Entrepreneurship project takes aim at unemployment in Kenya

When Nancy Langton, associate professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, discusses the economic environment of the slums of Kibera, in Nairobi she relays a telling anecdote about the area’s small-business make-up: Too many hair salons, not enough of anything else.

That lack of economic diversity – and the devastating unemployment picture that goes with is – is one of the motivators for the UBC business education program she leads, Social Entrepreneurship 101: Africa.

Langton annually brings a team of graduate and undergraduate business students to Africa to teach aspiring small-business owners and young entrepreneurs the fundamentals of accounting, marketing, human resources and more, to ultimately lay down the groundwork of a more robust economic landscape, and the jobs that go with it.

The program was originally based on one designed by Sauder faculty and delivered to residents in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the poorest postal code in Canada. That program, Entrepreneurship 101, was first delivered in 2002. Sauder faculty and students helped residents from the Downtown Eastside to formulate business plans, while learning basic business skills. Entrepreneurship 101 operated out of UBC’s Robson Square site, and provided dinners, childcare, and bus fare to participants on class nights. Participants were mentored by undergraduate and MBA students, and several businesses were started as a result. The program was funded through a grant provided by HSBC and was loosely affiliated with the UBC Learning Exchange. When two undergraduate students approached Langton in the fall of 2005 about doing volunteer work in Africa, Langton thought that Entrepreneurship 101 might be a good model to replicate there. The UBC initiative in Africa started with the delivery of business plan training to youth living in Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa, in the summer of 2006. The workshops, now entering their fifth year, educate and enable Kenyan youth living in Nairobi to start their own businesses. They are part of an intense, three-week program that combines entrepreneurship with social impact. At the conclusion of classes, participants have developed a business plan draft, which can ultimately be used to present to business partners, banks, or micro-financing institutions. Since 2006, more than 225 Nairobi youth have come through the program.

The program is rooted in the philosophy that social entrepreneurs are agents of positive change for society, and can provide innovative sustainable solutions to an array of social problems.

According to Langton, where a traditional business entrepreneur seeks to generate profit, a social entrepreneur is motivated to generate social value. Aspiring social entrepreneurs in the UBC program in Nairobi have been focused on everything from garbage recycling to community AIDS education.

The program also engages traditional small business start-ups. The kind of enterprises that have participated in the program include restaurants, graphic arts firms, business plan consultants, and sound system vendors.

“We are looking for businesses that are unique and that start out with a competitive advantage,” said Langton. “Our applicants should be innovative and realistic.”

Last year’s Social Entrepreneurship 101 team included a mix of UBC students from wide-ranging backgrounds, including graduate student Jonathan Kaida, then completing his MBA with a specialization in sustainability. Kaida’s parents are originally from Kenya and Tanzania, and after traveling to Africa in 2008 to help his grandmother build a house, he applied to be part of the UBC project. Other students, who themselves teach in the program, come from academic backgrounds such as finance, marketing, and education.

Increasingly, Langton and her team have been drawn into assessing business plans for the purpose of micro-financing opportunities, a burgeoning financial trend in Kenya and other African countries.

She has made many presentations to Kenyan church parishioners about the virtues of various business ventures that have come through the UBC program, and their micro-financing-worthiness. Langton notes that church parishioners also have been participating in the post-program, which provides mentorship and support for the small-business participants in Nairobi after the conclusion of classes.

“It’s a way of helping the community help their own youth,” she says.

But her program pitch isn’t just being extended to the churches of Nairobi. Back in Canada, she’s also encouraging engagement from the UBC community.

“There are so many ways to be involved with this project,” she said. “We can use people who can help us with writing grants, marketing, curriculum development, with mentorship, with micro-financing ideas. There are lots of ways to be involved.”

Follow the Social Entrepreneurship 101 Africa program at: http://www.africa.sauder.ubc.ca