Towards understanding the African entrepreneurs and their cultural context: Economic rationality and African value system.
Like most management journals, Africa Journal of Management has already published several articles on entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in Africa (e.g. Alexander & Honig, 2016). In addition, a recent special issue on Social innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa has been published by the journal.
In general, decades of research on African entrepreneurs and small business enterprises has attracted the attention of researchers (Kyalo, & Kiganane, 2014), policy makers (Atiase, et al. 2017), development agencies (Richardson, et al. 2004) and investors (Agabo, & Akor, 2021). Research on topics such as what motivates an African entrepreneur, challenges facing African entrepreneurs, cultural and institutional context impinging on African entrepreneurs (Agu, & Nwachukwu, 2020), contribution of African entrepreneurs to innovation, job creation and poverty reduction (Abisuga-Oyekunle, et al. 2020), social entrepreneurship in Africa, have all validated the potential of the topic for policy making and as a distinctive area of research.
Also, consecutive studies have underscored the need for further deepening of our understanding of what influences African entrepreneurs’ decisions and practices within the unique complex and ever-changing context they operate in. However, the vast majority of researchers appear to shy away from digging deeper into how context influences African entrepreneurs’ critical decisions. For example, although the cultural factor has been acknowledged as an enabler and constrainer of Africa’s entrepreneurship (Agu, & Nwachukwu, 2020; Urban, 2007), there is inadequate articulation of what African culture means and which dimensions of the culture are significant in influencing entrepreneurs’ critical decisions and behaviours.
This special issue aims to investigate and understand the extent to which specific cultural factors influence entrepreneurs’ critical decisions before and after they set up their businesses. In doing so, papers should help identify specific cultural issues and dimensions that have been missed by earlier investigations because of the adoption of generic theoretical templates. For example, the generic theoretical assumption that African entrepreneurs set up their businesses to pursue rational economic goals can easily miss culture specific issues that require critical examination. To achieve this aim, the special issue focuses on investigating key decisions and practices of entrepreneurs that challenges assumptions of generic and generalizing templates currently used to understand entrepreneurs’ decisions and behaviours in Africa. This special issue hopes to shed light on how and the extent to which African philosophies, principles of behaviour, social interactions, perceptions of the other, value system and mindset manifest themselves in entrepreneurs’ decisions and practices. With the increasing understanding of the importance and potentials of entrepreneurs in addressing Africa’s economic and social challenges, the question of how entrepreneurs embark on the entrepreneurial journey, the critical decisions they make during the journey, and how specific cultural factors influence their decisions and subsequent behaviours is a matter of urgency and crucial importance.
The issue of understanding how specific cultural orientations influence managerial and entrepreneurial behaviour has been constantly underscored by researchers in other fields. This is because, during uncertainty, external pressures and, in the absence of stable business and institutional environments, entrepreneurs cannot rely on a “rational” decision-making paradigm (Koechlin, 2020; Simon, 1979). Neither would their behaviours be explained purely by economic rationalism. Given that African entrepreneurs operate under these conditions, it behoves us to seek to understand the extent to which other factors beyond psychological and economic considerations play significant roles in entrepreneurs’ decisions and behaviours. For example, there is a need to understand how the African entrepreneur navigates difficult challenges and uses remnants of informal traditions originating from Ubuntu philosophy to make decisions in the absence of strong formal institutions. This is particularly important because the generic and generalizing templates on which current African research on entrepreneurship is based assumes the existence of an economic rationalist “lone wolf” that sets off to pursue materialistic and individualistic economic goal/interests.
Such assumptions fail to accommodate the reality of the context in which African entrepreneurs operate amidst modernity and tradition. For example, the extent to which remnants of Ubuntu philosophy influence critical decisions of African entrepreneurs seems to have largely escaped scholarly attention. Perhaps this is partly because of the templates and methods used to investigate the topic as well as the focus mainly on entrepreneurs that try to operate within the context of the so-called modernity. Given that many African entrepreneurs do not operate within this context or at least do not operate with the mind-set of modernity, the field is missing a great opportunity to understand context specificity of African entrepreneurship.
Digging deeper into the cultural context of African entrepreneurship Research on African entrepreneurship and business enterprises has led to theorizations and conceptualizations of the African entrepreneur and the African business and its context. Understandably, much of the research and theorization has largely adopted the template used to investigate entrepreneurs and business contexts in other parts of the world. For example, the characteristics used to investigate entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in other parts of the world are normally used to investigate African entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.
