Entrepreneurial successes of different individuals acting in ways beneficial to them, which also positively affects others drive societies prosperity. Outstanding examples relevant for the prosperity creation of the African continent are the various enterprise clusters that spontaneously emerged and which provide hundreds of millions of employment opportunities with no discernible role by the state. Governments role at best was constraining on the freedom required by these individual actors to unleash maximum entrepreneurial innovation. It is only recently when it has become apparent that some of these enterprise clusters are successful that the state is beginning to find a role for itself in the process. In Nigeria, a few such examples include the Nnewi automotive spare parts industrial cluster, the Aba footwear and garment industries, the Otigba computer hardware cluster, and Nigeria’s Nollywood film industry. These enterprise groupings agglomerated spontaneously with no help from the government.
In most cases, they were individual self-starters and entrepreneurs that came together to reduce the costs of transacting their businesses as well as leverage the knowledge, and other assets that they possess individually. They are considerably interdependent on one another, shared experience and additional associated business costs. All of these enabled them to reduce the individual costs of running their enterprises and consequently be price and quality competitive.
The Aba footwear and garment industries, for instance, dominate the business environment. Entrepreneurs in the industries created the dominant business culture and values of the average person from that area. For example, children typically grow into shoemakers and tailors without going through any formal training for them. Making shoes and garments to the people living in the environment is like kids that grew up in riverine areas catching fish. The industry has also created embedded value chains that fortify the dynamic interdependency of individual economic actors. With Nnewi, the values of personal achievement are well pronounced. It has the highest concentration of dollar-denominated billionaires than any other community in Africa. Nnewi alone has over 30% of the entire billionaire population in Nigeria. Within this small community, there are no fewer than 50 of them. That is the power of entrepreneurship, predicated on the philosophy of individual freedom and achievement.
Most founders of businesses and entrepreneurs focus almost entirely on the accomplishment of their individual goals and objectives. Self-interest priorities are always the critical engine. Even when such profit-minded people come together to set up businesses, there appears to be a strong underlying entrepreneurial individualism pursued by each one of them. Self-interest always resonates strongly. No wonder, therefore why we have more individual owners of businesses, particularly at startups than collectively owned enterprise operations. These individuals, though, are not necessarily atomistic in their activity. They do not see themselves as operating by themselves and for themselves only. They perceive themselves as a part of a system of other individuals that are working assiduously to promote their self-interests within the framework of freedom and culture of self-achievement.
Entrepreneurial individualism, therefore, is the philosophical fuel for the prosperity of society. Society prospers better when there are lots of profitably performing business enterprises. The more ubiquitous the number of well-performing businesses are, the better the prospects for more job opportunities, consumable outputs, income usable by households for healthcare, education and other sources of well-being. The reverse is usually the case. A fewer number of profitable enterprises leads to higher levels of unemployment and income. These businesses, in turn, are primarily driven by entrepreneurs who are interested in maximizing their interests. In the absence of the cultural values of self-achievement, there will be lower levels of entrepreneurial intention. More people want to get a job to do to satisfy their wants and needs, which are almost always at the individual level. It is, therefore, the value of self-achievement that pushes many to get entrepreneurial. The more the intensity of such cultural values of self-achievement, the larger the number of enterprises that create more employment, output and income that are the substructure for well-being and prosperity for the society as a whole.
Several value parameters lead to intensified entrepreneurial intention. All four deserve some attention as they appear to be more pronounced in Africa. These are achievement, self-enhancement, the celebration of success and belongingness. Although these four value parameters substantially intersect, they individually influence the decision of profit-minded persons to be entrepreneurially involved. A typical value in Africa, for example, is raising and maintaining a family. Young people transit into this phase with a lot of finance-demanding responsibilities. Therefore, at its very least, men and women and in fact, children all contribute entrepreneurially to ensure the success of the family unit. In modern times, fathers and mothers consider it a significant achievement to take good care of their children and ensure that they get excellent education and medicare. Meeting expectations at this basic level requires meaningful entrepreneurial engagement. The same applies to the pursuit of self-enhancement. Human beings naturally desire to move from one level of well-being to another. Recall the various hierarchies of needs by Maslow. These are physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Even within each of these stages in the hierarchy, there are lower and upper boundaries.
