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Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities

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The quality of education in African universities has been steadily declining in the face of financial instability. This is having an impact on the employment prospects of graduates.

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Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities
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Over the past several months, there have been numerous conferences on the state of higher education in Africa and around the world, some of which I’ve participated in and even given keynote addresses. From these conferences, and the increasingly frantic higher education media, it is clear that the spectre of financial instability and unsustainability haunts many universities in the developed and developing countries alike, from the United States to Kenya. The challenges are, of course, mediated by local contexts embedded in levels of development and socio-economic inequalities, prevailing political cultures and ideologies, institutional histories and capacities, and a confluence of other forces.

In the United States, the outlook for universities has largely been negative over the last decade. According to Moody’s, in its 2019 higher education outlook, “Increasing expenses outpace constrained revenue for most universities and colleges…owing to constrained tuition revenue growth, the main revenue stream for most universities and colleges…Colleges and universities will look to further control costs, which will lead to longer-term challenges related to programmatic and capital investment. For most colleges, rising labor costs, which are roughly 65%-75% of expenses, will remain the largest hurdle.”

Moody’s forecast for 2020: “The outlook for the US higher education sector has been changed to stable from negative,” underpinned by “revenue growth in the 3%-4% range over the next year or so, driven mainly by larger, comprehensive universities.” It continues: “Over the longer term, social risks will continue to transform the US higher education sector, with demographic changes presenting both challenges and opportunities…Governance will remain a key differentiator among higher education institutions…Those that are able to identify their strengths and weaknesses and take appropriate action where necessary will fare better than those that remain reactive.”

In 2016, a report by Ernest & Young found that 800 institutions (largely concentrated among small universities and colleges excessively dependent on tuition) were facing the most serious risks. Some experts predict up to a quarter of American colleges will become extinct within a decade. Whether such predictions come to pass or not, the rate of closures has accelerated. Equally troubling is the staggering growth in student loan debt. In 2018, it reached $1.5 trillion, encompassing 44.2 million borrowers. This was higher than credit card debt. In fact, student debt is the second biggest source of household debt after mortgages in the United States.

The growth in student debt reflected changes in the financing model of American higher education, which is fueled by the neoliberal ideology unleashed by the Reagan administration and followed by successive administrations. Increasingly regarded as a private rather than public good, state funding for education declined, and student aid support shifted from grants to loans. Cash-strapped universities resorted to several strategies, including raising tuition and diversifying their revenue streams. On the expenditure side, they embraced cost-cutting, especially on tenure-stream (permanent) faculty employment, one of the largest expenses for universities.

Between 1980 and 2018 tuition grew by 213% at public institutions and 129% at private ones. This was higher than the growth in wages or the rate of inflation. Up to 70% of American students currently graduate with debt. According to Business Insider, the average student loan debt per graduating student who took out a loan reached $29,800 in 2018. More than a hundred people owed over $1 million compared to 14 people in 2013! And more than 3 million people aged 60 and above owed over $86 billion. The crippling burden of college tuition has risen to the top of the political agenda in the Democratic Party’s primaries for the 2020 US presidential election. As can be expected in such a racialised society, black graduates have more debt than their white counterparts.

As for faculty, the proportion of tenure-track faculty declined precipitously while that of contingent faculty rose, reaching 73% of all faculty in American colleges and universities in 2016, according to data from the American Association of University Professors. The remuneration and working conditions of contingent faculty are often abysmal; they typically don’t have benefits and some make less than the minimum wage. The academic media is full of heartbreaking stories about some contingent faculty subsisting on food stamps and making less than teenagers working in fast food joints.

Up to 70% of American students currently graduate with debt. According to Business Insider, the average student loan debt per graduating student who took out a loan reached $29,800 in 2018.

The expansion of the lumpen-professoriate of contingent faculty weakens the academy as a whole. It hurts students because these faculty are often hired by the hour, not given institutional support, and tend not to participate in departmental affairs, all of which deprives students of robust faculty engagement. It also undermines all faculty by threatening the integrity of faculty work, limiting the distribution of faculty service responsibilities, creating hierarchies among faculty, and eroding academic freedom, which vulnerable contingent faculty are hardly in a position to exercise.

