Africa’s potential lies in its social entrepreneurs — here’s how we nurture them

Across Africa, we have the opportunity to empower social and business entrepreneurs.

Across Africa, we have the opportunity to empower social and business entrepreneurs. Image: Getty Images

Precious Moloi-Motsepe
Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Motsepe Foundation
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  • Africa already has the largest youth population in the world.
  • By 2050, sub-Saharan Africa will make up almost all of the world's additional working-age population.
  • To harness that vast potential, the social economy is essential — and a huge opportunity.

Africa has the largest youth population of any continent in the world. It is projected that by 2050 African youth in sub-Saharan Africa will make up almost all of the added global working-age population.

Developing a deep, sustainable social economy on the continent is a key means of ensuring the hopes and the energy of this youthful generation are realised.

The strength of the social economy

Social economy organizations are often labour intensive, rather than capital-intensive. As such, they offer job creation potential that capital-intensive industries do not, and social entrepreneurship, with its twin focus on making a successful business and changing the world for the better, resonates very strongly with our youth.

With effective access to 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) technology and supported by a global entrepreneurial and investment community, Africa’s young people hold immense business and social entrepreneurial potential that can drive inclusive growth across the continent.

The best ways to grow an ecosystem that supports African entrepreneurs varies by country, but there are some lessons and experiences that apply in most cases and that need to be the focus of our efforts over the next decades.

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We need to ensure, firstly, that we get the basics right: investment and value for money are needed in health and education to ensure foundational capabilities are developed.

Young people in Africa rarely know any entrepreneurs, let alone social entrepreneurs, so they don’t consider this as a path for themselves; this is unfortunate because research emphasizes the important catalytic effect of knowing local entrepreneurial success stories. This lack of role models is doubly the case for women and girls.

We need to make entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship attractive for young, ambitious, driven people on the continent. This should start at school with courses that focus on innovation, technology and entrepreneurship where we nurture values such as creativity, problem-solving and perseverance.

Technology and social entrepreneurship

Technology is providing Africa with the opportunity to leapfrog its lack of traditional infrastructure — it must play a part. Technology provides information and capacity-building opportunities. It has become and will become even more of a tool for learning and education. Technology, used right, can offer commercially viable solutions to social challenges and allow up-scaling and global exposure through tech platforms.

However, digital access remains unequal in Africa and globally, and digital exclusion could be a key driver of inequality over the next decade: in the global South, for example, women are 50% less likely than men to be online.

African digital convergence will require active support for girls and women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. It will also require community networks and other methods of providing rural internet access, as well as policy and partnership measures that make data broadly affordable, compacts around affordability and use of data for education and health and context-specific technological innovation, incentivised through public and philanthropic support for young people with the appropriate skills and expertise in those industries that are growing and creating jobs.

Philanthropic support might best focus on addressing digital divides which exclude parts of a society or entire societies from effectively accessing the digital economy in most African countries. This could include inequality in access to digital infrastructure, inequitable data pricing and education systems where boys and young men are far more likely than girls and women to study in tech-related fields.

Partnering for Africa's social entrepreneurs

Thanks to organizations like the Schwab Foundation, the concept and potential of the social economy is increasingly being recognised in global and national conversations.

However, our societies continue to lack deep resilience and exclusion has increased in many countries over the COVID-19 years.

Reversals in the journey to gender equality have occurred, and many of those most impacted are the most vulnerable women in societies globally.

Effective measures to empower African women and girls remains a developmental win-win: there is no better value for money for our efforts.

Inclusion, quite simply, promotes innovation and cohesion. These, in turn, can drive growth and create jobs; this sort of virtuous circle is critical if Africa is to step onto a sustainable altered trajectory.

Supporting the social economy matters is essential from a gender equality perspective: many women are employed in it, for example in the care economy, and the shift in values it represents resonates with many women.

Mentoring and effective networks for young African businesswomen is essential: even favourable policy tools, such as preferential public procurement for women-owned social enterprises, can fail if the process of qualifying is too onerous, and if the information available about the opportunities does not reach the intended groups.

One of the main things the Motsepe Foundation has learned is the value of partnership and collaboration. That’s why organizations like the Schwab Foundation — which has been harnessing the power of partnership and knowledge sharing for 25 years — are so important.

Through meaningful collaboration, we can unlock Africa’s social economy potential. Doing so wouldn’t just be good for Africans — it would be good for the whole world.

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