African mass food markets – honing expertise in decolonizing entrepreneurship

In response to persistent criticism for producing job seekers not entrepreneurs, several African governments have been setting up centers of innovation and entrepreneurship at universities. While this is a noble cause, it has given the impression that entrepreneurship is something that can be taught in universities. On the contrary, the level of entrepreneurship happening in African mass food markets suggests entrepreneurship has very little to do with academic education or a university degree.

In fact, associating entrepreneurship with formal education is one of the colonial legacies that African countries should dumb as soon as possible. If formal education was the foundation of entrepreneurship, most university graduates should have become entrepreneurs. Instead, it appears entrepreneurship is a domain for school drop outs or those not academically gifted.

What is the meaning of knowledge if 70 percent of food is handled by the less educated?

The fact that more than 70% of African food commodities are traded in African mass food territorial markets by less educated smallholder farmers, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise (MSMEs) and low-income households, shows how agriculture provides entrepreneurship opportunities to the majority irrespective of level of formal education.  This is different from formal colonial systems which give the right to economic participation to the academically gifted at the exclusion of everyone else.

While African mass food markets have revealed their importance to the majority of farmers, traders and consumers, policy makers are yet to come along with appropriate support in the form of infrastructure and access to relevant finance. These markets operate 24 hours a day for the whole year, supporting millions of African populations as well as horizontal and vertical food and non-food industries. That is how these markets enable equitable development, allowing everyone to participate and minimize barriers to participation.

Addressing structural barriers

African mass food markets have become adept at addressing structural barriers like age, gender and access to capital which have been topical across Africa for decades. The majority of youths have been are sidelined by structures of the economy. Although some women voices have been elevated by donors and NGOs, most women would be economic spectators if mass markets did not exist in Africa. In the formal employment sector, advocacy has mainly been about women getting into high positions in corporate or national governance ladders like becoming parliamentarians, CEOs and other prestigious positions. Very little has been done to uplift women at the grassroots like those working in mass food markets. 

By embracing diverse marginalized groups including widows and the disabled, African mass food markets have been playing a massive role in decolonizing the notion of entrepreneurship which has been exclusive in trying to build an elite entrepreneurial class comprising people in board rooms.  Where too many barriers to entry exist like in the formal economy, with strong colonial roots, a lot of activities are considered illegal and that is why the more barriers to participation are prevalent, informal business activities increase in Africa. When African policy makers ask themselves why they have a lot of informal activities, an honest answer may point to too many barriers to entry into the few existing colonial industries.

Emphasizing work experience disqualifies millions of African youths from formal employment

A key question is how can African countries build their own indigenous economies specifically to address barriers to participation? If experience becomes a key requirement for 90% of formal work, as is the case in formal industries, it means a whole generation of youth is disqualified from participating in the formal sector due to lack of experience. This is a huge structural barrier in most African countries. Education is also becoming another structural barrier in formal African systems that are still stuck with colonial systems where academic requirements are considered the only determinant for someone to perform better ahead of other elements like natural talent, passion, background and many others.

From a recent survey conducted by eMKambo in big mass food markets across 10 African countries, less than 10% of respondents have reached secondary level education, differing from one country to another.  Less than 10% of people with no education up to primary level is working in the same enterprises as more than 90% who have reached secondary level as well as a significant percentage who have reached tertiary level. This shows level of education is not a barrier to participating in African mass food markets. On the other hand, formal colonial food industries only give jobs to a select few who will have excelled academically.  It follows that African mass food territorial markets are a typical example of an African ecosystem that is not differentiated by level of education. Unlike colonial industries, these markets recognize the importance and contribution of every human being to economic development. 

Fresh business characteristics

In ecosystems where easy of entry and exit becomes a key characteristic like in African mass food markets, business families and generational business pass-on becomes a key characteristic. This has become one of the key underlying characteristics sustaining African mass food markets.  Lessons from mass food markets can serve as a wake- up call for African countries to realize that it has taken decades for their economies to evolve from being labor providers to western industries in the form of being wage employees.

For decades, no opportunities were presented to Africans so that they start and run their own businesses due to the way the colonial economy was structured. The colonial system emphasized academic knowledge for specialized skills and labor in major sectors like mining, manufacturing and agriculture.  The participation of employees in economic activities ceased either after being fired, retired or upon death. Replacements were common from within families. There was no space for developing an entrepreneurial mind set within Africans among most African economies. 

But the collapse of western industries in countries like Zimbabwe has presented an opportunity for Africans to think outside the box. In recent years most of the retrenched and formerly employed have started converting their formal employment skills into their own businesses like food trading, carpentry, motor mechanics and many others. After realizing that their spouses are out of work, women started thinking of what they can do to supplement their husbands’ meagre incomes so they started getting into food trading in mass food markets. Due to lack of formal employment, youth have started to help their parents in family enterprises and eventually developing a passion to be part of business owners or family enterprises. All this process had its genesis in African territorial mass food markets which have become part of the entrepreneurial and industrial development process of most African countries.

Through territorial mass food markets, some family businesses are forging ties with other families and becoming a resilient business community where different actors play different roles and collectively contribute to economic development. It is this same principle of generational business pass on that African governments can use to develop growth pathways for territorial market enterprises, starting with developing markets linked to but having a different level to territorial mass food markets. For instance, businesses can play the purely aggregation roles for processing, others can develop and serve export markets but still with the same easy entry characteristics of territorial mass food markets. This is more inclusive than export industries which continue to be characterized by lots of barriers to entry against the majority of farmers, traders and SMEs who are driving African home-grown economies. / /

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