Grassroots Collective Entrepreneurship in Africa

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* Master's Thesis: Perceptions of Grassroots Urban Youth Entrepreneurs about Collective Engagement: an extensive case study in East Africa. Fernando Cesar Pires Baptista. Master’s Thesis in International Development Studies Graduate School of Social Sciences University of Amsterdam, 2011


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"Based on the evidence that the general strategy of liberalization – and in particular neo-liberal entrepreneurship – did not prove to be effective at reducing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa throughout the past three decades, this thesis ventured to re-examine the concept of ‘entrepreneurship’ through the understanding of the perceptions of marginalized urban youth entrepreneurs in East Africa about a preliminary ideal-type model of ‘grassroots collective entrepreneurship’ and its potential to engender common wellbeing. Two perspectives were used in this endeavour. One draws from the theories and practices of ‘solidarity economy’ and its emphasis on democratic self-management and attainment of collective needs. The second emerges from the ‘wellbeing approach’ and basically considers that psychological and social needs are as important as material ones in terms of generating wellbeing. This study is an example of extensive multi-method approach employed to investigate a certain specific phenomenon, expecting that some of the findings could be extended to understand not only what a more general reality is like, but also to envisage how it ‘could be’. It was conducted primarily with groups of youth entrepreneurs in slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Subsequently, a condensed supplementary phase was carried out in informal settlements of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with the purpose of producing a comparative reference. The research’s results suggest that these marginalised youths are attracted to recognize their common condition of exclusion and social disadvantage and to associate themselves and take the bet of trust in solidarity as a means of possibly reaching fairness and emancipation, re-establishing the hope which was once lost, and improving their individual and collective wellbeing. In fact, the investigation identified a significant incidence of collective economic activities based on democratic self-management and expressed by means of ‘youth groups’."


Fernando Baptista:

"Below are some brief remarks deriving from the perceptions of youth living in excluded areas of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Most of the youths who participated in this research are from "Youth Groups", which are collective and mostly democratic productive organizations formed by youths who associate themselves primarily as a self-employment alternative, but also to improve their communities. Youth Groups became a highly significant phenomenon in excluded areas of East Africa (mostly in Nairobi) since they have been emerging in very expressive quantities in the last years. In addition, individual youth entrepreneurs and youths in the high school also participated in the research, mostly as control groups.

Association - Why?

- In an environment of socioeconomic exclusion, co-operation becomes an attractive empowering option open to the unemployed and to poor people, since it is an emancipatory and redemptive response to the capitalist deterioration of work and social life.


- The individual entrepreneurial practice is likely to decrease the regard for equality whereas engaging in collective entrepreneurship tends to have the opposite effect. - Feeling excluded might hinder one’s general sense of co-operation. Youth women, who earlier in high school express tendencies to esteem equality and co-operation, usually experience discrimination and exclusion from fairly collaborative practices and this seems to hinder their general co-operative inclinations and hopes.


- In general it is not the youth group’s management team who denies information or blocks participation of members, but the latter who prefer to give the former a vote of confidence for them to decide in their place. Thus, the self-management practice can be eroded by the principle of least effort.

Attainment of Collective Needs

- Youth group members see economy and life as deeply intertwined and pursue entrepreneurial goals in multiple dimensions as they appear to them as very much dependent on one another.

- 'Good competition’, ‘co-operation’ and ‘solidarity’ appear as similar notions, opposite to the destructive, selfish, profit-oriented idea of ‘bad competition’.


- In this context, the entrepreneur turns out to be the person who uses the space of his or her restricted freedom to responsibly take the risk of betting in solidarity in order to possibly further the harmonization of the collective action into the fields of spontaneity and creative enthusiasm originated in kindness, and the levels of reciprocity he/she may face in return inform the limits of trust.

The Question of Formality

- Discrimination towards people who live in the slums associated with the ‘myth of informality’ play a major role in terms of blocking access to markets. Youth group members consider the barriers they face are disproportional to their groups’ technical and organizational capabilities.

Distributed and Self-governed Networks of Production

- The participatory activities suggest a strong association between the ideas of 'betting in solidarity' and 'building trust in networks of production'. Youth group members demonstrated great enthusiasm towards the thought of 'network or production' and towards the possibility of developing distributed value chains among different youth groups. They predominantly associated it with economic inclusion and business boost – by means of solidary mutual supply and access to (international) markets – and with fairness and emancipation.


- Youth group members are as unsatisfied as individual youth entrepreneurs as to material needs, BUT they see the potential of furthering association, co-operation and solidarity into value chains to fulfill this gap, and seem to be in a better position considering almost all other aspects other than material needs.

General Considerations

- Results suggest co-operation tends to be seen as more effective in terms of generating wellbeing when further grounded in equality and solidarity.

- Bringing together emancipatory theories and experiences from multiple social, cultural and geographic spheres has in the current historical moment a remarkable potential of (re)creating sustainable, wellbeing-oriented alternative platforms of economic interaction and job creation. This can be achieved through the exchange and elaboration of open knowledge in a perspective of collective intelligence.

- The notions of entrepreneurship which are advanced in sub-Saharan Africa become highly relevant in terms of producing emancipatory and redemptive changes or perpetuating immobilization, dependence and domination. The two following questions which emerged from the research exemplify striking points concerning it:

a) Is the ‘middleman’ – pointed out by the youths as one of the most unfair and exploitative elements in their reality – in essence different from the neo-liberal notion of entrepreneur?

b) Developing countries should necessarily be disciplined to exert an intensive mechanistic rationality (i.e., pass through foreign-oriented, labour-intensive industrialization) before being capable of exercising human autonomy and creativity in network-based information societies?

... this opens space to think that, in non-pure-liberal perspectives, everybody can somehow and somewhat turn out to be an entrepreneur." (via email, May 2014)

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