Stop Lying to Our Youth. Starting and Growing a Successful Business Is Hard!

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Article by: Kevin Doyle

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I recently came across a great article written by Henry Onyango titled, Let’s Stop Romanticising Entrepreneurship He observed what I have observed over the past decade or so working in the youth workforce development sector in Kenya: “It seems like everyone you meet nowadays either is or wants to be an entrepreneur in favour of being employed.”

Frankly, that notion has been driving me crazy!

Yes, let's stop romanticizing "entrepreneurship" and while we’re at it, let’s stop misusing the word itself.

An entrepreneur is more than just someone who starts their own small enterprise. An actual entrepreneur is someone who conducts business through the innovation of new ideas, goods, services, practices or procedures. Sorry, but reselling mitumba is not necessarily entrepreneurship. It is a micro-enterprise business.

Unfortunately, so many youth programs throughout Sub-Saharan Africa sanctify this misnomer of “entrepreneurship” as a major part of the solution to youth unemployment. For me, job creation and skill-building around the specific skills that industries need are the major keys to youth unemployment.

Yet in survey after survey of youth in Kenya, youth themselves have come to the belief that starting their own business is somehow easier than finding employment. Perhaps this is, in fact, a testament to how hard it is to find employment in Kenya? Sounds like that will be my next article.

While not to dissuade youth from the notion that business is the way to go, I just wish they knew how difficult it is to actually run a successful business, and it seems that few of us are willing to tell them. Or maybe they just don’t want to listen because they feel it is pretty basic and intuition will guide them. This is why we tend to see a lot of copycat businesses. It’s what I call the “If-my-friend-or-cousin-or-neighbor-or-classmate-can-open-a-business, then-I-can-too” syndrome.

Besides the obvious challenge of accessing sufficient capital to start a business and sustain it through its early months/years, the problem is that many youths who attempt to start a business lack the necessary, basic business skills.

Here’s a case in point. I met a young woman (pre-COVID days) who was proud about how much money she was making by travelling to Kampala to buy clothes there and then bringing them back to sell in Nairobi. I asked her what her previous month's profit was. She said something like around 50k. “Wow” I said. “Was that net or gross?”

She obviously didn't understand the question. So we sat down and I asked her how much it cost her to travel to and from Kampala. How often she went to buy stock. How much she spent on lodging and food. How much she spent on the clothes she bought. How much she spent photographing the items to market, etcetera, etcetera. In the end, after listing and adding up all of her expenses, she profited about 8k, which is not so bad when you compare it to the average wages of a labourer in Nairobi.

I then asked her how many days she spent on her business and the average number of hours per day. I then asked her if her business was registered and if she paid taxes. When she started thinking about all this she got depressed, but said that she was proud to be “a hustler”. I congratulated her on her "hustleness", but then advised her on how she could do much better by 1) learning some basic business accounting, 2) studying her market to better understand their needs and their disposable income limits, etc., 3) studying her competition to see where there are opportunities that were not being fulfilled and 4) making a business plan, even if it was simple, so she could make more of a profit.

She said she will try and see what she could do but then told me of another idea she had to open up an alcohol delivery service from her apartment. All she needed was about 75K to get the five or so licenses she needed, not to mention additional capital for stock. I await to hear how that goes.

A couple of years ago, Safaricom launched a program through their BLAZE initiative called, Be Your Own Boss. While I am a big fan of the program in general and have a ton of respect for what they are doing for youth, I also felt that the main message—be your own boss—was engraining itself on the minds of many young Kenyans in perhaps a detrimental sense if the proper context wasn’t provided. While I understand that starting a small business is a dream of many, the irony of the program’s title is, of course, that many young Kenyans have never had a boss that they worked for and can't appreciate the challenges of working for a boss in a company setting. Hence, the idea of becoming your own boss is more than incongruous to the typical young Kenyan experience.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, young Kenyans have seemingly come to the conclusion that business is pretty easy and is very lucrative. That all they need is some capital and the rest is intuition. For most, starting and growing a business is not intuitive. It is extremely hard work. Business owners, I know work 18 hours a day or more. A large percentage of them, unfortunately, fail within six months or a year. Often times they fail due to things that are very hard to understand. National, regional, international market forces. Currency exchange fluctuations. Competition.  Location, location, location. Poor marketing. Not to mention bad decision making.

Who is telling our youth the reality that business is hard and that entrepreneurship is even harder? Let’s stop filling their heads with dreams without telling them the realities. And then let’s boost business skill development in our colleges and universities and TVET institutions. Think of the fundi you hire to fix your plumbing or electricity. Not only is he (or she, let me not suggest that all fundis are male) a plumber or electrician with supposed technical skills. We rely on that person to also have some basic business skills, which sadly, are usually lacking. They need to know how to estimate the cost of the job, how to create bills and invoices with actual receipts for parts and materials needed, and conduct customer service.

It is time to shed light on the real challenges of making it in business, and then help youth access business skill-building if we are going to keep promoting the notion that business (not entrepreneurship) can be a viable alternative to employment.