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Gen Z, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and African Universities

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The 4th Industrial Revolution is only one of many forces forcing transformations in higher education. As such, we should assess its challenges and opportunities with a healthy dose of intellectual sobriety, neither dismissing it with Luddite ideological fervour nor investing it with the omniscience beloved by techno-worshippers.

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Gen Z, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and African Universities
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Like many of you, I try to keep up with trends in higher education, which are of course firmly latched to wider transformations in the global political economy, in all its bewildering complexities and contradictions, and tethered to particular national and local contexts. Of late one cannot avoid the infectious hopes, hysteria, and hyperbole about the disruptive power of the 4th Industrial Revolution on every sector, including higher education. It was partly to make sense of the discourses and debates about this new revolution that I chose this topic.

But I was also inspired by numerous conversations with colleagues in my capacity as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Kenya Education Network Trust (KENET) that provides Internet connectivity and related services to enhance education and research to the county’s educational and research institutions. Also, my university has ambitious plans to significantly expand its programmes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the health sciences, and the cinematic and creative arts, in which discussions about the rapid technological changes and their impact on our educational enterprise feature prominently.

I begin by briefly underlining the divergent perspectives on the complex, contradictory and rapidly changing connections between the 4th Industrial Revolution and higher education. Then I seek to place it in the context of wider changes. First, in terms of global politics and economy. Second, with reference to the changing nature of work. Third, in the context of other key trends in higher education. Situating the 4th Industrial Revolution in these varied and intersected changes and dynamics underscores a simple point: that it is part of a complex mosaic of profound transformations taking place in the contemporary world that precede and supersede it.

As a historian and social scientist, I’m only too aware that technology is always historically and socially embedded; it is socially constructed in so far as its creation, dissemination, and consumption are always socially marked. In short, technological changes, however momentous, produce and reproduce both old and new opportunity structures and trajectories that are simultaneously uneven and unequal because they are conditioned by the enduring social inscriptions of class, gender, race, nationality, ethnicity and other markers, as well as the stubborn geographies and hierarchies of the international division of labour.

The 4th Industrial Revolution 

As with any major social phenomena and process, the 4th Industrial Revolution has its detractors, cheerleaders, and fence-sitters. The term often refers to the emergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, machine learning, data analytics, big data, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the convergence of the digital, biological, and physical domains of life.

Critics dismiss the 4th Industrial Revolution as a myth, arguing that it is not a revolution as such in so far as many innovations associated with it represent extensions of previous innovations. Some even find the euphoric discourses about it elitist, masculinist, and racist. Some fear its destructive potential for jobs and livelihoods, and privacy and freedom as surveillance capitalism spreads its tentacles.

Those who espouse its radical impact say that the 4th Industrial Revolution will profoundly transform all spheres of economic, social, cultural, and political life. It is altering the interaction of humans with technology, leading to the emergence of what Yuval Noah Harari calls homo deus who worships at the temple of dataism in the name of algorithms. More soberly, some welcome the 4th Industrial Revolution for its leapfrogging opportunities for developing countries and marginalised communities. But even the sceptics seek to hedge their bets on the promises and perils of the much-hyped revolution by engaging it.

In the education sector, universities are urged to help drive the 4th Industrial Revolution by pushing the boundaries of their triple mission of teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement. Much attention focuses on curricula reform, the need to develop what one author calls “future-readiness” curricula that prepares students holistically for the skills of both today and tomorrow – curricula that integrates the liberal arts and the sciences, digital literacy and intercultural literacy, and technical competencies and ethical values, and that fosters self-directed and personalised learning. Because of the convergences of the 4th Industrial Revolution, universities are exhorted to promote interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teaching, research and innovation, and to pursue new modes of internationalisation of knowledge production, collaboration, and consumption.

Changes in the global political economy

From Africa’s vantage point, I would argue there are three critical global forces that we need to pay special attention to. First, the world system is in the midst of a historic hegemonic shift. This is evident in the growing importance of Asia and the emerging economies, including Africa and impending closure of Euroamerica’s half a millennium of global dominance. Emblematic of this monumental transition is the mounting rivalry between a slumping United States and a rising China that is flexing its global muscles not least through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Those who espouse its radical impact say that the 4th Industrial Revolution will profoundly transform all spheres of economic, social, cultural, and political life. It is altering the interaction of humans with technology, leading to the emergence of what Yuval Noah Harari calls homo deus who worships at the temple of dataism in the name of algorithms.

