Township entrepreneurship is growing in South Africa. With unemployment levels climbing through the roof, township residents have to find other ways to make ends meet. Many turn to entrepreneurship in one form or another. Some might set up a shoe-shining stall at the local mall; others might travel up and down the metro train lines selling any manner of goods—veggies, water, sweets, etc. Others, like Marcia, featured in this month’s video, will scrape together what resources they have to set up a formal business.
I have participated in dozens of workshops, discussions, and meetings focused on the potential of entrepreneurship to make a significant dent in poverty and unemployment levels. We talk about social entrepreneurship, impact investing, corporate social responsibility as the wave of the future, the key to lifting millions, even billions, out of poverty. We spend much time and effort designing programs to help small businesses become investor ready, and we help would-be entrepreneurs to define and refine their ideas and transform them into business plans that will help solve the world’s most pressing problems. The primary goal of these programs and initiatives often is to scale up: Can this business model, when implemented, grow to such a point that it can be replicated in other areas or industries? Will it yield enough revenue and profits to attract more and bigger investors? Will it solve a social or economic problem in a way that can be replicated elsewhere?
I come away from these discussions with one set of questions at the top of my mind: Is scaling up the only sign of success, the only way to access that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Should we push every potential entrepreneur to develop a detailed business plan that outlines their plans to scale? What about the people who have no way of scaling up?
Of course, we want to drive economic growth in our communities, especially in townships that have been overlooked and underserved for generations. We want to identify and encourage those with the vision and guts to go for the gold. We want to support them, invest in them, stand by them, help pick them up when they stumble. We want to make sure they make it, damnit, because our future depends on them, and we have far too few role models, as it is. Their success is our success.
Not everyone will make it to this level, though. I would even argue that not everyone necessarily wants to make it to this level. Some people would be satisfied—and find dignity in—selling veggies on the side of the road, or shining shoes, as long as they earn enough to care for their families and create a future for their children.
Not every entrepreneur, whether operating formally or informally, will grow significantly enough to draw the attention of investors. Many will have ideas or business plans that are too small in scope, or lacking in sophistication and scalability.
What happens to these small-scale entrepreneurs? They are a key part of the economic engine as well. How do we care for them? How do we find ways to support them, whether they choose to go for the gold or not? How do we respect and stand by their definition of success, rather than imposing a narrow and rigid set of external requirements?
What are the parameters that can be set up to protect these entrepreneurs and enable them to achieve their goals? What about scaling across, rather than scaling up? By this I mean helping to create or strengthen networks across the geographic or activity area, where small-scale entrepreneurs can join forces and support each other towards economic stability.
Let’s work towards bringing visibility to these small-scale entrepreneurs.