Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Entrepreneurship

So I've been reading over this report on the state of Aquaculture in Malawi. While reading about the history of international efforts to promote small-scale aquaculture in Malawi I started thinking about how vibrant the entrepreneurship climate is in South Korea, my former home. There many, many, people ( I don't have statistics) either had their own, usually family-run business, were friends with people that did, or were thinking of starting one. And at least anecdotally many of these people I met had, I judge, "good heads" for business and a willingness to work hard and sacrifice in the short-term in hope of long-term success. I greatly admired this about many Koreans and still do. However I also saw how often and quickly new small businesses in Korea failed. Most of the storefronts on one of the main streets of my neighborhood changed once or twice just in the short two years that I lived there. Competition is fierce in Korea and consumer expectations are very high.

As a small-business owner myself now I know what a stressful and difficult occupation it can be and am increasingly skeptical about the extent to which it is the ideal lifestyle for most people. Although on balance I am very happy with my life here on the shores of Lake Malawi I admit that most people would probably not choose to live as I do.

In Malawi I see a lot of keen entrepreneurs as well. My Tonga language instructor is one of them. Besides teaching my wife and I Tonga he probably has 4 or 5 other ways of earning an income that he balances on a daily basis. But here too, again at least anecdotally, I see most people who try to start their own business having a very rough time at it. The barriers here are usually insurmountable. Lack of financing opportunities, education, transport, materials, fuel, and electricity (just to name a few) are all major hurdles for any young enterprising entrepreneur.

Which brings me back to this status report on Aquaculture in Malawi. The report outlines how efforts to educate, finance, and in general support small-scale fish farmers in Malawi have met with very limited success. During the 70s and 80s this lack of success was blamed on, among other things, a centralized and "top-down" approach to technical assistance. Since the 90s that approach has been abandoned but other challenges, mostly to do with the extreme poverty of the fish farmers themselves, have led to sub-optimal outcomes.

The report also briefly details the efforts of a couple private companies that have started aquaculture businesses though frustratingly it doesn't state whether or not they are profitable. It also talks about how, in regards to cage-style aquaculture, there is insufficient legislation to guide potential investors in it.

The report is emphatic, however, that the demand for fish in Malawi is very much higher than the current supply can keep up with. And so my question is, given that no local company, of whatever-scale, has managed to establish itself and meet this demand after 40 years of international assistance, why has the Malawian government not attempted to create adequate incentives and legislation whereby a large-scale international aquaculture company could establish itself in Malawi, create jobs for Malawians, and meet the market demand for fish?

Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur. But most people still want a job. In an increasingly globalized world, I worry about the extent to which international aid efforts to promote small-scale entrepreneurship in African countries, whether in aquaculture or elsewhere, have shifted African governments' attention too much away from creating institutional and legal environments that are attractive to international companies that could provide real jobs and real services to people who desperately need them in African countries.


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