The case of the US underscores the fact that financial challenges and their implications for students and faculty and the entire higher education enterprise are not confined to the Global South. This should be both a source of solace and sobriety for African universities. Solace because it shows that the challenges are not peculiar to African countries and higher education institutions. Sobriety because we cannot import turnkey solutions from elsewhere. Rather, we must think strategically, smartly, and systematically and devise solutions that will ensure financial stability and sustainability for our institutions.

Kenya’s bankrupt universities

In Kenya, it is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of the country’s universities are virtually bankrupt. Many are unable to pay salaries on time, remit statutory obligations for health and pensions, or provide adequate faculty, teaching and learning facilities, as well as student accommodation and support services. The Kenyan media is replete with stories about the billions of shillings public universities, including some of the largest and oldest ones, owe in statutory obligations and to their service providers.

The financial challenges facing most African universities, including those in Kenya, arise from the fact that they are primarily dependent on tuition. There is a mismatch between the rising demand for education, which is escalating because of the continent’s youth bulge, and the ability of students to pay the full costs of a quality university education, as well as the absorptive capacity of institutions to provide student aid. As public funding per university student has generally declined, while instructional costs have increased, both the universities and students suffer, which is reflected in falling quality and standards.

It becomes a vicious cycle: poor quality education undermines graduate employability, which burdens families and undermines their capacities to recover investments already made in education and to cover any future costs. This serves to reinforce questions about the value proposition of higher education. It helps explain the extreme sensitivities about tuition increases among students and their parents or guardians.

The fact of the matter is that notwithstanding the hype about Rising Africa/Africa Rising, one of whose indicators is ostensibly the expansion of the middle classes, the majority of students in African universities are from lower middle income, working class and peasant backgrounds. Upper middle income and rich families tend to send their children abroad—to Europe, North America, and the emerging economies of Asia, such as India, Malaysia, and China—because they have little confidence in the quality of local universities. This is well articulated in a story in the Business Daily of May 6, 2019, entitled “Local universities are facing serious crisis of confidence.” Those who vote with their wallets for their children’s education abroad often includes parents who were educated at local universities, at least for their first degrees.

It becomes a double jeopardy for Kenyan universities: they are unable to attract students from their own countries and foreign students with the ability to pay for the full costs of high quality university education. African universities are not serious players in the lucrative international student market. Out of the 5.09 million internationally mobile students in 2018, Africa accounted for a mere 4.39% per cent of inbound students, but 10.26% of outbound students. The financial situation of universities in Kenya has been compounded by student demographics in terms of the number of students qualifying for university entry. For the past four years, the pool of Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) students qualifying for university entrance has been historically low.

In 2018, out of the 660,204 candidates who sat for KCSE examinations, only 90,755 (13.74%) scored C+ and above, the minimum grade for university entry. In 2019, out of the 697,222 candidates, 125,746 (18.05%) got C+ and above. The available capacity in the country’s 74 universities in 2019 was 145,338, and in 2020 it is 193,878. Thus, the proportion of qualified students from the 2018 and 2019 KCSE results was 62.44% and 64.86%, respectively, of available capacity. As late as 2015, before the clampdown on cheating and other fraudulent behaviour in national exams, out of the 521,240 candidates who sat for the KCSE examinations, 32.52% or 169,492 got C+ and above. This has resulted in fierce competition among the country’s universities for the limited pool of qualified candidates, which affects their financial bottom line.

