Sustainable entrepeneurship in Africa: Africa might just be positioned to cope best in a resource-constrained world.

AuthorGallis, Helene

William Kamkwamba became an African entrepreneurship superstar when international media caught on to his exceptional engineering skills. In 2001, only 14 years old and with limited formal schooling, he managed to build a fully functioning windmill to provide his family with electricity, basing the construction on pictures found in books at the local library and using mainly scrap metal and wood. The Malawi native later drew international attention as a speaker at the inspiring online TED conferences, which led in turn to a coauthored best selling book on his life and achievements (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind). And he's still not coasting: William continues inventing and fundraising for various projects in his home village.

William Kamkwamba's story is uniquely inspiring. He stakes out a path that hopefully many will follow, both in developing and in developed countries. Most importantly, he represents an image of Africa and Africans that rejects the pity and guilty commonly invoked by most news stories out of the continent. In fact, he represents the opposite--and may simultaneously be offering solutions to poverty, degradation, starvation, aid dependency, and corruption.

But exactly how many clever entrepreneurs like him might it take to address the development needs of Africa, and would it even be ecologically possible? This question of scaleability is so important that it is worth looking into. William's fame--his NGO, his blog, sales of his book, plus a documentary due later this year--has generated funds to provide his village with wind and solar power, irrigation equipment for agriculture, malaria nets, improved sanitation, and wells for drinking water, among other things. Indeed, many of the development needs of the village's 60 families have been addressed.

However, these fantastic achievements remain drops in a vast ocean when looking at the country as a whole, not to mention the entire continent. Malawi's development challenges are immense. Forty percent of the population of 13 million live in poverty; 20 percent of children under the age of five are undernourished; adult illiteracy is nearly 30 percent; and an estimated 1 million are HIV-positive, to name a few. If the country only had a brigade of, say, 10,000 innovators and entrepreneurs just like William Kamkwamba who were equally successful at fundraising, Malawi's problems might be solved.

A Third Industrial Revolution?

The phrase "sustainable entrepreneurship" evokes a lot and little at the same time. Sustainability has become such an overused term that it barely has any concrete meaning any more. Entrepreneurship is a bit clearer: We envision a successful businessman owning his or her own company and achieving economic success through sacrificing blood, sweat, and tears. The fact that the term entrepreneurship is so closely related to conventional economic measures of success hints at how difficult it might be to combine the idea with true social and environmental responsibility. Entrepreneurship in its current meaning is a product of our current cultural paradigm, which holds that economic growth (measured nationally by GDP) is a sign of success and consumerism equates with wellbeing.

Efforts to spread sustainable entrepreneurship in developing countries (such as the train-the-trainer workshop "Smart Start-up: Sustainable Entrepreneurship in Africa," co-organized by the Swedish Government and the UNEP/Wuppertal Institute Centre for Cleaner Production and Consumption in April) focus on "triple bottom line" thinking. For an entrepreneur to be successful, he or she must take into consideration social, environmental, and economic factors in equal measure. However, training materials on sustainable entrepreneurship still mainly stress the potential for making a fortune, rather than on helping to heal the planet or contributing to non-monetary wealth of communities.


In addition, social entrepreneurship organizations, net-works, and funders have accumulated lots of related experiences over the last few years, but they still need to incorporate a deeper ecological understanding of working within planetary limits. The main difference in these approaches is the emphasis environmental concerns are given. Michael Voll-man of the social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka explains that, in their terminology, environmental work is one of six areas within which social entrepreneurship projects are carried out, as opposed to an over-arching theme in sustainable entrepreneurship.

And that means, in turn, that another trail must be...

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