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The Crisis Facing Higher Education and What Can Be Done About It

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The financing of higher education is becoming an issue of grave concern to policymakers. How can universities provide high-quality education and student support in an era of tight or declining resources? What changes are required to adapt to the disruptions caused by the digitised economy?

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Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities
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In a wide-ranging presentation at a conference held in Nairobi on May 6, 2019, and convened by the World Bank and Kenya’s Ministry of Education, Dr. Jamil Salmi reminded his audience that there are five major funding sources for universities: government subventions, tuition fees, institutional income generation activities, donations, and loans. He noted that effective resource mobilisation requires promoting efficiency, responsiveness and innovation. This entails adhering to several key principles, such as alignment to national priorities, performance orientation, equity, objectivity and transparency, multiplicity of instruments, institutional autonomy and accountability.

Building on Salmi’s observations, a World Bank report, Improving Higher Education Performance in Kenya: A Policy Report, published in August 2019, argues these principles can be realised by the Kenyan government through the introduction of “a combination of performance-based budget allocation mechanisms that would provide financial incentives for improved institutional results and better alignment with national policy goals. Policy makers may consider the following three types of innovative allocation mechanisms, separately or combined, to achieve this purpose: (a) funding formula, (b) performance contracts, and (c) competitive grants.”

The report proposes that the performance contracts and competitive funds should be open to both public and private universities. “Rather than continuing to allocate annual budgets to the public universities on the basis of history…[p]ositive experience in countries as diverse as Chile, China, Egypt, Indonesia, and Tunisia has shown the ability of competitive funds to help improve quality and relevance, promote pedagogical innovations, and foster better management, objectives that are difficult to achieve through funding formulas.”

Africa Economic Outlook 2020, an African Development Bank report, makes similar recommendations. Improving learning outcomes and skills development entails increasing spending per student across Africa, which remains the lowest in the world. Governments are encouraged to adopt performance-based financing and to improve aid targeting. Also, they should facilitate philanthropic financing of private education, develop the student loan market, and effective cost-sharing mechanisms. Further, they ought to promote education-linked conditional cash transfers to girls and poor families, and explore innovative finance options to channel more international private capital into education.

The report notes that the private sector underinvests in skills and urges it to complement government funding in promoting high quality education and reduce the skills gaps they bemoan so much about. It urges the development of public-private partnerships that “enable the government and the private sector to join in providing education infrastructure, products, and services and in sharing costs and resources.”

The report also challenges African schools and universities to “mobilise funds through alumni associations. Dues and donations can be used to improve the school’s facilities and curriculum and provide financial support to members of disadvantaged groups. Alumni associations could also be deployed to lobby governments for more effective education policies.”

Public support for higher education has been declining in many countries around the world. In my book, The Transformation of Global Higher Education, 1945-2015, I note in a chapter on university financing around the world that “out of the 122 countries that had data on government expenditure on education in general as a share of GDP between 2000 and 2013, it rose in 83 countries and fell in 39 others…In terms of expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of total government expenditure, between 2000 and 2013, it rose in 58 countries and fell in 34.”

Digging deeper into the global data on expenditure on higher education, I show that “out of the 95 countries for which data was available covering the 2000–2013 period, government expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of its expenditure on education rose in 62 and fell in 33…Europe claimed the largest number of countries that experienced a rise (19), and Africa those that fell (12)…The patterns in Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean fell in between those in the African and European regions.”

Public support for higher education has been declining in many countries around the world. In my book…I note…that “out of the 122 countries that had data on government expenditure on education in general as a share of GDP between 2000 and 2013, it rose in 83 countries and fell in 39 others…

Declines in public funding led to the development of cost-sharing. In my book, I identify five forms of cost-sharing: i) he introduction or imposition of sharp increases in tuition fees; ii) the establishment of dual-track tuition fees for different groups of students; iii) the imposition of user charges for services that were previously free or heavily subsidised; iv) the reduction in the value of student loans, grants, and other stipends; and v) the diminution in the size of the public sector and official encouragement of the expansion of tuition-dependent private institutions, both non-profit and for-profit.”

Dual-track tuition fees were widely adopted in East Africa, and pioneered by Makerere University. This is what came to be called parallel programmes in Kenya, in which government-sponsored students were charged lower tuition fees and self-sponsored students paid much higher rates. In effect, the latter subsidised the former. This model collapsed from 2016 as the number of qualifying students in the KCSE examinations fell drastically and the market for self-sponsored students evaporated overnight. This is at the heart of the financial crisis that has engulfed Kenyan public universities since then.