Similarly, the same generic template of context (economic, institutional, cultural) used to investigate business environment of entrepreneurs in other parts of the world are used to investigate entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in Africa. Likewise, why African entrepreneurs set up their businesses are investigated using theoretical lenses used to investigate the same issue around the world. Undoubtedly, these lines of investigations have advanced our knowledge of the field especially if the goal is to discover how African entrepreneurs mimic entrepreneurs from other parts of the world or to investigate, for comparative reasons, the extent to which the African entrepreneurs are moving away from their tradition when making economic decisions. For example, the investigation of the psychological characteristics of the African entrepreneur has validated the established constructs. However, if the goal of our investigations is to determine whether the African entrepreneur is influenced by certain value systems and operating with a peculiar mind-set or pursuing unconventional goals, then the superficial use of a generic template has its limitations. Hence, the need to expand the context further and deeper. To be sure, most of the templates and methods that have been used by studies of African entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship shed light on some of the challenges faced by, and opportunities availed to, African entrepreneurs, and provided knowledge for policy makers and development agencies to create policy interventions that can help entrepreneurs and businesses as Africa pursues the steps of modernity. However, the pursuit of modernity with disregard for, and lack of understanding of how, for example, remnants of Ubuntu traditional values constrain or enable critical decision-making amongst Africa’s entrepreneurs, leaves a gaping hole in the research on entrepreneurship on the continent.
Admittedly, the globalization of neoliberal economic and educational systems that African countries have embraced has led to the narrow focus of entrepreneurship research on the continent. Even some of those who pursue social entrepreneurship research view it from a neoliberal economic lens. Social entrepreneurship goals might be unique but the process is not radically different from economic entrepreneurs. Hence, researchers adopt similar a generic and generalizing template to investigate social entrepreneurship on the continent. Such an approach does not allow adequate discovery of how remnants of African values influence social entrepreneurship. Therefore, in spite of the knowledge generated by researchers so far, there is more to be learnt about the African entrepreneur and his/her context.
One of the issues that has remained under-researched so far, and holds opportunities for further understanding of African entrepreneurs, is the nature of their motives for starting a business in the first place. As has been pointed out, the theory of pull (opportunity) and push (necessity) is too ambiguous and simplistic to fully understand an African entrepreneur’s motive, decisions, and behaviours. Pull and Push theory is based on economic rationalism that assumes people set up their businesses to pursue individualistic monetary and materialistic gains. This assumption is not entirely correct for entrepreneurs operating in a setting characterised by traditional norms. Given the globalization of economic liberalism and the growing economic and social challenges on the continent, understandably, the theory continues to dominate investigations of entrepreneurship on the continent. However, an important question is, even if opportunity or necessity can explain why African entrepreneurs set up businesses in the first place, given the socio-cultural context of Africa, can we rely on Pull and Push motives to understand and explain how they run their business? In addition, given that the voices of the African entrepreneurs remain relatively weak as far as their latent and/or emerging motives are concerned, should we continue to rely on pull and push theory as a lens to understand African entrepreneurs and their behaviours? In other words, can African value systems such as Ubuntu, provide another lens to interrogate entrepreneurs’ motives, decisions, and behaviours in the African context? Indeed, Ubuntu application have been advocated widely to address Africa’s social and economic challenges.
In addition, its application in managing businesses has been investigated in Africa. However, the philosophy has not been adequately used to investigate, analyse, and understand entrepreneurs’ motives, decisions, and behaviours in Africa. Perhaps this is partly because some believe that indigenous philosophies such as Ubuntu no longer exist in the modern sector or it is incompatible with modern economics. Yet, in daily behaviours of Africans some elements of Ubuntu still persist. For example, generosity, compassion, the notion of extended family and “entitlement mentality” persist amongst Africans irrespective of their education or whether they live in the city or rural areas. Of course, the degree varies across countries, settings, sectors and levels of education. Nonetheless, Africa provides fertile ground to investigate how the socio-cultural context can shed light on entrepreneurs’ motives, decisions, and behaviours. An important issue related to the gap in the literature is that, many policy interventions for entrepreneurship development fail to live up to expectations or deliver intended outcomes due to various reasons. However, seeking answers from rational economics is inadequate owing to the socio-cultural context alluded to earlier.
