from an assumption that Africa lacks capitalism and capitalist relations of production, an assumption that Horman Chitonge debunks. There is also a need to deconstruct paradigmatic understandings of not just capitalism but also of entrepreneurship, the supposed means to capitalism in Africa.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty. The escalation of poverty in Africa from the 1980s, itself partly a product of neoliberal reforms, ironically opened the door to the neoliberal veneration of entrepreneurship as a remedy for mass poverty. Many anti-poverty interventions in Africa today seek to remake Africans into rural and urban entrepreneurs through instruments such as microfinance, revolving credit, and cooperative lending.

Economic messiahs

The proliferation of entrepreneurial projects in Africa in the neoliberal moment inspired unprecedented Africanist scholarly interest in entrepreneurship, enterprise, innovation, African capitalism (or Africapitalism) and the culture of self-help. As new groups of entrepreneurs emerged on the continent and engaged in a variety of capitalist, wealth-creating activities, Africanist scholars from a variety of fields began to develop new vocabularies and concepts to explain this entrepreneurial wave. This scholarly corpus has been illuminating, but it has also been plagued by conceptual imprecision and confusion.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty.

The problem, as I want to show in this reflection, was that the Africanist entrepreneurial perspective that emerged had blind spots imposed by dominant formulations developed to understand entrepreneurial cultures in Euro-American contexts. There are two other inter-related problems. One is a failure to develop an analytical toolkit that accommodates the capacious and amorphous entrepreneurial lives of Africans who were pigeonholed into the new neoliberal category of the entrepreneur. The second is a failure to adequately critique the exuberant, self-assured discourse of entrepreneurs as economic messiahs and replacements for the economic responsibilities of the dysfunctional African state.

The first problem turns on the deployment of notions and definitions derived from the dominant Schumpeterian perspective on entrepreneurship. Joseph Schumpeter’s major contribution to the study of entrepreneurship lies in going beyond understanding the entrepreneur as one who had the skill to “combine the factors of production” and situating the entrepreneur in a more ambitious project of disrupting the process of value-creation. Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not just in personal terms but also in terms of corporate agency, of the aggregate transformative impact of multiple, simultaneous, or successive entrepreneurial initiatives. Unlike other theorists, Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not as a manager but as a catalyst, an innovator. Clearly, the empirical setting of Schumpeter’s theorisation is a European industrial one, giving his postulations a decidedly Eurocentric flavour.

The Schumpeterian paradigm applies to the innovatively disruptive capacities of some contemporary African industrial entrepreneurs. However, this explanatory model is problematic when called upon to illuminate the activities and priorities of other African entrepreneurs outside the capitalist industrial matrix. The Schumpeterian explanation does not know what to do with Africans whose enterprise consists not of the familiar portfolios of our modern capitalist imagination but rather of an eclectic corpus of holdings embracing the social, political, artisanal, and economic realms.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result. Our love of neat, hard categories and vocational identifiers have stifled our ability to appreciate the full range of African entrepreneurship. As a historian, my frame of reference is the African past and that is where I’d like to go to develop this contention.

Entrepreneurship in precolonial Africa

In precolonial Africa, entrepreneurship was not a narrow, bounded vocation. Instead, entrepreneurship manifested in particular ways of doing things, and in any organised activity that promised personal or communal rewards. In this capacious definitional universe, enterprising warriors were entrepreneurs. They transformed the art of warfare from a regimented, sporadic activity to one with its own routines and protocols. Historian Uyilawa Usualele’s chapter in my edited volume, Entrepreneurship in Africa, rightly argues for a recognition of the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Benin warlords, spiritual consultants, priests, and religious purveyors whose repertoire included the professionalisation and deft organisation of multiple social vocations. Their sophisticated endeavour, as Uyilawa demonstrates, entailed the adoption of business management principles that we today associate with entrepreneurs.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result.

Warrior guilds, whether in precolonial Ibadan, Asante, Dahomey, Buganda or Zulu, were sites of entrepreneurship. When systematised and conceptualised as a professional business venture, as it was in many precolonial African kingdoms, warring involved planning, management, delegation, tasks, goals, deliverables, compensation, the creation of value in the form of war spoils, the distribution of dividends, and reinvestment in processes that improved war making.

War making entailed post-operational accounting, the calculation of profits, and periodic stocktaking — in other words, elaborate formal and informal bookkeeping. It was a business, and the guilds, warrior cults, and military training programmes of precolonial African kingdoms were business schools of sorts. Many of today’s warlords are also conflict entrepreneurs, leveraging war as opportunities for profit.