Declining numbers

Kenyan private universities have always been dependent on tuition, but in 2016 most of them opted to offset the declining numbers of students by accepting government-sponsored students when this option was made available to them for the first time. But it inadvertently ended up reinforcing their financial challenges, as the government student subventions barely covered a third of instructional costs per student, and sometimes even less. Thus, they, too fell into a spiral of severe financial instability. In fact, for some of them the situation became even worse than for public universities: none of their costs for employee salaries and capital expenditures were covered by the public exchequer.

Compounding the challenges of many students and universities is the absence of well-targeted and well-managed financial aid programs at the national and institutional levels. The World Bank report mentioned earlier notes that student support from public funds needs to be better targeted to those who most need it. It shows that the disparity ratio in Kenya between households in the highest and lowest consumption quintiles is 49, “meaning that a young Kenyan from the richest income group is 49 times more likely to access higher education than one from the lowest income group.” In this context, “It is safe to assume, based on the experience of other countries with similar characteristics as Kenya, that a larger share of government subsidies goes to students from the richer family groups than from the lowest socio-economic groups and that financing may still be a significant barrier for many needy students. The Kenyan situation is consistent with the extensive international literature showing that the cost of higher education is a deterrent for young people from low-income groups.”

Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities

Read Also: Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities

The report advises Kenya to consolidate existing bursary schemes under one single agency, to reform the tuition fee policy, and to strengthen the design and operation of the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB). A more effective tuition fee policy would entail “eliminating the present parallel fee system and move instead to a TFT [Targeted Free Tuition] scheme, following the example of South Africa. This would require shifting from a system of fee exemptions that benefit the most qualified students from an academic viewpoint to a system where the neediest students who qualify for higher education studies would not pay tuition fees.”

For its part, HELB could be strengthened on “three fronts: (a) better targeting, (b) resource mobilisation, and (c) improved loan recovery…HELB could revisit the weights assigned to each indicator to refine the instrument and give priority to low-income students. It would also be important to discriminate more in terms of giving larger sums to the neediest students compared to middle-class students. With regard to resource mobilisation…HELB should focus on seeking alternate sources of funding by delegating fund management to local governments and private companies.”

As for loan collection, “no matter what type of student loan system operates in a country, it is doomed unless its collection mechanism is designed and operates in an effective manner…In the past few years, the Board has invested a lot to boost loan recovery, notably by tracing loan beneficiaries through employers and statutory bodies such as the KRA, the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), and the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). To further strengthen loan recovery, HELB could work on improving awareness among loan beneficiaries and their families, introduce a system of moral guarantors, and invest in reliable ICT mechanisms to track graduates.”

The report advises Kenya to consolidate existing bursary schemes under one single agency, to reform the tuition fee policy, and to strengthen the design and operation of the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB).

The report also advises that it is critical to build an income-contingent provision in loan repayment schemes. It states, “International experience shows that income-contingent loans, designed after the Australian and New Zealand model, tend to have higher repayment rates. Not only are they more efficient in terms of loan recovery through the national tax system, but they are also more equitable since graduates pay a fixed proportion of their income and are exempted from repaying whenever they are unemployed, or their income is below a predetermined ceiling.” Besides government subventions through student aid, it is also important for institutions to build student aid capacities from their own resources.

Student aid

At American universities, this often takes the form of differential pricing, in which well-resourced students pay the full listed price, and more needy students pay a

discounted price. The discount rate can be as much as 50%, although a discount rate of more than 35% can result in financial difficulties if not backed by extensive additional institutional resources. For example, the College Scorecard produced by the U.S. Department of Education that lists some key data on individual American colleges and universities shows that the average tuition for such leading ivies such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton is $14,000, $19,000, and $10,000, respectively. In reality, in 2018-2019, the cost of attending Harvard for tuition, fees, room, and board was $67,340. Students from families earning below $65,000 pay no tuition, those from families with incomes up to $150,000 pay 0-10%, and there are proportional expectations from families with incomes above $150,000.

Similar schemes are available at Yale, Princeton, and many rich American universities. These universities are, of course, able to do that because of their huge endowments, which in 2018 stood at $39.2 billion for Harvard ($1.7 million per student), $29.4 billion for Yale ($2.3 million per student), and $25.9 billion for Princeton ($3.2 million per student). These endowments are simply unimaginable in Africa. The University of Cape Town, Africa’s leading university, has an endowment of 11.8 billion rands, equivalent to $786.5 million, which would not even put it in the top 100 universities in the United States in terms of the size of endowments.

Many African universities do not have their own institutional student aid programmes or fundraising capacities. Oftentimes student scholarships are from external donors and philanthropic organisations.