A broader explanation of policy failure might be due to lack of deeper understanding of the complexity and transitory nature of African entrepreneurs’ motives and how the motives can influence their behaviours within a cultural context. Hence, the notion of business success or failure from the Africa’s cultural context might need to be interrogated when entrepreneurs are not behaving according to liberal economic philosophy.
To emphasise, context is very relevant to extending theoretical paradigms as well as ensuring the relevance of knowledge and theories. Yet understanding context requires critical theoretical conceptualization and in-depth empirical investigation of the subject matter. As George (2015: 5) argues: “As an applied field, the emphasis on theory with disregard to the 5 context of management practice presents a challenge for progress both as a scholarly domain and for credibility in what we teach and how we consult, or how we effect positive social change”.
Objective and Questions
The aim of this special issue is to stimulate conceptual and empirical development of research that seeks to trace and identify any entrepreneurial mindset, practice, or trajectory that can be attributed to African value systems such as Ubuntu but outside the neoliberal and individualistic economic paradigm. Specifically, we welcome papers that can advance our understanding of diversity of entrepreneurs’ motives, intentions, decisions, and practices that can be traced to a specific African value system or principles. In line with the journal’s aim of discovering and advancing African indigenous knowledge and wisdom within the context of current realities, we invite submissions from all topics on entrepreneurship that addresses the main aim of the special issue.
We call for papers that deepen knowledge and understanding of the extent and how an African value system is used in the entrepreneurial process such as opportunity recognition and resource acquisition. In addition, we invite conceptual papers that will make new theoretical contributions to understanding the purpose of a business gleaned from an African value system and/or philosophy such as Ubuntu. Similarly, empirical articles that investigate or interrogate motives of African entrepreneurs through the lens of an African value system is highly encouraged.
We call for papers that investigate the extent to which and how entrepreneurs use African value systems or principles to navigate through the challenges posed by the institutional and economic environment. Given that the informal sector constitutes the bulk of business enterprises on the continent, and traditional value systems are more likely to influence business practice in the sector, we invite submissions that investigate peculiarities of the informal sector through the eyes of an African value system. Similarly, investigations of business practices in the rural and semi-urban areas might potentially provide rich information on and knowledge of the interaction between African traditional value systems and business practices.
The following indicative research questions summarize what the special issues seeks to answer:
- Theoretically and conceptually, what would be the purpose of a business under African value system such as Ubuntu?
- Empirically, what elements of African value system can be identified in the purpose of a business enterprise run by an African entrepreneur guided by African value system such as Ubuntu?
- Theoretically, what would push or pull African entrepreneurs to start a business if they are guided by African value system such as Ubuntu?
- Empirically, what pushes or pulls African entrepreneurs to start a business, and to what extent does African value system play any role?
- How do African entrepreneurs appropriate and use African value system in their businesses?
- To what extent do African entrepreneurs use African value system to mitigate the challenges in the business environment?
- How do African entrepreneurs use African value system to mitigate the challenges in the business environment?
- How do African entrepreneurs use African value system in the entrepreneurship process?
- To what extent do the remnants of African value system enables or constraints entrepreneurship and how do entrepreneurs deal with it?
- Should African value system be considered in policy formulation for business enterprise development?
- To what extent do African policy makers recognize and integrate African value system in their policies for business enterprise development?
- What role does African value system play in understanding the link and interaction between an African entrepreneur, his/her business, and institutional and economic environment?
On a final note, the questions are not exhaustive. This special issue identifies with and is strongly in support of the general aim of the Africa Journal of Management, which is to draw on Africa’s indigenous knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, submissions that critically challenge the orthodoxy pertaining to theorization and investigation of the African entrepreneur gleaned from an African value system are highly encouraged.
We also encourage submissions that address linkages between micro, meso and macro levels. Papers that look at the entrepreneur, how the business enterprise is run, and the wider institutional and/or economic environment will be considered, provided that the paper addresses the levels from an African value system.
On methodological issues, we welcome conceptual and empirical papers that are rigorously conceived and executed adopting any social science method. Single or multiple case studies as well as longitudinal and historical studies that shed light on how an African value system impacts entrepreneurship are welcome.
Submission process and guidelines
The deadline for submission is 1st March 2023. The manuscript should not exceed 12,500 words, including references.
Tentative date of publication: January 2024
Manuscripts should be submitted directly to any of the special issue editors
- Professor Aminu Mamman, University of Manchester, UK ()
- Professor Mohamed Branine, University of Abertay Dundee, UK
- Professor Justice Bawole, University of Ghana, Ghana
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