The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent government measures decreased the number of people who wanted to or could become entrepreneurs in Africa. At the same time, the crisis yielded innovativeness and resilience among new and existing business owners. How can entrepreneurs and policy makers turn crisis into opportunity, and build back better through entrepreneurship?
The global crisis affected entrepreneurs all around the world, and Africa was no exception. Much focus was on the negative impact of the crisis: several relief funds were released by the donor community in the global North to support African entrepreneurs in these difficult times, and the pandemic was dubbed a “gendered” crisis as women entrepreneurs were said to be disproportionately affected through the increased time spent on childcare and other unpaid care tasks. There was little space for discussing the resilience demonstrated by African entrepreneurs, and the opportunities Covid-19 unlocked. The four studies in the edited volume ‘Entrepreneurial Responses to Covid-19 in Africa’ take a closer look at these two contrasting effects on entrepreneurship and Covid-19 in Africa: crisis on the one hand, and opportunity and resilience on the other.
Entrepreneurial intentions go down
Although the impact of the pandemic varied greatly across the continent, African economies generally were hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent measures, such as lockdowns and market closures. Entrepreneurial intentions and activities had a broad downturn due to substantial risks on both demand and supply side. Entrepreneurs were forced to downsize or (temporarily) quit their businesses, while fewer novel entrepreneurs started their own companies. Those that did engage with entrepreneurship seemingly did so out of necessity. A survey conducted by Hanâa Benchrifa and Steven Kator Iorfa amongst Moroccan university students (chapter 1), for example, found that students who felt threatened about their future due to the lockdown and subsequent scarcity of resources developed more positive attitudes towards entrepreneurial activities – considering it as the only viable option in a depleting job market.
Students who felt threatened about their future due to the lockdown and subsequent scarcity of resources developed more positive attitudes towards entrepreneurial activities – considering it as the only viable option in a depleting job market.
On the other side of the continent, Magnus Godvik Ekeland (chapter 2) spent one year in a South African township during Covid-19 times to better understand how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the lives and livelihoods of young township residents. Specifically, his research aimed to uncover whether a government-dispensed Basic Income Grant would increase entrepreneurial intentions. Based on conversations with unemployed young men and observations on how they spent a temporary Covid-19 grant, Ekeland explains that entrepreneurial intentions are not likely to increase because of specific contextual dimensions. For these men, it was for instance less than desirable to become dependent on a (female) relative. This fear kept them from viewing entrepreneurship as a short-term solution to unemployment.
Entrepreneurial resilience and innovation go up
In both studies described above, entrepreneurship is considered second best to salaried employment in times of crisis. The final two chapters, however, shed light on a different outcome of the pandemic. These studies showcase entrepreneurs’ resilience in crisis, and the ability to come up with innovative solutions. When export numbers declined, Mercy Mwende, a Kenyan agri-business woman, developed a new product (affordable porridge) to appeal to the local community and diminish dependence on external markets. Mercy was part of a larger interview study conducted by Lotte-Marie Brouwer comprising twenty Kenyan female agri-entrepreneurs (chapter 3). Her chapter explores how these entrepreneurs demonstrated entrepreneurial resilience: “the ability of an entrepreneur to manage difficult personal and market conditions as well as destabilising events, and be future-oriented”. Short-term strategies included reducing costs and working side jobs, and long-term adaptation strategies were changing target markets and implementing digital solutions. For this specific group of entrepreneurs, the Covid-19 pandemic even provided new markets that otherwise would have been more difficult to enter as they would have had to compete with (Northern) imported products.
When export numbers declined, Mercy Mwende, a Kenyan agri-business woman, developed a new product (affordable porridge) to appeal to the local community and diminish dependence on external markets.
Similarly, two medical innovations from Tanzania and Kenya were exemplary of how innovative responses can offer coping mechanisms in times of crisis. Neema Komba and Chanyoung Park (chapter 4) show us that, rather than becoming paralyzed by the fear that was instigated by the pandemic, the entrepreneurs in these cases were able to ‘fight’ instead of ‘flight’, provided they receive proper support. This resulted in the founding of Tiba-Vent, a low-mechanical ventilator built by fifteen students of Kenyatta University in Nairobi, and the Cubic Bupiji Sauna – a steam inhalation treatment invented by George Buchafwe of Star Natural Products from Tanzania. The development cycles of these inventions were quite different due to differences in institutional or policy support. Whereas Tiba-Vent had to wait a long time to receive the proper certification, the Bipiji Sauna was endorsed by local politicians and public media instantly, and as a result the invention was adopted by hospitals a lot sooner.
From crisis to opportunity – three tips for practitioners
On the one hand, the Covid-19 pandemic decreased entrepreneurial intentions in Africa. On the other hand, entrepreneurs illustrated entrepreneurial resilience and innovativeness in responses to the crisis. Based on our findings, we end with three tips for practitioners who want to build back better through entrepreneurship.
- Design proper entrepreneurial education.
In entrepreneurship education, it is important to consider the different motivations students have to engage in entrepreneurship. Students who consider entrepreneurship as the only viable option because there are no jobs, are inherently different from students who are opportunity-driven. Benchrifa and Iorfa encourage entrepreneurship educators to design educational programs such that both groups of students are activated to effectively increase entrepreneurial behaviour.
- Take contextual dimensions into consideration.
Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes. On a continent with more than 50 unique countries, there are many factors such as gender, class, sector, and national context that play a role in how well entrepreneurs respond to crises. Whereas schemes such as Basic Income Grants might have been proven successful in other regions to promote entrepreneurial behaviour, Ekeland’s research shows that it is important to also consider local notions of personhood whilst designing these policies. Depending on contextual perspectives of for example masculinity and dependency, programs that are supposed to increase entrepreneurial behaviour might not prove effective.
- Foster entrepreneurial resilience and innovation.
Policy makers and ecosystem stakeholders have the potential to create positive framework conditions to foster entrepreneurial resilience. Brouwer, for example, demonstrates how the Northern donor community should be careful in approaching “African women entrepreneurs” as a homogenous group portraying them as “victims” during crises. Instead, they should analyse them in their specific context to uncover their particular needs while acknowledging their adaptive resilience. Komba and Park also show the importance of peer- and institutional support in fostering resilient entrepreneurial communities.
 Fatoki, O. (2018). “The Impact of Entrepreneurial Resilience on the Success of Small and Medium Enterprises in South Africa,” Sustainability 10-7: 2527.