Embeddeness in Context: reflecting on the “enabling” environment for youth agripreneurship
Entrepreneurship in agriculture is often touted as one of the innovative approaches to addressing poverty and food insecurity in developing and emerging economies. It is also considered a means out of unemployment for the rapidly increasing youth population in many developing economies. The challenge for entrepreneurs in agriculture, or “agripreneurs”, is to innovate and spawn ideas and approaches to spur on agricultural production to meet future demand; this challenge is particularly targeted at unemployed youth, who are expected to rise to the challenge not only of farming, but of being entrepreneurial. In recent years, we’ve seen the launch of several initiatives aimed at creating an enabling environment for youth to start enterprises in agricultural sectors (e.g. IITA’s Youth Agripreneurs), to increasingly use ICT in farming (e.g. ICT 4 Development) and to consider farming as an attractive and viable business and means of generating income.
The appealing narrative of youth agripreneurship
The appealing narrative of youth entrepreneurship in agriculture seems to take a foothold as it is increasingly championed by politicians, development organisations, and scientists. NGOs have equally joined in and started development projects involving business skills trainings and (micro-) credit initiatives. The presentations of such projects are often appealing and encouraging: young Ghanaian accountants swap their offices for the farm and a Kenyan strawberry farmer encourages more youth to take up agribusiness. For example, during a youth entrepreneurship session at the Wageningen University SDG conference, marginalized women in Ghana receive training and credit and turn this into a million-dollar company. With a closer look, these stories show that, contrary to the way entrepreneurship is usually portrayed, entrepreneurship is not as straightforward and certainly not easy in agriculture. The reality is rather complex and several caveats should be added to this positive narrative.
The most common interpretations of entrepreneurship have emerged from a predominantly European and American discourse. It is commonly portrayed as a solely economic phenomenon where proactive individuals identify an opportunity where the market fails and take risks by investing time and money in a solution. They have the skills to start and manage a business that usually focuses on making profit in order to generate returns on their investment. Initiatives to stimulate entrepreneurship therefore often aim at business skills training and establishing enabling markets for entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, this view of entrepreneurship suffers from an individualist bias, one where the founder has the agency to control their environment and plan their resources accordingly. Context is an understudied theme in entrepreneurship, although it has a major influence in emerging economies (Anderson and Ronteau 2017). The social context in which entrepreneurship takes place is a major determinant for new business development. This, for example, became apparent in the work done in Ghana by Jemima Afari-Kwarteng for her M.Sc. thesis at Wageningen University; she studied the interplay between the organizational structures of the Ayigbe community and individual entrepreneurship processes (2018).
Informal institutional barriers to (youth) entrepreneurship
Lately, development organizations and NGOs have started to work on entrepreneurship trainings and microfinance, and aim to overcome human- and financial capital constraints for entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, ‘many of these efforts may have attempted to “shoehorn” a Silicon Valley model of entrepreneurship into contexts where entrepreneurs are constrained from pursuing this western ideal’ (Slade Shantz, Kistruck, and Zietsma 2018:416).This approach, however, cannot be directly replicated in developing and emerging economies’ contexts. Angelique Slade Shantz and her colleagues (2018) studied the launch of innovative and imitative businesses in a rural isolated community in Ghana, and it becomes clear that entrepreneurship is as much a social phenomenon as it is economic. They found that collectivism and spiritualism have a major influence on starting a business, and whether this business is new to the community or imitates conventional business. There are informal institutional barriers in the community that stimulate confirming behaviour of its individuals and constrain innovation. In other words, as an individual you need to fit in with the group. And it can be argued that while the ones in more powerful positions may be more able to induce change, these are more likely the elderly with more agency compared to the youth. Powerful individuals such as the elderly are more likely to benefit from keeping the current community structures in place, and may therefore subsequently act and make decisions that perpetuate the current system.
Entrepreneurship in rural communities can be understood as creative (re)combination of resources (e.g. human, economic, natural, etc.) that creates value for the one(s) engaging in it. Yet research by Slade Shantz and her colleagues shows that those successful individuals in rural communities have an implicit social obligation to share their value with other community members. The collectivist system – characteristic of isolated rural villages – stimulates the sharing of wealth (i.e. returns from business). Since the revenues that come from the business need to be shared with others, it is hard to earn back the investments. Especially more innovative forms of entrepreneurship that are new to the community require higher investments, and therefore higher returns on investment, making it harder to sustain. The informal institutional barriers make it hard to engage in innovative entrepreneurship. It therefore does not come as a surprise that entrepreneurship in rural communities often manifests as low-investment and imitative entrepreneurship. Following from Schumpeter (1934), we can expect that the contribution of imitative entrepreneurship to the local economy is negligible compared to innovative entrepreneurship.
Spiritualism is another important reason why the western concept of entrepreneurship cannot be replicated directly as a solution to youth unemployment in isolated rural villages. Implicit in the western/euro-centric view on entrepreneurship lies the idea that success or failure of a company depends on the motivation of the entrepreneur and the product or service that they provide (Anderson and Obeng 2017). Yet, in isolated rural communities in emerging economies, entrepreneurs may think that a competitor is doing better because they have a shrine or other spiritual sources, instead of attributing their success or failure to one’s actions or decision. Similarly, in recent fieldwork undertaken by the OSMARE project 1, M.Sc. student Carlo Cucchi visited an isolated rural village in Malawi, and learned that it is common among dairy farmers and shopkeepers to believe that witchcraft is responsible for the success or failure of their business. These farmers and shopkeepers share their wealth to prevent witchcraft or get protection by reaching out to traditional healers. How an individual views the world around them, their experience, as well as the community in which they are embedded, has a major influence on entrepreneurship.
Key insights – and questions – that emerge from this:
- How can we create space for entrepreneurial behaviour (Hjorth 2004) in different local contexts? One where entrepreneurship should not be understood merely as an economic phenomenon but an equally social phenomenon as well. And how do we navigate (i.e. remove, change or work with) the informal institutional barriers that are present in social structures (Slade Shantz et al. 2018)?
- Development agencies, farmers organisations, health agencies, and other organisations that are well-embedded in rural communities should leverage their local expertise to critically reflect how entrepreneurship can be understood and applied in the local context for it to have desirable implications for the community members.
- We need to understand how initiatives for entrepreneurship can affect people differently. What are the effects if it is directed at youth, women, the powerful or the powerless? Can it provide equal opportunities for individuals who want to do something creative and innovative?
- As a diverse community in agriculture for development, we need to think deeply about the question: is this actually desired by people who would like to be entrepreneurial but do not have the space to start it yet? Or is it a new American or Eurocentric view on development aid where responsibilities for agricultural production and a functioning labour market are shifted from the traditional organisations to the “would-be” entrepreneurs?
- 1. OSMARE is an NWO-funded research consortium with partners: Adam Smith International; CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS); Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR); Vuna; Wageningen University & Research (WUR); World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and Zimbabwe Super Seeds. The project is studying how the organizational structures of thirteen selected business models in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania stimulate smallholder resilience to market, social and environmental shocks through Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA)-related incentives.