The struggle between the two nations and their respective allies or spheres of influence marks the end of America’s supremacy as the sole post-Cold War superpower. The outbreak of the trade war between the two in 2018 represents the first skirmishes of a bitter hegemonic rivalry that will probably engulf at least the first half of the 21st century. The question we have to ask ourselves is: How should Africa manage and position itself in this global hegemonic shift?

This is the third such shift over the last two hundred years. The first occurred between 1870-1914 following the rise of Germany and its rivalry with the world’s first industrial power, Britain. For the world as a whole this led to the “New Imperialism” that culminated in World War I, and for Africa and Asia in colonisation.

The second hegemonic shift emerged out of the ashes of World War II with the rise of two superpowers, the former Soviet Union and the United States. For the world this led to the Cold War and for Asia and Africa decolonisation.

Can Africa leverage the current shift to achieve its long-cherished but deferred dream of sustainable development?

As the highest concentrations of collective intellectual prowess, African universities and researchers have a responsibility to promote comprehensive understanding of the stakes for Africa, and to inform policy options on how best to navigate the emerging treacherous quagmire of the new superpower rivalries to maximise the possibilities and minimise the perils.

More broadly, in so far as China’s and Asia’s rise are as much economic as they are epistemic – as evident in the exponential ascent of Asian universities in global rankings – the challenge and opportunity for our universities and knowledge production systems is how best to pluralise worldly engagements that simultaneously curtail the Western stranglehold rooted in colonial and neocolonial histories of intellectual dependency without succumbing to the hegemonic ambitions of China and Asia.

Second, world demography is undergoing a major metamorphosis. On the one hand, this is evident in the aging populations of many countries in the global North.  China is also on the same demographic treadmill, thanks to its ill-guided one-child policy imposed in 1979 that was only abolished in 2015. On the other hand, Africa is enjoying a population explosion. Currently, 60 per cent of the African population is below the age of 25. Africa is expected to have 1.7 billion people in 2030 (20 per cent of the world’s population), rising to 2.53 billion (26 per cent of the world’s population) in 2050, and 4.5 billion (40 per cent of the world’s population) in 2100.

What are the developmental implications of Africa’s demographic bulge, and Africa’s global position as it becomes the reservoir of the world’s largest labour force? The role of educational institutions in this demographic equation is clear. Whether Africa’s skyrocketing population is to be a demographic dividend or not will depend on the quality of education, skills, and employability of the youth. Hordes of hundreds of millions of ill-educated, unskilled, and unemployable youth will turn the youth population surge into a demographic disaster, a Malthusian nightmare for African economies, polities and societies.

As the highest concentrations of collective intellectual prowess, African universities and researchers have a responsibility to promote comprehensive understanding of the stakes for Africa, and to inform policy options on how best to navigate the emerging treacherous quagmire of the new superpower rivalries to maximise the possibilities and minimise the perils.

The third major transformative force centers on the impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution. During the 1st Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century, Africa paid a huge price through the Atlantic slave trade that laid the foundations of the industrial economies of Euroamerica. Under the 2nd Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, Africa was colonised. The 3rd Industrial Revolution that emerged in the second half of the 20th century coincided with the tightening clutches of neocolonialism for Africa. What is and will be the nature of Africa’s levels of participation in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Will the continent be a player or a pawn as in the other 3 revolutions?

The future of work

There is a growing body of academic literature and consultancy reports about the future of work. An informative summary can be found in a short monograph published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “The Future of Work: How Colleges Can Prepare Students for the Jobs Ahead”,  it is argued that the digitalisation of the economy and social life spawned by the 4th Industrial Revolution will continue transforming the nature of work as old industries are disrupted and new ones emerge. In the United States, it is projected that the fastest growing fields will be in science, technology, engineering, and healthcare, while employment in manufacturing will decline. This will enhance the importance of the soft skills of the liberal arts, such as oral and written communication, critical thinking and problem solving, teamwork and collaboration, intercultural competency, combined with hard technical skills, like coding.

In short, while it is difficult to predict the future of work, more jobs will increasingly require graduates to “fully merge their training in hard skills with soft skills”. They will be trained in both the liberal arts and STEM, with skills for complex human interactions, and capacities for flexibility, adaptability, versatility, and resilience.

In a world of rapidly changing occupations, the hybridisation of skills, competencies, and literacies together with lifelong learning will become assets. In a digitalised economy, routine tasks will be more prone to automation than highly skilled non-routine jobs. Successful universities will include those that impart academic and experiential learning to both traditional students and older students seeking retraining.

The need to strengthen interdisciplinary and experiential teaching and learning, career services centres, and retraining programmes for older students on college campuses is likely to grow. So will partnerships between universities and employers as both seek to enhance students’ employability skills and reduce the much-bemoaned mismatches between graduates and the labour market. The roles of career centres and services will need to expand in response to pressures for better integration of curricula programmes, co-curricula activities, community engagement, and career preparedness and placement.

