Africa is undoubtedly on the rise. The Economist’s 2013 Hopeful Continent report identified progress in many key areas, including life expectancy, basic infrastructure and secondary-school enrolment.
But a continent of over 50 countries representing more than one-fifth of the world’s land area is always going to be challenging to understand and engage with. Even the UK – small and homogeneous by comparison – has its fair share of areas disadvantaged by the many complex factors that determine whether a community succeeds or not.
But this is where institutions of higher learning have a key role to analyse, assess and be active – not treating the continent as a laboratory experiment to be viewed with intellectual detachment but seizing the opportunity to play a crucial role in nurturing regional talent, building capacity and fostering innovation. This involves working with African universities to help them to build structures and approaches appropriate for their context and the future of HE globally. It would be unconscionable to unthinkingly replicate Western higher education models in Africa just as they are showing their limitations in terms of accessibility and affordability.
My own institution, Coventry University, already has initiatives under way focusing on enterprise and innovation, and we are planning to scale them up. Like many UK universities – and not just former polytechnics – Coventry was founded to meet the needs of local industry and the communities that depend on it, and we would like to help African universities do the same, building on what we have learned and what more we can learn together.
But this is not an example of us imposing our own agenda. Africa also has its powerful enterprising spirit, going back hundreds of years. Emmanuel Akyeampong, professor of history and African studies at Harvard University, and Hippolyte Fofack, chief economist and director of research at the African Export-Import Bank, pointed out in an article in The Guardian last year that when Portuguese explorers first arrived on the East African coast at the turn of the 16th century, they found “rich merchants” wearing “clothes of fine cotton and of silk and many fine things”.
Entrepreneurship remains far from absent in Africa, but it is struggling to address major challenges, such as the unemployment, deepening income inequality and sluggish socio-economic growth found in various parts of the continent. A new approach is needed.
Having been active in the field of entrepreneurship for 20 years, I am almost certain that activity focused predominantly on the individual entrepreneur or local region will not have the necessary positive impact on socio-economic development. Micro and subsistence enterprises are important for cascading wealth to the broader society, but small market sizes do not create sufficient capacity for wealth creation. It is important also to focus on building and maintaining a supportive ecosystem for transformational entrepreneurship. This requires entrepreneurship education and research into appropriate policy formulation in order to create mindsets that are both enterprising and law-abiding.
Coventry aims to contribute to all these areas as a founder member of a brand new African Institute for Transformational Entrepreneurship, due to officially launch in April. The initiative, set up with South Africa’s Stellenbosch University and Ghana’s University of Cape Coast, in collaboration with the Association of African Universities, will run a collaborative programme of education, research and practice-based activity.
Interaction with colleagues and participants in Africa will be through face-to-face workshops, research exchanges and internet-based tools; through its International Centre for Transformational Entrepreneurship, Coventry will maintain a virtual environment, allowing participants to interact on a continuous basis.
The institute will establish models that all African countries can adopt, expand and cascade. In this way, we hope to make our own particular contribution to propelling Africa into the forefront of new knowledge creation, alongside the very best in the world.
John Latham is vice-chancellor and CEO of Coventry University.