At my university, which is a notable exception in some ways, we have a fairly sizable student aid programme covered by the university operational budget that caters for hundreds of students every year. A feature of our student aid is a work-study programme. A few years ago, a group of students set up a scholarship fund called Educate Your Own that currently supports several dozen students. Our internal efforts are supplemented by scholarships from external partners as well as loan schemes with various lending organizations.

Many African universities do not have their own institutional student aid programmes or fundraising capacities. Oftentimes student scholarships are from external donors and philanthropic organisations.

But these initiatives are not enough to meet the financial needs of all students from low- income backgrounds. This is evident by the fact that some students who undertake

deferred payment plans are unable to fulfill their obligations and it takes the university years trying to recover the funds. Many others end up dropping out, which is a huge loss to them, their families, communities and society at large, as well as to the university itself.

Fundraising

As noted above, the third source of funding for universities comprises income-generating activities. To quote the World Bank report again, “While the potential for resource mobilisation is much more limited in developing countries than in OECD nations, Kenyan universities could actively seek additional resources through donations, contract research, consultancies, continuing education, and other fundraising activities, as some of them have already done since the government started reducing university budgets in the mid-1990s.”

But the report warns, “Not all sources of income have the same potential. Contrary to what is commonly assumed, technology transfer is not, on average, a highly beneficial activity from an income generation viewpoint. Even in the United States, which has a favorable policy framework for innovation and technology transfer, very few institutions hit the jackpot with path-breaking innovations that can be successfully commercialized and bring in millions as revenue.

At Harvard University, income from technology transfer licences is equivalent to only 1 per cent of annual fundraising receipts. “More important is undertaking productive activities. But all too often some of these activities may have little bearing on the university’s core focus and expertise. Renting out facilities is popular; some universities have even established petrol stations and mortuaries! More lucrative are grants and contracts from consultancies that bring faculty expertise to bear. Above all, in the United States and other parts of the world with robust institutional fundraising cultures, alumni and corporations provide the most important income generation sources.

Needless to say, fundraising is grossly underdeveloped in most Kenyan and other African universities. As I noted in a keynote address on advancement in African universities at a forum of Vice-Chancellors in Gaborone, Botswana in May 2019, effective fundraising requires developing institutional capacities, cultures, and commitments. Fundraising is a collective institutional enterprise that requires full commitment and participation of management, governing bodies, and faculty. African universities that are serious about advancement or fundraising must make the necessary investments in building their capacities in terms of databases, human capital, marketing and communications, mobilising and managing donors, and ability to run different types of activities, including annual giving, major gifts, and capital campaigns, etc. They also need to establish reward systems to incentivise those who attract philanthropic donations.

Typically, sophisticated fundraising operations require dozens and even hundreds of highly paid and specialised professionals, depending on the size of the institution. Institutional investment can range up to a quarter of funds generated through fundraising. Fundraising professionals are sorely lacking in African universities. Advancement is a long-term project and process that takes many years and even decades to begin bearing fruit. This is often not well understood among leaders and governing boards at many African universities. It is quite common at universities with successful fundraising operations for the governing boards to take leadership in working with the university management in the mobilisation of donors, and in their own personal philanthropy through give or get. In capital campaigns, up to a third can be generated by the governing board. Philanthropy in African universities is also affected by weak national cultures of institutional philanthropy.

Cultures for institutional advancement are also weak even among alumni, the source of up to 70% of external funds to universities in the United States and other countries with rich fundraising traditions. It is not unusual to hear alumni ask, why give when they already paid tuition when they were students? While the culture of giving is strong in many African societies, it tends to be limited to families and kinship networks. Public giving is largely confined to religious organisations.

When it comes to education. the tradition of giving has traditionally been stronger for lower levels—primary and secondary schools (encompassing the construction and maintenance of schools in colonial and postcolonial Africa)—than higher education because the latter was for so long dominated by the state. For higher education, giving is often confined to scholarships for family and relatives.

Some writers identify three types of philanthropy. One is horizontal philanthropy, which is largely peer-to-peer, focused on day-to-day subsistence and based on notions and expectations of solidarity, mutuality and reciprocity. It doesn’t necessarily increase assets, although it can mutate into community foundations. The other is vertical philanthropy in which the rich give to the poor and needy. This encompasses organisations that depend on resources from members or raised from other sources and which disburse funds to others. Finally, there are modern foundations, which first emerged in the USA in the early 20th century. These are often established by wealthy individuals, families, and corporations.