Transiting from the lower limits of each step to the uppermost limit can be quite challenging. Accomplishing it, therefore, requires substantial entrepreneurial intent. Likewise, the desire for a celebration of success involves the achievement of that success. Often, economic success is celebrated. People celebrate new cars, new houses, new certificates and so on. Men of economic and financial means are also always celebrated and envied. The motivation to be likewise celebrated spurs strong entrepreneurial intention. Finally, belongingness is a highly desirable thing which demands income earning abilities. Without income, it would be challenging to meet up with several social expectations that facilitate belongingness. Paying taxes, promptly paying utility bills, paying children school fees and so on are few examples of why earning income is necessary for achieving substantial belongingness. Belonging to desirable clubs and social associations equally demand some level of financial performance. These value expectations and desirables naturally drive individuals into higher levels of entrepreneurial intention.
Notwithstanding that the achievement of individual-focused economic interests is the foundation of entrepreneurial pursuits, these do not occur as individual acting alone. Individuals act within a system to accomplish this self-interested aim. They realize human interdependence and interconnectedness and leverage that in pursuing and achieving those objectives. That way, entrepreneurial individualism forms the bedrock for societal prosperity. As individual economic agents strive to accomplish the financial goals within an interdependent system, they unconsciously facilitate the actualization of the economic goals of other individuals who are equally acting in their self-interest.
The governments of African countries can leverage the lessons in entrepreneurial individualism to further the pursuit of prosperity. Anti-individualistic sentiments typically revolve around government regulations and their attendant political sovereignty clauses. Government regulations at a highly stretched level squeeze the individual freedom that is required to unleash entrepreneurship, and consequently the prosperity the society desires. The government should also ensure that entrepreneurs individualistic pursuits are based on the rules of fairness, transparency and justice. It should also provide opportunities for individuals with entrepreneurial interests to express themselves without unneeded barriers meaningfully. For instance, the Lagos state government substantially resisted the spontaneous aggregation of entrepreneurs at the Lagos computer village. Many of the young entrepreneurs that were massing together to share ideas, skills and innovations as well as exchange their trades were formally hounded into police detentions. The hostility was too much and included the bad branding of the entrepreneurs operating there. But these individuals were dogged and focused on the actualization of their self-interests. They bore hostilities with equanimity and forged ahead. Every other enterprise cluster in Nigeria faced some measure of resistance from the government. Some were direct, as in Lagos computer villages, while some came through infrastructural deprivation. By denying such enterprise clusters of critical businesses supporting infrastructures such as electricity, roads and water, the state would ordinarily expect this gathering of entrepreneurs to find it unbearable to continue. That was never the case.
Therefore, for the continents to take advantage of entrepreneurial individualism as a steppingstone to our much desired prosperity, the leadership needs to rework the cultural foundations which support that. There are at least three important considerations in this respect. The first is the promotion of the culture of self-reliance and liberty. The innovativeness and creativity of the individual rarely come alive in an atmosphere devoid of freedom and non-supportive of self-reliance. Upholding and implementing the rule of law is critical. Unfortunately, Africa harbours the most ineffective governance framework in the world. Corruption, insecurity and poorly executed democratic principles abound. These undesirable conditions foster atmospheres antithetical to the promotion of liberty and by extension, self-reliance. Such an environment – which is rife in Africa – is partially responsible for the low levels of entrepreneurial innovation and enterprise success that we witness within the continent. The second factor is the promotion of individualistically driven enterprise clusters. Allowing individuals with ideas to come together in pursuit of their entrepreneurial dreams will always result in prosperity-enhancing benefits to society. Consciously designating specific areas as enterprise hubs with pre-installed critical infrastructure will easily attract individuals with entrepreneurial interests to agglomerate, collaborate, cooperate, and innovate. Finally, there should be a substantial reorientation to a culture of individual achievement. Celebrating personal achievements will naturally activate the entrepreneurial intentions of many more people. The more of such achievement value appreciation, the more it redefines the culture along that dimension.