Technology-oriented Entrepreneurs in SSA
Technology-oriented entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa: Who are they and how are they involved in development and industrialization in Africa?
By Titus Adeboye
Technology-oriented entrepreneurs seem to come from three distinct cultures. The first is spontaneous, and is the result of a technically oriented education system, which produces a large number of practically skilled people who found their own firms and provide employment to others. Entrepreneurs in this culture thrive on shared values, explicit and tacit skills, and a common closeness to their customers but to assess and learn new technologies that help make them dynamic learning entities. Innovation is widespread, incremental and a trial and error affair.
The second culture is based on highly qualified, usually doctoral level, entrepreneurs who are produced from an elitist educational system that separates innovators from operatives. It thrives on large research and development (R&D) expenditure, and entrepreneurs’ spin-off from the innovating laboratories. It glorifies new knowledge, secrecy, the protection of intellectual property rights, and individualism. Its development seems deterministic.
The third culture is state initiated and can be described as a diffusion model. The state took technology initiatives, leveraged its own and external investor funds and took steps to upgrade the skills and capabilities of its indigenous citizens through a variety of strategies. Sub-Saharan African countries following independence tried this third culture with dismal failure.
In the present global realities, it would seem that the first culture is most relevant for sub-Saharan Africa. But the methods of replicating it on the continent require serious empirical investigation.
Keywords: Technology-oriented entrepreneurs; tacit skills; learning agility; complimentary of professional and vocational skills; receptivity to new technology; informal interrelationships; meta dollar R&D; Fordist/Taylorist production; mass customization; technopreneural state.
Critical in the process of answering the question posed in the title is a clear definition of technology-oriented entrepreneurs. This question can be answered at three levels. The first level is theoretical or normative. At this level one starts by defining the concept of technology-oriented entrepreneurship and then proceeds to elaborate the characteristics or attributes of this category of entrepreneurs. Here one would show how the theory connects these entrepreneurs to the development process generally, and to industrialization in particular. Using this normative framework one could then make a judgment as to whether and to what extent entrepreneurs in Africa conform to this norm.
The second is at the empirical level. Here one has to present names, facts, figures, location, gender, industrial affiliation, or activity of Africa technology-oriented entrepreneurs. At this level one has to document the particular technologies of their individual or group orientation, their personal attributes, the effectiveness with which they have carried out their entrepreneurial activities, the contributions that they have made both to development generally and to industrialization in particular. One important ingredient of this kind of documentation will be an analysis of the environment in which these technology-oriented entrepreneurs operate, i.e. the general infrastructural facilities (roads telecommunications, utilities – power, water, and sewage), the science and technology infrastructure, the intermediate input supply network, the policy environment or incentive system, the industry structure, etc. Unfortunately the author is not aware of any empirical studies that deal with these issues. Although there are a few studies on Africa entrepreneurs, the author is not aware of any specific attempt study the technology-oriented entrepreneurs in Africa. However, it is hoped that this paper will gather existing evidence, however fragmentary, reveal the gaps in knowledge and underscore the need for research to fill the gap.
The third level is the prescriptive level. Having examined the question empirically, one should be able to identify the issues; problems and what can be done to attain the desirable norm. In this sense, therefore, the third level of analysis is not an alternative but a compliment to either of the two other levels of analysis. It is at this level that objective assessments can be made as to the desirability or otherwise of promoting technological-orientation in entrepreneurs; the methods by which this has been successfully done in other parts of the world; the feasibility of replicating those methods in Africa; and the costs and benefits of doing so.
Who is a technology-oriented entrepreneur?
Technology-oriented entrepreneurs seem to be characterized as entrepreneurs who possess superior explicit and tacit skills in the existing technologies and imbibing ‘the knowledge of partners in the local economy and elsewhere’. Technology-oriented entrepreneurs utilize these explicit and tacit skills involving efficiency in learning new technologies, in their network of interrelationships with peers both in their industry and other industries, and in their organizational system to meet ‘market needs in terms of design and quality’ (Sweeney 1995: 5). Although technology-oriented entrepreneurs can exist in any business, the focus here is on entrepreneurs in manufacturing.
Sweeney (1995) argues that technology oriented can be traced to two distinct cultures. From the first culture, which can be traced to some regions in Europe, technology-oriented entrepreneurship is born out of a technologically oriented education system.