I have chosen this unlikely example to illustrate my point that in Africa entrepreneurial pursuits were not and are still not wholly shaped by the narrow permutations of combining the forces of production — capital, labour, and knowledge — to produce a profit. The profit motive is not always central to entrepreneurial pursuits in the African context, although profit is an expected outcome of entrepreneurial acts. Furthermore, where present and clearly discernible as the primary catalyst in an enterprise, profit is articulated in less narrow terms than is posited in the economistic definitions of classical and neoliberal economic thought.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

Given this reality of multiple entrepreneurial trajectories and entwinements, it is perhaps more productive to speak of “entrepreneurial Africans” than of “African entrepreneurs”, a formulation at odds with the restrictive definitional criteria in normative capitalist thought. The term African entrepreneurs assumes a consistent, permanent occupational identity of people whose lives were consumed and defined solely by their entrepreneurial engagements. Entrepreneurial Africans advances a premise of entrepreneurial possibilities in multiple endeavours and professions.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

This complex picture is further compounded by the existence of several “non-capitalist” systems of production, as well as the prevalence of hybrid practices in which self-interested capitalist rationalities coexisted with an ethos of value and reward. If the Schumpeterian model and its derivatives are applied uncritically to African entrepreneurial formations, they raise the question of whether, for instance, entrepreneurs could emerge and thrive outside capitalist relations in a communal African economic setting and, if so, whether the relationship between capitalism and entrepreneurship, which we have long taken for granted, can be sustained in the African context. This question is important because it alerts Africanist scholars of personal and group economies to what they might lose, what analytical opportunities they might miss, and what complexities and realities they might occlude or misread when they accord overarching analytical finality to concepts developed in other places and circumstances and deployed to explain African conditions. Elisio Macamo insightfully makes a similar argument in regard to the concept of capitalism and its conceptual work in African social science scholarship.

The entrepreneurial independence that, even if only rhetorically, marked the evolution of capitalism in Europe, defined the Euro-American industrial experience, and catalysed the emergence of a distinct entrepreneurial class in that context contrasts with the African entrepreneurial historical landscape. In precolonial times, African entrepreneurs operated at the intersection of profit and power, commerce and culture. Profitmaking was coextensive with social obligations. Entrepreneurs were mindful of societal expectations on them. Society, in turn, recognised that entrepreneurs had special gifts that had to be nurtured and liberated from the sociopolitical routines of daily life. Entrepreneurial pursuits were for-profit endeavours for the most part but profits and service to society were coterminous, as chapters by Gloria ChukuMarta MussoMartin Shanguhyia, and Chambi Chachage in the aforementioned Entrepreneurship in Africa volume demonstrate.

Political power holders cultivated entrepreneurs and were entrepreneurs in their own right. Entrepreneurs, on their part, accessed the protective, logistical, and spiritual resources deposited in the political realm. Ultimately, the idea that individual profitmaking could and should coexist with the provision of societal benefit and that entrepreneurial projects should catalyse society’s economic potentials was an unwritten but well understood rule of commerce. Entrepreneurship, which was mobile and malleable, was the defining character of precolonial African political economy.

To speak of a political economy of entrepreneurship or an entrepreneurial political economy is to signal a uniquely African iteration of entrepreneurship in which the political and mercantile realms were and are in conversation and cooperation. The case of the precolonial Wangara mercantile network in West Africa is an example of the entwinement of value creation and political power. There is clearly a contemporary continuity to this reality. The most consequential and successful African entrepreneurs of today, such as Aliko Dangote, Strive Masiyiwa, Patrice Motsepe, Tony Elumelu, and others have direct or indirect tentacles in the realm of power and politics. Their business empires relate with host governments and political formations in ways that would offend contrived, self-righteous, and hypocritical business sensibilities in the West. Text-bookish neoliberal Western formulations proclaim the autonomies of the business and political spheres, but these autonomous zones do not exist in the West, as many corporate and political corruption scandals have revealed. Although open to perversion and corruption, in their most productive manifestations, African entrepreneurial cultures that recognise the field of play between economics and politics stand in distinction from the neoliberal obsession with the idea of separating business and politics or protecting entrepreneurs from the alleged meddling and market distortions of political actors.

African scholars, businesspeople, and policymakers in search of an African business ethos will do well to consider this African historical partnership between profit and people.

Globalised capital that empowers and privileges

My second point concerns the limit of entrepreneurship, which needs to be stressed to counterbalance the narrative of multipurpose amelioration that has developed around African entrepreneurship. We live in a neoliberal moment in which entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs are celebrated as potent economic agents and catalysts for poverty reduction and economic growth. Whether entrepreneurs deserve this outsized reputation in our interconnected and interdependent economic ecosystem is a legitimate question. When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others. We are ignoring the ways that global capitalist configurations undercut and complicate entrepreneurial possibilities and opportunities in Africa.