Financial constraints affect the ability of Kenyan universities to train, attract and retain qualified faculty. The core business of universities is teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and public engagement and service. Recruitment and retention of top-rate academics is, therefore, imperative. Kenya suffers from acute shortages of faculty and the graduate student pipeline is severely limited. The yearly production in Kenya of PhDs is about 700, below the government target of 1,000. Not surprisingly, only 34% of faculty in Kenyan universities have terminal degrees (my university, USIUAfrica, is an outlier with 73%). The Cabinet Secretary of Education was quoted in the Daily Nation on May 8, 2019 saying that “less than 10 per cent of PhD holders are qualified”. This was attributed to the prevalence of academic fraud, in which contract cheating is rampant. In fact, Kenya reportedly enjoys the dubious distinction of being a leading global centre of contract cheating.

In 2018, out of the 660,204 candidates who sat for KCSE examinations, only 90,755 (13.74%) scored C+ and above, the minimum grade for university entry. In 2019, out of the 697,222 candidates, 125,746 (18.05%) got C+ and above.

Even more critical is the growing discrepancy between the growth in student enrolments and faculty. Between 2011 and 2018, while student enrolments increased fivefold, the number of academics teaching in Kenyan public universities only grew by 13%. Consequently, faculty-student ratios have risen, which in some public universities are close to 1:70. This has severely affected the quality of education and research productivity. In most universities, many of the often overworked and poorly paid faculty are forced into adjuncting, and they rely on outmoded pedagogical practices and curricula. Moreover, student learning is frequently interrupted by employee strikes and student demonstrations.

Higher education is critical to the development of high-level human capital essential for economic growth and sustainable development. Two measures of the contribution of higher education are especially important. One is the employability of university graduates, and the other is research productivity and impact. In African Economic Outlook 2020, the African Development Bank provides a sobering reading on Africa’s unpreparedness for the jobs of the future because of the low quality of its educational systems. The problem cuts across the educational ladder. According to the report, “Many African countries have yet to catch up with the rest of the world in basic skills and education…African students have lower average test scores than students in other world regions. Against global harmonized test scores ranging from 300 to 625, the average African student scored only 374 in 2017.” It is universally acknowledged, that human capital is a key driver of economic growth, but “Human capital contributes less to labor productivity and economic growth in Africa than in other developing regions. This is due partly to the low quality of education, lack of complementary physical capital, and widespread skill and education mismatches.”

The report urges African governments (advice that applies to universities as well) to make strategic choices to build the workforce of the future. “African countries will need to anticipate and build a flexible and productive workforce to meet future challenges. To strengthen worker employability, firm productivity, and inclusive growth, African countries need a national strategy for education and skill development.” The report notes, “A poorly skilled and educated labor force is typically the top constraint mentioned by global executives when considering manufacturing investments in Africa.”

Furthermore, “Because ‘soft skills’ are likely to become increasingly important, education and training institutions should be encouraged to inculcate and reinforce positive values, starting with young children. These attributes include a strong work ethic, honesty, tolerance, respect for authority, punctuality, and pursuit of excellence. These are the intangible characteristics of a high-quality workforce.” Massive investments are required for building educational infrastructure, and in addition to soft skills, the development of critical future skills includes job-specific digital skills, job-neutral digital skills, and ancillary skills related to manufacturing.

Reports on graduate employability in Kenya, as elsewhere across East Africa and the continent, show that there are glaring mismatches between what universities are producing and what the economies need, resulting in graduates spending years “tarmacking” ( a term used in Kenya to refer to the unemployed and underemployed). In fact, in much of Africa, graduate unemployment and underemployment tends to be higher than for secondary school and vocational college graduates. According to one report, a survey by the Federation of Kenya Employers laments, “at least 70 per cent of entry-level recruits require a refresher course in order to start to deliver in their new jobs.” Further, it notes a study by the Inter-University Council for East Africa that “shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63 per cent of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61 per cent of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55 per cent and 52 per cent of graduates respectively were perceived to not be competent. In Kenya, 51 per cent of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.”