In short, while it is difficult to predict the future of work, more jobs will increasingly require graduates to “fully merge their training in hard skills with soft skills”. They will be trained in both the liberal arts and STEM, with skills for complex human interactions, and capacities for flexibility, adaptability, versatility, and resilience.

Some university leaders and faculty of course bristle at the vocationalisation of universities, insisting on the primacy of intellectual inquiry, learning for its own sake, and student personal development. But the fraught calculus between academe and return on investment cannot be wished away for many students and parents. For students from poorer backgrounds, intellectual development and career preparedness both matter as university education maybe their only shot at acquiring the social capital that richer students have other avenues to acquire.

Trends in higher education 

Digital Disruptions  

Clearly, digital disruptions constitute one of the key four interconnected trends in higher education that I seek to discuss. The other three include rising demands for public service and engagement, unbundling of the degree, and escalating imperatives for lifelong learning.

More and more, digitalisation affects every aspect of higher education, including research, teaching, and institutional operations. Information technologies have impacted research in various ways, including expanding opportunities for “big science” and increasing capacities for international collaboration. The latter is evident in the exponential growth in international co-authorship.

Also, the explosion of information has altered the role of libraries as repositories of print and audio-visual materials into nerve centres for digitised information communication, which raises the need for information literacy. Moreover, academic publishing has been transformed by the acceleration and commercialisation of scholarly communication. The role of powerful academic publishing and database firms has greatly been strengthened. The open source movement is trying to counteract that.

Similarly far reaching is the impact of information technology on teaching and learning. Opportunities for technology-mediated forms of teaching and learning encompassing blended learning, flipped classrooms, adaptive and active learning, and online education have grown. This has led to the emergence of a complex melange of teaching and learning models encompassing the face-to-face-teaching model without ICT enhancement; ICT-enhanced face-to-face teaching model; ICT-enhanced distance teaching model; and the online teaching model.

Spurred by the student success movement arising out of growing public concerns about the quality of learning and the employability skills of graduates, “the black box of college”—teaching and learning—has been opened, argues another recent monograph by The Chronicle entitled, “The Future of Learning: How colleges can transform the educational experience”. The report notes, “Some innovative colleges are deploying big data and predictive analytics, along with intrusive advising and guided pathways, to try to engineer a more effective educational experience. Experiments in revamping gateway courses, better connecting academic and extracurricular work, and lowering textbook costs also hold promise to support more students through college.” For critics of surveillance capitalism, the arrival of Big Brother on university campuses is truly frightening in its Orwellian implications.

There are other teaching methods increasingly driven by artificial intelligence and technology that include immersive technology, gaming, and mobile learning, as well as massive open online courses (MOOCs), and the emergence of robot tutors. In some institutions, instructors who worship at the altar of innovation are also incorporating free, web-based content, online collaboration tools, simulation  or educational games, lecture capture, e-books, in-class polling tools, as well as student smartphones and tablets,  social media , and e-portfolios as teaching and learning tools.

Some of these instructional technologies make personalised learning for students increasingly possible. The Chronicle monograph argues for these technologies and innovations, such as predictive analytics, to work it is essential to use the right data and algorithms, cultivate buy-in from those who work most closely with students, pair analytics with appropriate interventions, and invest enough money. Managing these innovations entails confronting entrenched structural, financial, and cultural barriers,and “require investments in training and personnel”.

For many under-resourced African universities with inadequate or dilapidated physical and electronic infrastructures, the digital revolution remains a pipe dream. But such is the spread of smart phones and tablets even among growing segments of African university students that they can no longer be effectively taught using old pedagogical methods of the born-before-computers (BBC) generation. After spending the past two decades catering to millennials, universities now have to accommodate Gen Z, the first generation of truly digital natives.

Another study from The Chronicle entitled “The New Generation of Students: How colleges can recruit, teach, and serve Gen Z” argues that this “is a generation accustomed to learning by toggling between the real and virtual worlds…They favoir a mix of learning environments and activities led by a professor but with options to create their own blend of independent and group work and experiential opportunities”.

For Gen Z knowledge is everywhere. “They are accustomed to finding answers instantaneously on Google while doing homework or sitting at dinner…They are used to customisation. And the instant communication of texting and status updates means they expect faster feedback from everyone, on everything.”

For such students, the instructor is no longer the sage on stage from whom hapless students passively imbibe information through lectures, but a facilitator or coach who engages students in active and adaptive learning. Their ideal instructor makes class interesting and involving, is enthusiastic about teaching, communicates clearly, understands students’ challenges and issues and gives guidance, challenges students to do better as a student or as a person, among several attributes.

