Promoting Youth Entrepreneurship from Aboriginal Canada to Post War South Sudan

Celebrating the Graduates of the CBU Business Network for Aboriginal Youth

Two weeks ago, we celebrated the hard work of 26 aboriginal high school students who received their graduation certificates from the Business Network for Aboriginal Youth program.  Run by the Purdy Crawford Chair in Aboriginal Business Studies of the Shannon School of Business, the program provides mentoring and leadership development for aboriginal students considering a University or College education.  A good number of those students plan to study business, many of them at Cape Breton University.

The students receiving their certificates were nothing less than inspiring in their commentary, and as Chief Terry Paul of Membertou told them, they now have a “head start” as they pursue their dreams of post secondary education.  Premier Darrell Dexter reinforced the importance of self-reliant entrepreneurship in the economic future of our aboriginal communities.  And business leaders Joe Shannon and Purdy Crawford told the students just how proud they were to be associated with the program.  And I will confess to feeling a glow of pride for Cape Breton University’s 35 year track record in aboriginal education and the national recognition which CBU is building for its success in aboriginal business education thanks to the Purdy Crawford Chair team led by Dr Keith Brown and Mary Beth Doucette.

And So to South Sudan

Less than one week later – and the day before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was at CBU helping us celebrate the $5m Federal funding announcement for expanding our aboriginal business programs nationwide – I was in South Sudan with my former York University colleague Dr Kevin McKague.  Dr McKague is now a world authority on grassroots private sector development.  We were meeting with young entrepreneurs committed to building their businesses in one of the most challenging and insecure countries in the world: South Sudan.  Entrepreneurs like Asantewaa lo-Liyong who runs a catering business in Juba; Apollo Majok who is building a groundnut paste business; and Johannis Riek M Gok who owns a bookstore and who has serious ambitions to launch a dairy business.

These dynamic young entrepreneurs were selected through a business plan competition to receive training in entrepreneurship from SPARK, a Dutch based non governmental organisation (NGO) that grew out of the Balkans conflict and which is led in South Sudan by Lauren Servin.  Like a lot of South Sudanese who stayed or who have returned since the civil war, Lauren’s trainees are dealing with the aftermath of decades of civil war in which 1.5 million died, in addition to the numerous impacts of South Sudan’s recent secession from the North in July 2011.  And like many of their colleagues they are determined to build a country blessed with abundant natural resources but with very low levels of human and financial capital.   Lauren’s hope is that her program’s graduates will succeed and become role models for others: “we are meeting a lot of young people who are very ambitious and who have the drive and passion to both stay in their country and create something that will better themselves and their country.”

But money is very tight for ordinary South Sudanese businesses seeking to grow.  Partly because of the demands of international agencies and non-governmental organisations, basic supplies are extremely expensive; good workers are easily poached after training; and even a very spartan hotel room costs $200+ per night.  Despite the natural fertility of the country, most of the food eaten in Juba is imported from Uganda, and most of the good jobs go to people from outside the country.

The Challenges of Entrepreneurship Education in South Sudan

I spoke at length to Catherine Baatiyo about the challenges of addressing the human and financial capital shortages in her country.   Catherine leads a small business skills training organisation in the world’s newest country (South Sudan is the 193rd member of the UN).  Small & Medium Entrepreneurship Consult in South Sudan (SMECOSS) works with development NGO Plan International bringing entrepreneurship skills to small business owners in Eastern and Central Equatoria and Jongeli State.   SMECOSS has also worked with the small business clients of Equity Bank (Kenya), and the International Finance Corporation (the private sector arm of the World Bank).

One of the reasons I was in East Africa was to launch a major report for the UK Government1 on how to build entrepreneurship education across the region.  The results of our field work in South Sudan, as well as in Kenya and Tanzania, were sobering.  The vast majority of the nearly 500 stakeholders we interviewed or surveyed – from large and small business owners through to unemployed youth – believed that business education in the region was generally not fit for purpose.  They saw a gulf between formal business education available in colleges and universities in Africa and the needs of entrepreneurs, especially women, unemployed youth and marginalised groups in rural areas.  This is the gap that organisations like SPARK and SMECOSS are trying to bridge.

Catherine’s Story

Catherine started her training organisation in 2009 in order to realise her vision for promoting youth entrepreneurship which she saw as central to improving the levels of ambition and self-reliance of the Southern Sudanese. Catherine boot-strapped her organisation through raising money for friends businesses, obtaining an office through a friend of the family, and began by offering small business training for free in order to build demand.  Today she employs 40 people who train small business owners and help form cooperatives and savings and loans organisations.   Some of the training is very basic, because literacy and numeracy are lacking, but these are vital skills for small business owners who do not wish to be cheated.

Going forward Catherine sees the main challenge for South Sudan is one of cultural and attitudinal change.  But she confidently believes that she can teach positive attitude through providing role models and mentors and experiential learning in running a business.  And Catherine is convinced that “if all of us join hands” the necessary shift in attitudes may take less than five years.

Entrepreneurship Education – A Global Leadership Opportunity for CBU

Another challenge we found in our research in East Africa – and which applies in equal measure to aboriginal business education – is that too many teaching tools and case study resources are based on less than useful Western corporate business models. These bear little relationship to the African context and therefore stakeholders perceive them to be worthless. Nevertheless, many entrepreneurship educators like Catherine show commitment, interest and passion for change and there is no doubt that with appropriate resources and policy changes current weaknesses can be addressed.

The opportunity is to take entrepreneurship education in East Africa to people and places it has never reached before, using experience and knowledge that has not been captured before, delivered by civil society organisations, social networks and other actors that are not necessarily academic, and employing appropriate technologies that can take such activities to mass scale.   In this context, I believe that Cape Breton University has a unique and powerful role to play in Canada and around the world in helping to introduce and prove new forms of business and entrepreneurship education which are both inspirational and effective.

It is my great hope that in the future CBU can help share learning on aboriginal and indigenous entrepreneurship education from coast to coast to coast, and indeed from continent to continent.  We are well on the way in that process in Canada, and I am sure that as our ideas continue to get traction here, they will become increasingly interesting to governments, civil society organisations and universities around the globe.

Dr David Wheeler

President and Vice-Chancellor



1 Kaijage E S and Wheeler D (2013).  Supporting Entrepreneurship Education in East Africa.   Report for Presentation to Stakeholders.  Funded by the UK Department for International Development.  Plymouth: Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research.