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What Kenyan universities can do to expand social entrepreneurship

Social enterprises benefit entrepreneurs and communities too. Shutterstock

Universities are at the forefront of any country’s economic development efforts. They play an invaluable role in passing knowledge on to the next generation and creating new knowledge through research. Both these endeavours can set graduates up to contribute to their country’s growth.

In this vein, more universities around the world are paying attention to entrepreneurship education. The idea is that graduates with entrepreneurial skills may have a high chance of creating work and livelihoods for themselves and their communities. Some universities combine this training with their community engagement projects. In this way, students learn to be social entrepreneurs: people who can set up and run community projects.

A number of institutions nurture social entrepreneurship by setting up incubation centres dedicated to this work. These centres provide a platform where ideas are nurtured into viable business through expert mentoring; some help students access initial funding for their ideas.

This training can benefit a multiplicity of people. The students learn skills and can go on to create social enterprises that help communities or vulnerable groups. Some universities in Africa and around the world are deliberately adapting their curriculum to nurture social entrepreneurs at various levels undergraduate and graduate. They don’t just offer entrepreneurship training to business students. Instead, they work with undergraduate students across diverse faculties.

My colleagues and I wanted to know whether Kenyan universities were taking this or similar approaches to social entrepreneurship training. So I conducted a study, whose results I’ll present at the Zambia Association of Public Universities and Colleges’ conference in late April 2018, with eight of the country’s public universities and three government institutions. These were the Commission for University Education, Kenya Vision 2030 Secretariat and the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation.

I conducted interviews and examined policy frameworks, priorities, agendas and strategies related to social entrepreneurship training. The study found that all eight universities were working to develop and encourage entrepreneurship as a means of diversifying access to livelihoods. But most of these programmes lean more towards business entrepreneurship and have a weak social orientation. This is a shortcoming that must be addressed.

Business trumps social enterprise

All eight of the universities we surveyed offer at least one course unit about entrepreneurship. This suggests that Kenya’s universities have recognised how important such skills are. These courses are also very popular; there is great demand among students for them. This suggests that students, too, can see how vital entrepreneurship skills could be for their future in the world of work.

The courses in question are offered in a variety of ways. Some are for undergraduates; others cater for postgraduates. Some are full degree programmes and others are just part of other courses.

What’s missing is a focus on social entrepreneurship. The courses we examined tend to focus on developing entrepreneurs who can handle self-employment and create their own work. They had little or no focus on social entrepreneurship. This makes sense when considering the country’s broader policies on job creation and entrepreneurship.

Kenya’s economic blueprint outlines the commitment to creating an environment suitable for entrepreneurship and innovation through training. The intention is to equip learners with knowledge, skills and competencies so they can work and earn a living. Tellingly, social entrepreneurship is never mentioned in the document.

It makes sense that universities are taking their lead from government policies. But Kenyan researchers have, in the past few years, started calling for universities’ entrepreneurship training to shift its focus from the purely economic to include social responsiveness.

This is because social enterprises have the ability to bring change for the better by tackling social problems and improving the lives of individuals and their communities. They enhance growth by facilitating the flow of resources to where they have the largest economic and social benefit. This makes social enterprises especially suitable for developing countries.

Making social enterprises a priority

There are problems even where universities do offer social entrepreneurship training. The teaching methods used aren’t necessarily fit for purpose. Most courses that we studied for my research involved lectures and no practical training.

This flies in the face of the methods suggested by researchers to make social entrepreneurial learning truly valuable. These methods include case studies, role playing, project based methods and guest lectures by people already working in social entrepreneurship. Peer assessment and reflective accounts are also useful tools, but are largely lacking at the universities we surveyed.

Such approaches are important because social entrepreneurship training should blend traditional economic and business lessons with real-world practical experiences and challenges.

This is where dedicated business incubation centres could be useful. There are about 7 000 such centres worldwide; they are not particularly widespread in sub Saharan Africa apart from in countries like Nigeria and South Africa. And university business incubators are only just becoming more common in Kenya, so it’s difficult to quantify their achievements and measure their performance.

However, most Kenyan universities have some kind of systems in place – at departmental, faculty or institutional level – to support business innovation ideas. These focus on intellectual property units, innovation databases and the allocation of budgets for innovation. The innovations incubated through these systems over the past decade have addressed everything from agriculture and energy to water and sanitation. My study found that around 50% of these interventions can be categorised as social enterprises.

We recommend that universities must deliberately prioritise social entrepreneurship training and innovations. This could happen through existing systems or by setting up dedicated business incubation centres. Training should include a variety of teaching methods rather than just lectures, to ensure real value for students.

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