The conundrum African countries face is that they have low levels of tertiary enrollments, yet their graduates have limited employability opportunities. In 2017, the gross enrollment ratio of Kenya stood at 11.7%, which was below the African average of about 14%, but above the sub-Saharan average of 9%. North Africa accounted for 45% of all African students in tertiary institutions, giving the region an enrolment ratio of 34%, just below the world average ratio of 38%. The enrolment ratio of high income countries was 77%, for middle income countries 52%, and lower middle income countries 24.4%. The enrolment ratios for South Korea and Singapore were a staggering 93.8% and 83.9%, respectively. Kenya hopes to reach a gross enrolment ratio of 15% by 2030. Essential employability qualities (EEQ) go beyond subject knowledge and technical competence.

Reports on graduate employability in Kenya, as elsewhere across East Africa and the continent, show that there are glaring mismatches between what universities are producing and what the economies need, resulting in graduates spending years “tarmacking”…

Acquisition of soft skills is paramount. Graduates with EEQ are good communicators, critical thinkers and problem solvers, inquirers and researchers, collaborators, adaptable, principled and ethical, responsible and professional, and continuous learners. Cultivation of employability skills raises questions about curriculum design, assessment, and teaching methods. It entails the intersection of the classroom, campus, and community as learning spaces for a holistic educational experience.

The classroom requires a transforming pedagogy, adequate learning resources, curricular relevance, balance between theory and practice, passionate and enthusiastic teachers with high expectations, and motivated students. The campus needs robust career services, extra-curricular activities, student engagement, employer involvement, and innovation incubators. And the community contributes through the provision of internships and service learning opportunities.

Low R&D levels

The second mission of universities, through which they make invaluable contributions to the economy and society, is knowledge production through research and scholarship. The low levels of research and development (R&D) among African countries are well known. On average African countries spend 0.5% of their GDP on R&D, compared to a world average of 1.7%, and account for less than 1.5% of global R&D expenditures. Unlike other world regions, much of the R&D in Africa comes from foreign agencies and foundations, not national governments and the local private sector.

Other research indicators are no less disconcerting. According to UNESCO’s Science Report: Towards 2030, in 2014 Africa accounted for 2.4% of the world’s researchers (compared to 42.8% for Asia, the world’s highest), and 2.6% of research publications (compared to 39.5% for Asia, also the world’s highest). The other glaring challenge of research in African countries and universities is its external orientation in terms of focus and outlets. While the world average of publication with external authors was 24.9%, for Africa it was 64.6%

(compared to 26.1% for Asia). Thus, like our dependent economies, African scholarship suffers from what I call epistemic extraversion. No wonder the rankings of African universities are the lowest in the world.

Kenya spends about 0.8% of its GDP on R&D, which is among the highest on the continent. The country’s research output is also relatively high compared to other African countries. In 2018, citable documents per one million inhabitants was 565.1, higher than Ghana’s 565.1, and Nigeria’s 366.2, but far below South Africa’s 4,233.5. Much of this research comes from the numerous research agencies and networks located in Kenya and a few universities.

According to UNESCO’s Science Report: Towards 2030, in 2014 Africa accounted for 2.4% of the world’s researchers (compared to 42.8% for Asia, the world’s highest), and 2.6% of research publications (compared to 39.5% for Asia, also the world’s highest).

It is critical for African countries and universities to develop effective research policies, and support and reward systems. Also critical is promoting modalities of research collaboration that are transformative in terms of interdisciplinarity, interprofessionalism, and internationalization. No less important is ensuring a productive balance between pure and applied research, and addressing theoretical and analytical issues, as well as pressing challenges as identified in national, regional, and global agendas, such as Kenya’s Vision

2030, East Africa’s Vision 2050, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

In many of the developed and leading emerging economies, research grants constitute an important source of revenue for universities. It is also quite common for such institutions to have endowed professorships held by some of their most distinguished research faculty, which further brings additional resources and relieves the operational budget of significant employee costs. As far as I’m aware, endowed professorships or chairs do not exist in most African universities. Also, research grants that not only bring administrative overheads, but also supplement faculty income, do not constitute a major source of institutional revenues.

Clearly, Kenyan and universities in other African countries need to develop more reliable and robust revenue streams.

In the second part of this article, I will discuss the various revenue-generating options that African universities are or should be adopting.

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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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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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