The conceptual impact of Africa’s long encounter with neoliberalism on discourses of African entrepreneurship is profound. The nexus of neoliberalism and entrepreneurship is not far-fetched. The neoliberal economic regime imposed on African economies by the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s and 1990s dictated an economic paradigm shift for African countries, one that redefined the relationships, obligations, and responsibilities between states and their citizens. One of the most remarkable outcomes of this shift has been the increasing dominance of the figure of the entrepreneur. A corollary development has been the substitution of entrepreneurial self-help for redistributive, reconstructive, and structural economic reforms.

When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others.

This lionisation of the entrepreneur is a symptom of a deeper rhetorical, philosophical, and policy gesture in the direction of producing citizen-entrepreneurs who pursue thrift and profits, creatively take charge of their own welfare, innovatively add value to the economy, and thus relieving the state of financial obligations. Neoliberal attempts to engineer into existence ideal entrepreneurial citizens that are self-reliant and removed from the nodes of state obligation were authorised by a new fetish of personal economic responsibility. These interventions absolved the African state of its developmental responsibilities, demanding that poor Africans pull themselves out of poverty by their own entrepreneurial bootstraps.

Neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past as one in which Africans were pampered by states and as a result ceased to create value through entrepreneurial activity. In truth, there was never such a cessation of entrepreneurial ingenuity in African communities. Nor did states, despite their paternalistic rhetoric and claims, provide robust welfare protections to citizens. Neoliberal entrepreneurial initiatives were cast against a foundational ignorance of the fact that value creation in most African societies is an organic social endeavor and not the intensely individualised enterprise intelligible to neoclassical and neoliberal frames of analysis. Birthed in this original misunderstanding of Africa, the political economy of neoliberalism has entrenched the entrepreneurial figure venerated by International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policy documents as the discursive referent in studies of African economic revival. One outcome has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs and to withhold that designation from others.

The damage done by the neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship is both discursive and practical. Important as entrepreneurs are to the present and future of Africa, all Africans cannot become entrepreneurs, at least not in the neoliberal sense of the word. This sober recognition, which is missing from most external economic reform prescriptions, ought to be a serious preoccupation of Africanist scholars of entrepreneurship. It is the task of Africanists who study capitalism, business, and entrepreneurship in Africa to modulate and critique the exaggerated instrumentalities of African entrepreneurship. This task is necessary to balance the analytical books because we have created a zero sum analytical calculus in which talking more about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial catalysts results in less talk about structural inequalities inherent in the global capitalist system into which Africans, to varying degrees, have long been integrated.

I want to conclude this reflection with a proposal wrapped in a critique. There is a need to develop a new mode of African scholarship on business and enterprise. This proposed new field of qualitative African business and entrepreneurial studies must necessarily adopt a relaxed analytical framework capable of exploring complex economic lives in ways that traditional scholarship in African economic history – with its neat dichotomies between worker and merchant, king and commoner, bourgeoisie and peasant – is incapable of doing. This kind of study should be able to analyse African entrepreneurial lives that cross class divides and socioeconomic categories.

Traditional debates in the field of African economic history have rarely acknowledged, let alone theorised, the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Africans in a sustained way and in terms independent of other categories of analysis. This erasure is particularly common in the field of colonial economic history. Neoclassical and neoliberal scholars of modern African economic history overstate the instrumental agency of African entrepreneurs. On the opposite side, neo-Marxist and dependency theorists shun or dismiss entrepreneurs as a petit bourgeoisie class undermining the revolutionary struggles of workers and peasants. By lionising or diminishing the figure of the African entrepreneur, the dominant schools of African economic history orphaned the African entrepreneur into a strange category where s/he is either overburdened with the task of saving dysfunctional economies or tossed aside as an economic saboteur.

In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs. What is lacking are stories of African entrepreneurship told by entrepreneurs themselves. We need African entrepreneurial stories curated by the entrepreneurs themselves or at least informed by their perspectives, their self-representation, and their understanding of their own struggles, aspirations, and visions. These stories have to go beyond “How I Made It” memoirs and autobiographies of entrepreneurial success and hagiographic scholarly narratives of problem-solving, self-redeeming African entrepreneurs.

Finally, the question of how we are telling the African entrepreneurship story is as important as who is telling it. The current triumphalist and hyperbolic tone of the conversation has produced a restrictive exercise in navel-gazing. It has also led to an explosion of self-validating, self-fulfilling rhetoric, in which the concept of entrepreneurship is not only advanced as a fail-safe substitute for the idea of the African developmental state posited compellingly by the late Thandika Mkandawire and others but is also used as a stand-in for more substantive debates about external and internal structural constraints on African development.

This article was first published by Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE).

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