Philanthropy in Africa has been dominated by American and other Western foundations. According to the report by the Council of Foundations, The State of Global Giving by U.S. Foundations 2011-2015, international giving by American foundations rose from $7.2 billion in 2011 to $9.3 billion in 2015, and the average grant rose from $200,900 to $604,500. Health claimed the bulk (52.5%), and education received only 7.9% of the funds. US foundations giving to Africa between 2002 and 2012 almost doubled from 135 to 248. In dollar terms, the funding rose from $289 million in 2002 to $1.46 billion in 2012, given to 36 of the 54

African countries. Between 2011-2015 sub-Saharan Africa led with $9 billion (25.4% of the total disbursed globally), followed by Asia and Pacific $6.6 billion (18.7%), Latin America and Mexico $2.7 billion (7.7%), Western Europe $2 billion (5.6%), Middle East and North Africa $1.7 billion (4.7%), and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia $570.2 million (1.6%).

An encouraging development in Africa in recent years has been the growth of African foundations. Often patterned on Western foundations, they have been established by some of the continent’s wealthiest individuals and largest companies. Thus, the exponential growth of high net worth individuals (HNWIs), those with net assets of more than $1 million, has provide propitious grounds for the expansion of African institutional philanthropy.

According to the World Wealth Report 2018, in 2017 the size of HNWIs in Africa reached 169,970 with a combined wealth of US$1.7 trillion (0.9% out of the 18.1 million HNWIs globally and 2.4% out of $70.2 trillion global HNWI wealth). The leading HNWI regions were Asia-Pacific (34.1% and 30.1%, North America 31.3% and 28.2%, and Europe 7.3% and 7.8%, respectively). Predictably, African foundations are heavily concentrated in South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt, Africa’s three largest economies. Their current aggregate giving is $2 billion, typically in the $20,000-$25,000 range. They mostly focus on service delivery, poverty reduction, and infrastructure support. Education is low on their list of priorities, and higher education hardly features.

The World Bank report referred to above notes, “With a few exceptions, fund raising has not been a major priority in all Kenyan public universities until now, on the assumption that resources are limited throughout the economy and that philanthropy is not part of the national culture. However, international experience shows that, even in resource-constrained countries, universities can find a few rich companies and individuals— locally and among members of the diaspora—that can be convinced to make financial contributions to universities if they are approached and presented with good reasons to support the universities.”

Until recently, fundraising among European universities was also underdeveloped. The World Bank report continues, “Even though the economic conditions may be substantially different from those prevailing in Kenya, the fact that European universities are new to fund raising makes their experience relevant. The most important lesson is that success in fund raising is influenced by (a) the prestige and reputation of universities as proxies of their quality, (b) the existence of continuous relationships with different types of donors in the context of a solid fundraising strategy, and (c) the geopolitical context of the institution.”

“With a few exceptions, fundraising has not been a major priority in all Kenyan public universities until now, on the assumption that resources are limited throughout the economy and that philanthropy is not part of the national culture…”

Clearly, there is need for creating enabling conditions at the national level in terms of policy and legislation. As African governments increasingly recognise the important role philanthropy can play in fostering development, they are passing non-profit laws that affect the philanthropic sector. In Kenya, this includes legislation applicable to public benefit organisations (PBOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs), companies limited by guarantee, including non-profit organisations (NPOs), societies, and trusts. Tax laws make provisions for tax exemptions for PBOs and NPOs, deductibility of charitable donations and value-added taxes.

But according to a Kenyan expert on the subject, “The legal status of philanthropic institutions is imprecise and there are very few incentives for either corporate or individual giving…Of particular concern is the fact that there is no legislative mechanism to distinguish between philanthropic institutions and other civil society organisations, or to distinguish among different kinds of philanthropic institutions…For instance, corporate foundations and community foundations are in the same legal category despite their significant differences in goals, operations, and governance. The process of claiming tax exemption deductions in Kenya is rigorous, burdensome, and time-consuming for the donor.”

The financial and other challenges facing contemporary higher education around the world require universities to become more nimble, adaptable, and entrepreneurial by carefully balancing the enduring mission of higher education and the emerging demands and disruptions. They have to constantly review their value proposition, and the organisation and delivery of their core functions of teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and public service and engagement, as well as in the provision of ancillary and essential operations and services.

Disruption and change

In the 2019 Almanac of Higher Education published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a sponsored essay that notes, “The pace of change in the world and workplace is accelerating, and every industry, including higher education, is being disrupted. Disruption and change create new opportunities for entrepreneurship. Colleges and universities that cultivate a multidimensional entrepreneurial ecosystem can position themselves to thrive in a challenging and changing marketplace….Entrepreneurial leaders are nimble, opportunity-driven, innovative, problem-solvers, and growth-oriented.”

