I have always wondered whether it’s possible for a person with a PhD in business administration, entrepreneurship or other related courses in business from our universities to start and successfully run a business. To frame it differently, can our universities (including the popular incubation centres) produce the future Chandarias and Kirubis? This question should be investigated by seasoned researchers. Nevertheless,my guess is no.
If not then, why (despite the so called state of the art facilities and “inspiring innovative” courses in entrepreneurship) are we not able to produce many seasoned entrepreneurs? I believe that we have not yet isolated the problem bedeviling entrepreneurship in our country. In fact, we have not correctly defined what entrepreneurship is and therefore what needs to be taught at the highest institutions of learning in order to produce successful business persons.
Entrepreneurship is neither business management nor business administration
Let me attempt to define entrepreneurship by negation. Entrepreneurship is not business management or business administration. This is because management or administration entails undertaking specific functions related to business. If you are good at keeping records, accounting, marketing or handling human resource functions, you are good at management or administration. That means you are a skilled business manager or administrator but certainly not an entrepreneur. Indeed, many high flying entrepreneurs have proved that these skills are not requisites to excelling in business since you can hire or outsource them. Yet this is what is exclusively being touted as studies in entrepreneurship in our learning institutions.
Indeed, when the institutions talk of innovative courses, they mean duplication of what is being taught next door with a few importations from other universities abroad. Our universities have no innovations to show in respect to the entrepreneurship courses they are offering. The courses being taught are similar in nature and of little practical application.
Very soon, almost all of them will be having “innovative” business courses, schools or incubation centres under all manner of creative names offering similar courses in business or entrepreneurship in the name of redeeming this country from unemployment. But are these courses not merely theoretical knowledge of particular functions of business operations and lacking in inculcating the entrepreneurship spirit? If not, where are the success cases? Can we claim that majority of those being churned out in disciplines like law, medicine and engineering are entrepreneurial?
Can university lecturers build entrepreneurship capacities of jobless youth?
The trend is not different outside these institutions. In both government and non-governmental agencies, preference is still given to higher learning institutions and their consultancy departments in awarding entrepreneurship training and development jobs that target building capacities of unemployed youth to start or run businesses. The courses thus developed and the facilitation methodology applied is purely academic and do not therefore impart the required skills. The main reason being that such trainers’ orientation is academic and does not have practical business experiences and skills necessary in entrepreneurship development.
In fact, how can you learn a practical skill from someone who has only theoretical knowledge of the subject? Is it possible for instance to learn carpentry, joinery or plumbing from a theoretical point of view and become an excellent carpenter or plumber? Or can you qualify to be a doctor without contact with cadavers and indeed real human body no matter how good your professor is? To frame it differently, what is it that the university lecturers can teach jobless youth in a few days that can transform them into entrepreneurs that they have been unable to teach their students?
Business mentorship or motivation?
Currently, the innovation in higher learning institutions and major agencies is business mentorship. The logic behind mentorship is that if individuals are mentored by a successful business person (either through apprenticeship or guidance) they are likely to become entrepreneurs. The concept has been used over the years and has been very successful even in Kenya. For instance, a majority of the local barbers never attended colleges to train for the skill. On the contrary, they have learnt the skill through mentorship and they are running successful enterprises.
For all purposes and intent, mentorship is a good idea but only if well executed. The main flaw in execution in its current format at our higher learning institutions though has been the choice of mentors.
These institutions pride themselves of attracting the “best” mentors in the country such as Manu Chandaria and Tabitha Karanja. These “life size” business luminaries are very good motivators but certainly not good mentors for start-ups or small and micro-enterprises. This is mainly because there is a great deal of disjoint between realities at the two levels of business. Since business is not an infectious disease, it is not the number of times which one comes into contact with extremely successful business person that lead to acquisition of the entrepreneurship bug. The rationale behind such an approach would be a justification that professors would make the best nursery school teachers.
Entrepreneurship is action based and so the best mentorship can only be through some form of apprenticeship. Mentorship at the stage of start-ups, micro or small businesses can therefore be more effectively done by persons who have recently graduated from a similar stage and so are able to relate their experiences within the reality of the said businesses. For instance, entrepreneurship at the start-up stage requires a lot of persistence and patience and who would be better placed to impart such a habit than the city hawker whose resilience despite adversities and hostilities in his business environment is incomparable?
Equally, the merchants hoping from one market place to another across the country selling their goods would fairly make better mentors as far as seeking opportunity and commitment to purpose is concerned unlike the successful industrialists whose current business role is at the strategic level as opposed to operational.
Entrepreneurship theory should target behaviour change
Finally, entrepreneurship is behaviour based. Therefore, it fits better in studies that target behaviourial change to align them with habits that can bring about success in whatever business one wishes to undertake. The subject therefore belongs more to the psychology school than to the business schools or at least to a combination of the two.
To develop a theory of an entrepreneurship course which can effectively be taught, we should therefore view this theory as body of strategies that would trigger behaviour change and that take into account the physical and social environments and their relationship to the intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational and community levels of human experience.
Development of such a course that would guarantee translation of graduates into practical business entrepreneurs upon graduation would be of major interest in the world and in particular in Kenya. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has gone to a great extent to develop such a theory and I happen to be one of the trainers in the course and research from countries such as Brazil. People who have gone through the course attest to the fact that they have experienced significant transformation into becoming entrepreneurial.
The writer is an accredited national trainer by both UNCTAD and ILO on entrepreneurship. Give him feedback on firstname.lastname@example.org or