Entrepreneurship is a characteristic phenomenon of both democracy and a strong economy. Unsurprisingly, it was conspicuously absent in the apartheid era, stymied by the state’s myriad laws and restrictive regulations that enforced a command economy replete with deeply conservative banks, state boards controlling many commodities and an investment focus on primary industries and the export of unbeneficiated commodities at the expense of innovation in manufacturing and services. At the heart of it, would-be entrepreneurs in the black communities had the added barrier of apartheid ‘separate development’ social engineering to contend with.
At the dawn of democracy, the entrepreneurship landscape was barren – completely bereft of the legislation, training structures, venture capital, role models and cultural visibility required for entrepreneurship to thrive.
While the economy has liberalised considerably in the course of the past 30 years, opening up new opportunities, threats and risks, South Africa has not responded well to the challenge presented, particularly by globalisation. Abysmal economic growth, creaking infrastructure and pervasive corruption have limited progress, not only in dealing with poverty and its related social issues but also in developing and growing the economy.
Is entrepreneurship an economic magic bullet? Absolutely! There are three compelling reasons to heavily invest in entrepreneurship, and particularly, in entrepreneurship education.
First, with an expanded unemployment rate of 42,6% and youth unemployment reaching a terrifying 60,7%, the core goal of the government’s National Development Plan and New Growth Path is poverty elimination through job creation. Entrepreneurs not only create their own employment but often employ others, creating jobs at a relatively low cost.
Second, South Africa has been described as the most unequal country in the world, not only in terms of income disparities, but also reflected in the disparity between first-world standards and infrastructure in the cities and third-world conditions in smaller towns and communities. Entrepreneurship is most likely to thrive in poorer communities where gaps in services and commodities usually provided by government and formal businesses present opportunities for start-ups.
Third, South Africa’s formal education system has been, and still is, structured on the assumption that its primary purpose is to produce learners with the knowledge and skills required by the formal economy. Our unemployment figures provide ample evidence that the education system is failing to serve this primary purpose. It seems obvious that equipping learners with entrepreneurial skills, knowledge and mindsets will enhance their opportunities for post-school employment and creating self-employment.
Until recently, entrepreneurship hardly featured in the school curricula. A watershed moment was when the Department of Basic Education (DBE) launched its Sector Plan on Entrepreneurship in Schools in January 2018. The plan (also known as E-cubed) commits the DBE to implement entrepreneurship education throughout the basic schooling system. In a wider commitment, the meeting of the BRICS Ministers of Education in July 2023 included entrepreneurship development as one of eight thematic areas for developing education, binding BRICS members to strengthen entrepreneurship development at all levels of education and training and to produce learners equipped for the ‘changing world of work and equitable social justice’.
Ahead of its time, the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation has been identifying and encouraging entrepreneurial talent for 17 years through its scholarship programme. Our innovative approach involves continuing to support our young entrepreneurs through the fellowship programme, as they transition to adulthood and higher education, so that they graduate from our programme with the necessary skills to start their own businesses. Indeed, a substantial number of Fellows have already established viable business ventures by the time they graduate.
More recently, we introduced the Allan Gray Entrepreneurship Challenge (AGEC), a game changer that is rapidly expanding its footprint to cover all nine provinces, with the aid of our partners SADC and the DBE.
Briefly, the AGEC is a 2D game-based programme to teach business skills and develop an entrepreneurial mindset in youth. Requiring only access to the Internet and a browser (through a personal computer or mobile phone), the game is run online over a two-month period annually, in separate versions for Grades 8–12 and Grades 4–7 learners. After signing up, learners are taken through the process of starting a business, learning how to choose products, buying and selling, dealing with customers, managing finances, etc. Although the game is a complete programme, teachers can opt to support learning through additional classroom activities. On completion, learners are awarded the Young Business Minds certificate.
Participating teachers also receive a certificate for coordinating learner activities.
Although the primary school version was only partially launched in 2021 amid lingering COVID-19 restrictions, the impact and rapid adoption of the AGEC initiative has exceeded expectations and opened up unprecedented prospects for democratising entrepreneurship education. The rapid take-up of the AGEC in lower-quintile schools (three-fold since 2021) proves its potential to assist our mission to democratise access in communities where quality education and opportunities are often scarce. With the full launch only due in 2024, our Gaming Network has shown phenomenal growth, boasting a staggering 27,693 members from various partnerships, representation from 2,251 schools, 3,222 registered parents and 1,519 registered businesses.
We are particularly pleased that the DBE has found synergy between our programmes and its E3 Sector Plan and that the DBE Director-General, Mr HM Mweli, has fully endorsed the AGEC.
Acknowledging our trailblazing role in youth entrepreneurship education, Maureen Modiba, DBE’s Director for Curriculum Implementation and Quality Improvement (GET), recently said: “The Allan Gray entrepreneurship programme nurtures the realisation of business skills and is aimed at promoting the entrepreneurial mindset that is needed, to deal with South Africa’s economic future proactively and positively. We must take advantage of, and use Allan Gray’s decades of know-how, experience, networks and partners in developing entrepreneurs from a young age, while they are still at school”.
In keeping with the ethos of our founder, Allan Gray, and our mission to level the educational playing field, we believe that the collective efforts of our partners and stakeholders, especially parents, school governing bodies, teachers, school managers and learners, will not only entrench entrepreneurial education in South Africa’s youth in the coming years but will actualise democracy in quality education and opportunities for all.
Only then are we likely to achieve the ultimate goal of spurring economic growth and job creation to improve societal resilience, individual growth, schooling quality and social equality.