Outcomes of a technologically-oriented education system are that a highly skilled workforce is available, many people have the skills, after further experience, to create their own jobs, by founding their own firm, the potential for the economy to maintain and renew itself is therefore high; the appreciation of quality, design and technology is pervasive of the population, new technology is rapidly adopted and incorporated in new developments, the shared value system is extended and enriched to become a technologically and user/customer oriented culture (Sweeney 1995: 29).
In this culture technology oriented entrepreneurs are nurtured and sustained by a ‘munificent environment of giving and sharing information, skills and resources, a consensus of action in which all actors of a community are involved’(Sweeney1995:2)
This paradigm is characterized as representing a culture of a community of cohesive societies with shared values whose dynamism is born out of a desire to make a long-term contribution. It is described as organic and responsive, based mostly on tacit skills and knowledge that are not easily transferable. Innovation is mostly localized in regions or towns.
The other culture is that of scientific determinism and individualism. The culture here produces technology-oriented entrepreneurs who are mechanistic and deterministic with their emphasis on making money from explicit knowledge that is easily transferable. They adhere to short-term financial gain, and the exploitation of society and labor as externalities. This culture is sometimes termed ‘the scientific management branch plant culture’ with emphasis on uniformity and a focus on high tech rather than ‘on the integration of transforming technologies into the technologies of sectoral products and production processes’. (Sweeney1995: 5) The entrepreneur is the product of an elitist education system with its emphasis on high academic and scientific knowledge to the neglect of vocational, technical, and practical skills. There is emphasis on narrow disciplinary training, compartmentalization of specialization, and cutting-edge science instead of expanding versatility for rapid application of new technology. Rather than being responsive to the growing dynamism of the market they seek to control it.
While the first culture creates jobs, nurtures innovation and builds social cohesion, the second increases unemployment and the numbers of the working poor, stifles innovation, threatens society with disintegration. The first thrives on information sharing while the second is based on monopolizing information and protecting intellectual property rights. The first builds its dynamism not only on the entrepreneur, but also on the close interrelationship and interaction between skilled workers and their supervisors on the one hand and the firm, their customers, and other firms on the other hand. Factory workers contribute to the myriad of shop floor product and process improvement that ensure the ultimate satisfaction of the customer. The second culture emphasizes what Goodell (1995: 2) calls ‘very fancy expensive, capital intensive technology development’. While the first culture allows field or factory operatives to remake the technology, the second with its packaged characteristics puts the technology in a straightjacket in pursuit of economies of scale. The first emphasizes the speed of knowing about relevant technology, learning this, adopting and adapting it, and expanding worker capacity to integrate it into production. The second depends more on R&D and the generation of new technology. The first is built on a network of small firms and entrepreneurs who ‘are more nimble, responsive and quicker to adapt to market conditions’ (Goodell 1985: 5), while the other glorifies the large multinational or conglomerate whose technology conforms more to Fordist or Taylorist practices. This is because the first is based on general-purpose equipment and broad tacit competencies of the worker, while the second depends on production from specialized and sophisticated equipment. The technology-oriented entrepreneur in the first culture uses, trains, and encourages smart workers, while in the second culture the worker is a passive user of pre-packaged technology. The first is built on ‘a great deal of social trust between people (which) enables the free-flow of technology from firm-to-firm across national borders that is so valuable to an economy’s growth’. (Goodell 1985: 11) These are informal, incremental, and interactive mechanisms for diffusion and creation of technology. The second focuses on the formal legalistic and institutionalized channels of technology transfer. Innovation in the first culture is spontaneous, while in the second it is imposed.
There is no question that the first model is far more relevant for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) than the second, if for nothing else but the fact that Africa can ill-afford the ‘high-tech, big bucks, big industry interests’ of the second model. However, the pertinent question one has to examine is, can the first model be replicated in the SSA? In order to answer this question one has to examine the geographical occurrence of the first model.
Sweeney (1995) drew attention to the fact that technology-oriented entrepreneurs featured prominently in the different regional and local clusters that made up the English and later the American Industrial Revolutions. They were later displaced by the Fordist and Taylorist practices with their emphasis on mass production and technological uniformity. He calls this ‘a commodity approach to production in the face of increasing diversity and need for customization’. He notes that in areas such as North eastern Italy, and parts of Germany that exhibit economic dynamism are clusters of these technology-oriented entrepreneurs. Other examples can be found in other places and some of these clusters have been summarized in Table 1.
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