Five ways are suggested to develop an entrepreneurial university ecosystem. First, embracing experimentation and not being afraid to fail and learning from failure in a continuously iterative and action-oriented process. Second, creating a culture of inquisitiveness, innovative and critical thinking at all levels, and normalising transformational thinking by rewarding entrepreneurial managers, employees, and administrators. Third, encouraging collaboration internally by breaking silos and through strategic partnerships externally. Fourth, creating powerful lifelong connections and a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem that will sustain institutions, stakeholders and society. Finally, developing the propensity to recognise opportunities by paying keen attention to market changes and demands for new forms of learning and skills in the economy and society.

Financing higher education is of grave concern to well-meaning governments and political leaders, and university administrators and managers: how to provide high quality teaching and learning and student support services in an era of tight and even declining resources, in addition to promoting the two other traditional missions of higher education, namely, research and scholarship, and public service and engagement.

“The pace of change in the world and workplace is accelerating, and every industry, including higher education, is being disrupted. Disruption and change create new opportunities for entrepreneurship…”

And now there is a fourth mission that is increasingly emphasised—universities as hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship. Higher education institutions also have to increasingly navigate the digital disruptions of the 4th Industrial Revolution, changing student demographics, escalating national, regional and global competition, growing demands for accountability, and questions about the value proposition of university education from accreditation agencies, the general public, the students themselves and their parents. There are also governance challenges with the expansion and pluralisation of internal and external stakeholders in university affairs.

All these pressures are an integral part of the financial and structural crises facing universities. They demand clear and collective understanding, smart and strategic interventions, as well as creativity and imagination to turn the constellation of challenges to the flip side of opportunities. Universities are notoriously conservative institutions. Woodrow Wilson, who served as President of Princeton before becoming President of the United States, reportedly said, “It is easier to change the location of a cemetery, than to change the school curriculum.”

In other words, resistance to change in academia is deeply rooted. It is often bolstered by alumni for whom their college years are often imbued with wistfulness for their long receded youth. Nostalgia is a powerful human emotion, especially in times of rapid and frightful changes, but it’s no substitute for clarity of vision if universities are to survive let alone succeed in the 21st century with its massive and unforgiving technological, economic, political, social, cultural, and environmental disruptions and demands.

In short, the university of 2020 cannot be the university of 2010 or 2000, let alone earlier decades. It must be a university prepared for 2030, 2040 and beyond, duly mindful and prepared for the unpredictability of the future. We must create institutional cultures and mindsets of nimbleness, creativity, continuous learning and improvement, and data driven decision making.

Thus, lifelong learning is not simply an imperative for the successful students and graduates of the 21st century, but for the institutions of higher education themselves. Otherwise some universities, especially the weaker ones and those in poorer countries, will join the long trail of historical dinosaurs and relics. Remember Blockbuster, the video giant that didn’t see streaming services coming and was cast to the historical dustbin by Netflix? And Kodak, whose glorious supremacy in the photographic film market was upended by digital photography? Bookstores and other stores in city centers and malls were mauled by Amazon, and taxi and hotel businesses are being destabilised by online platforms. Higher education cannot be an exception. Indeed, as I noted in a plenary address entitled “The Challenges and Opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for African Universities,” delivered at the First National Higher Education Conference by Universities South Africa, in October 2019, the disruptions for higher education are already underway. This is evident in the emergence of new modes of delivery for teaching, learning and assessment. Also, universities are losing their monopoly over credentialing.

In a digitised economy, where continuous reskilling will become a constant, the college degree will cease to be a one-off certification of competence, and a convenient screening mechanism for employers. The unbundling of the degree is already underway with the rise of micro degrees, stackable credentials, joint undergraduate and graduate degrees, and the imperatives of interdisciplinary and inter-professional teaching and learning and qualifications.

Employers will increasingly come to use predictive analytics to identify and hire talent. They will demand life-wide and lifelong portfolios combining the 4Cs of contemporary education: the curriculum (class learning), campus (co-curricular activities), community (experiential learning and engagement), and commerce (skills and mindset for employability).

Financial resources and effective financial management are essential to navigate these challenges, seize the opportunities, and ensure institutional sustainability in a highly complex, competitive, and unpredictable world. The question is: How prepared are African and Kenyan universities and their numerous stakeholders for the brave new world of 21st century higher education?

This paper was originally prepared for presentation at Regional Knowledge Forum, Nairobi, February 17-18, 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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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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