Is American Literature Suited for African Entrepreneurs?

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Most of us know, or have at least heard of popular business books. Books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad; Steve Jobs, The Lean Startup, Think and Grow Rich, Good to Great and I’m sure I have missed a few which you have thought of. But what do all these popular books have in common… the geographic region where their stories are based. Is American literature relevant to African entrepreneurs?

I came across an article in African Business that quoted Nigerian billionaire, Tony Elumelu, as saying “We have the raw talent. But doing business in Africa is different from doing business in China, doing business in America. The kind of literature they read… we should have literature about African businesses. We should have case studies about African business… what did they do that makes them successful? what did they do that makes them fail?”1

This was a timely article for me because I had just reviewed a book called the Startup Playbook by David S. Kidders and had similar thoughts. The book is composed of 41 entrepreneurial greats in USA such as Chris Anderson (Ted Talks), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Tony Hsieh (Zappos) and Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX) who tell their stories and give advice to up and coming startups. Although the book presents the advice according to consistent business components such as hiring, firing, leadership and culture, I couldn’t help but wonder how relevant it is for a typical African entrepreneur.

Lets look at some major differences between doing business in Africa and the rest of the world. Due to our skills shortage, as a startup, you’re almost always looking to train new employees rather than find people with the relevant credentials, let alone poach talent from a major competitor. If entrepreneurs are not taught to work with what they have instead of waiting for MBA candidates, their businesses will go under while they wait.

Related: Precious Talent

Countries such as Egypt, Malawi, Kenya and South Sudan are heavily dependant on the government as an employer, the South African government is the single largest employer, employing 23% of those working compared to countries like Singapore, Japan and Taiwan that employ less than 10%2. The reliance on government for employees gives an idea as to why government contracts and “tenderpreneurship” is such big business.

Then there’s the monster of finding funding and taking advantage of opportunities in our large informal sector which contributes 80% of labour and 55% of the GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa3. Considering those major differences, it would be great to have an African Startup Playbook that would advise entrepreneurs on recruitment, how to get funding, provide tips on tenders and the like.

But the issue is not about the presence(or lack thereof) of African literature but the quality. I  have read a few such books but whether it was the standard, the relevance or the lack of research, none of them stood out except Moky Makura’s Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs. The unfortunate truth is that even though we want to support African authors, they are still competing with trailblazers like Malcolm Gladwell and Peter Thiel and if their work does not exceed that standard we will long for an African Startup Playbook.

Guest, P., 2015, Tony Elumelu’s advice to entrepreneurs: WORK HARD, African Business, May, p. 25.

Mills, G., 2014, Why States Recover, Pan Macmillan South Africa, Johannesburg

African Development Bank, Recognizing Africa’s Informal Sector, viewed 20 May 2015, from http://www.afdb.org/en/blogs/afdb-championing-inclusive-growth-across-africa/post/recognizing-africas-informal-sector-11645/

Nthulane Makgato

Founder and Director

Red Case

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