Are entrepreneurs born or made? A reflection on the African university system

The debate whether it is possible to “learn” entrepreneurship is endless, and, in my own opinion, somehow useless. I mean it is quite clear that entrepreneurship is a mix of hard skills and core traits of somebody’s personality, and while there are ways to transfer the former, the space for shaping the latter is much smaller. Instead, I’d like to reflect on how universities, especially in Africa, are disconnected from entrepreneurs.

It is a fact that, since their foundation (back to 1827 for Sierra Leone with the Fourah Bay College), universities in Africa have been conceived as mainly places to train State (initially colonial) administrative officers or professionals. Completing a university degree has been, since then, a way to become part of a privileged minority who could enjoy economic rents and privileges.

Entrepreneurship has been often left as a career path for those who could not afford to complete their formal education. This disconnection creates huge imbalances within African economies: the majority of activities are informal businesses, entrepreneurs launch “survival ventures” simply to make their ends meet. Petty trading, labour- intensive agriculture and services are fields where hundreds of thousands of women and men put their energies. I don’t like those who refuse to call them “entrepreneurs” reserving the term for Tony Elumelu or Aliko Dangote. Indeed, most of them have a strong risk-appetite and are animated by a sincere will of moving forward. The issue is that they are not in the capacity to receive external investment, to benefit from external investment or join global supply chains, nor can they leverage innovation to differentiate. Thus they compete on price, further reducing their profit margins.

Despite several attempts to address this challenge, African universities are still quite distant from entrepreneurs. Some just added an “entrepreneurship” course to the curriculum. Others started offering basic non-degree training to SME-owners. The choice of E4Impact Foundation, launched by the Catholic University of Milan with some top Italian company partners such as Securfin, MAPEI and Salini-Impregilo, has been to design a unique MBA to be offered to graduates willing to launch a venture.

The E4Impact MBA is focused on the participants’ business idea, taught with a blended formula (40 days in class over 12 months plus distance learning) and confers two degrees: from the local partner university and the Catholic University of Milan (Italy). By offering its programme within an alliance of African universities, E4Impact Foundation intends to scale-up innovation and best practices learning around the continent. The faculty develops joint research programmes focused on the specificity of SMEs and Startups in Africa.

Participants (with some years of working experience, either as entrepreneurs or managers) join an action oriented environment where linkages with external ecosystem are created through business competitions (pitching opportunity to local and international investors), business coaching (participants have an individual consultant at their full disposal to develop their Business Plan) and mentorship from well established entrepreneurs.

The E4Impact MBA is currently offered in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal training more than 600 entrepreneurs. Thanks to the contribution of the EU (Edulink-ACP), it has also been launched in Sierra Leone, in partnership with the University of Makeni (UNIMAK).

I had the privilege of following the first cohort and, despite all the country is facing, I am deeply optimistic about their role in creating robust businesses, that can employ people, effectively use technology and innovation as well as partner with local and foreign investors to move the country into the 21st century.

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Martino Ghielmi is in charge of the West Africa operations at E4impact Foundation. Previously, he has worked in Accenture Management Consulting and spent one year in Kenya in an entrepreneurship training program. Martino received his M.A. in African Studies at Università degli Studi di Pavia and a B.A. in International Relations at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. He is a rm believer in the role that Italian entrepreneurs (majority of them family-owned SMEs) can play in partnership with their counterparts in Africa.

Twitter: @ItaliAfrica

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