For Gen Z knowledge is everywhere. “They are accustomed to finding answers instantaneously on Google while doing homework or sitting at dinner…They are used to customisation. And the instant communication of texting and status updates means they expect faster feedback from everyone, on everything.”

Teaching faculty to teach the digital generation, and equipping faculty with digital competency, design thinking, and curriculum curation, is increasingly imperative. The deployment of digital technologies and tools in institutional operations is expected to grow as universities seek to improve efficiencies and data-driven decision-making. As noted earlier, the explosion of data about almost everything that happens in higher education is leading to data mining and analytics becoming more important than ever. Activities that readily lend themselves to IT interventions include enrollment, advising, and management of campus facilities. By the same token, institutions have to pay more attention to issues of data privacy and security.

Public Service Engagements 

The second major trend centres on rising expectations for public engagement and service. This manifests itself in three ways. First, demands for mutually beneficial university-society relationships and the social impact of universities are increasing. As doubts grow about the value proposition of higher education, pressures will intensify for universities to demonstrate their contribution to the public good in contributing to national development and competitiveness, notwithstanding the prevailing neoliberal conceptions of higher education as a private good.

On the other hand, universities’ concerns about the escalating demands of society are also likely to grow. The intensification of global challenges, from climate change to socio-economic inequality to geopolitical security, will demand more research and policy interventions by higher education institutions. A harbinger of things to come is the launch in 2019 by the Times Higher Education of a new global ranking system assessing the social and economic impact of universities’ innovation, policies and practices.

Second, the question of graduate employability will become more pressing for universities to address. As the commercialisation and commodification of learning persists, and maybe even intensifies, demands on universities to demonstrate that their academic programmes prepare students for employability in terms of being ready to get or create gainful employment can only be expected to grow. Pressure will increase on both universities and employers to close the widely bemoaned gap between college and jobs, between graduate qualifications and the needs of the labour market.

Third is the growth of public-private partnerships (PPPs). As financial and political pressures mount, and higher education institutions seek to focus on their core academic functions of teaching and learning, and generating research and scholarship, many universities have been outsourcing more and more of the financing, design, building and maintenance of facilities and services, including student housing, food services, and monetising parking and energy. Emerging partnerships encompass enrollment and academic programme management, such as online programme expansion, skills training, student mentoring and career counseling.

Another Chronicle monograph, “The Outsourced University: How public-private partnerships can benefit your campus”, traces the growth of PPPs. They take a variety of forms and duration. It is critical for institutions pursuing such partnerships to determine whether a “project should be handled through a P3,” clearly “articulate your objectives, and measure your outputs,” to “be clear about the trade-offs,” “bid competitively,” and “be clear in the contract.”

The growth of PPPs will lead to greater mobility between the public and private sectors and the academy as pressures grow for continuous skilling of students, graduates, and employees in a world of rapidly changing jobs and occupations. This will be done through the growth of experiential learning, work-related learning, and secondments.

Unbundling of the Degree

The third major transformation that universities need to pay attention to centers on their core business as providers of degrees. This is the subject of another fascinating monograph in The Chronicle entitled “The Future of The Degree: How Colleges Can Survive the New Credential Economy”. The study shows how the university degree evolved over time in the 19th and 20th centuries to become a highly prized currency for the job market, a signal that one has acquired a certain level of education and skills.

As economies undergo “transformative change, a degree based on a standard of time in a seat is no longer sufficient in an era where mastery is the key. As a result, we are living in a new period in the development of the degree, where different methods of measuring learning are materialising, and so too are diverse and efficient packages of credentials based on data.”

In a digitalized economy where continuous reskilling becomes a constant, the college degree as a one-off certification of competence, as a badge certifying the acquisition of desirable social and cultural capital, and as a convenient screening mechanism for employers, is less sustainable.

Clearly, as more employers focus on experience and skills in hiring, and as the mismatch between graduates and employability persists or even intensifies, traditional degrees will increasingly become less dominant as a signal of job readiness, and universities will lose their monopoly over certification as alternative credentialing systems emerge.

As experiential learning becomes more important, the degree will increasingly need to embody three key elements. First, it needs to “signify the duality of the learning experience, both inside and outside the classroom. Historically, credentials measured the learning that happened only inside the university, specifically seat time inside a classroom.”

Second, the “credential should convey an integrated experience…While students are unlikely to experience all of their learning for a credential on a single campus in the future, some entity will still need to help integrate and certify the entire package of courses, internships, and badges throughout a person’s lifetime.”

Third, credentials “must operate with some common standard… For new credentials to matter in the future, institutions will need to create a common language of exchange” beyond the current singular currency of an institutional degree.

The rise of predictive hiring to evaluate job candidates and people analytics in the search for talent will further weaken the primacy of the degree signal. Also disruptive is the fact that human knowledge, which used to take hundreds of years, and later decades, to double is now “doubling every 13 months, on average, and IBM predicts that in the next couple of years, with the expansion of the internet of things, information will double every 11 hours. That requires colleges and universities to broaden their definition of a degree and their credential offerings.”

All these likely developments have serious implications for the current business model of higher education. Universities need “to rethink what higher education needs to be — not a specific one-time experience but a lifelong opportunity for learners to acquire skills useful through multiple careers. In many ways, the journey to acquire higher education will never end. From the age of 18 on, adults will need to step in and out of a higher-education system that will give them the credentials for experiences that will carry currency in the job market.”

In short, as lifelong careers recede and people engage in multiple careers, not just jobs, the quest for higher education will become continuous, no longer confined to the youth in the 18-24 age range. “Rather than existing as a single document, credentials will be conveyed with portfolios of assets and data from learners demonstrating what they know.”

Clearly, as more employers focus on experience and skills in hiring, and as the mismatch between graduates and employability persists or even intensifies, traditional degrees will increasingly become less dominant as a signal of job readiness, and universities will lose their monopoly over certification as alternative credentialing systems emerge.

Increasing pressures of life for lifelong learning will lead to the unbundling of the degree into project-based degrees, hybrid baccalaureate and Master’s degrees, ‘microdegrees’, and badges. Students will increasingly stack their credentials of degrees and certificates “to create a mosaic of experiences that they hope will set them apart in the job market”.

As African educators we must ask ourselves: How prepared are our universities for the emergence and proliferation of new credentialing systems? How are African universities effectively integrating curricular and co-curricular forms of learning in person and online learning? How prepared and responsive are African universities to multigenerational learners, traditional and emerging degree configurations and certificates? What are the implications of the explosion of instructional information technologies for styles of student teaching and learning, the pedagogical roles of instructors, and the dynamics of knowledge production, dissemination, and consumption?

Lifelong Learning 

The imperatives of the digitalised economy and society for continuous reskilling and upskilling entail lifelong and lifewide learning. The curricula and teaching for lifelong learning must be inclusive, innovative, intersectional, and interdisciplinary. It entails identifying and developing the intersections of markets, places, people, and programmes; and helping illuminate the powerful intersections of learning, life, and work. Universities need to develop more agile admission systems by smarter segmentation of prospective student markets (e.g., flexible admission by age group and academic programme); some are exploring lifelong enrollment for students (e.g., National University of Singapore).

Lifelong learning involves developing and delivering personalised learning, not cohort learning; assessing competences, not seat tim,e as most universities currently do. “Competency-based education allows students to move at their own pace, showcasing what they know instead of simply sitting in a classroom for a specific time period.”

Lifelong learning requires encouraging enterprise education and an entrepreneurial spirit among students, instilling resilience among them, providing supportive environments for learning and personal development, and placing greater emphasis on “learning to learn” rather than rote learning of specific content.

As leaders and practitioners in higher education, we need to ask ourselves some of the following questions: How are African universities preparing for and going to manage lifelong learning? How can universities effectively provide competency-based education? How can African universities encourage entrepreneurial education without becoming glorified vocational institutions, and maintain their role as sites of producing and disseminating critical scholarly knowledge for scientific progress and informed citizenship?

Conclusion 

In conclusion, the 4th Industrial Revolution is only one of many forces forcing transformations in higher education. As such, we should assess its challenges and opportunities with a healthy dose of intellectual sobriety, neither dismissing it with Luddite ideological fervour nor investing it with the omniscience beloved by techno-worshippers. In the end, the fate of technological change is not pre-determined; it is always imbricated with human choices and agency.

At my university, the United States International University (USIU)-Africa, we’ve long required all incoming students to take an information technology placement test as a way of promoting information literacy; we use an ICT instructional platform (Blackboard), embed ICT in all our institutional operations, and we are increasingly using data analytics in our decision-making processes. We also have a robust range of ICT degree programmes and are introducing new ones (BSc in software engineering, data science and analytics, AI and robotics, an MSc in cybersecurity, and a PhD in Information Science and Technology), and what we’re calling USIU-Online.

 

This article is the plenary address by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza at the Universities South Africa, First National Higher Education Conference, “Reinventing SA’s Universities for the Future” CSIR ICC, Pretoria, October 4, 2019.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger.

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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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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