Talking With Paschal Anosike About African Development and His Award-Winning Book

Paschal Anosike

Former banker and current entrepreneurship professor Paschal Anosike acknowledges inequality in the world is rife, perhaps nowhere more so than in sub-Saharan Africa. “I always worry,” he frankly admits, “that we may never be able to close the inequality gap between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world in my lifetime.” But rather than despair, Anosike acted. He’s using his new book, Entrepreneurship and Sustainable Development in Africa, to jumpstart a “serious conversation” on both the existing challenges and the potential solutions. “I firmly believe that we” – by which he includes rich world countries but more fundamentally Africans themselves – “can alter the playing field in a genuinely fundamental way and build a fairer world for everyone.”

His cri de couer has resonated, and now has won the second annual Sage Social Justice Book Award. Sage launched the award last year to recognize Sage authors whose work demonstrates a commitment to social justice and furthering diversity, equity and inclusion. Anosike’s book was selected by judges David Luke, the chief diversity officer at the University of Michigan-Flint; Chantelle Lewis, junior research fellow in Black British studies at Pembroke College Oxford; Ziyad Marar, president of global publishing at Sage; and Kiren Shoman, senior vice president of editorial at Sage. (Sage is the parent of Social Science Space.)

Anosike’s book argues that Africans can take advantage of the knowledge economy and Fourth Industrial Revolution in concert with the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the United Nations’ more widely celebrated Sustainable Development Goals to build both a vibrant — and a sustainable — continent. An associate professor of knowledge exchange at UWE Bristol, Anosike also co-leads a European Union-funder project called  HEED-Africa focusing on Africa’s many entrepreneurship education systems. Previously, he was the founding director of the Centre for African Entrepreneurship and Leadership at the University of Wolverhampton and he advises the African Union Commission Legatum Institute (through which he helped to launch the Africa Prosperity Index).

To learn more about Anosike and his message that entrepreneurship can work in together with sustainability, Social Science Space asked him a number of questions via email.

Could you tell us a little about Paschal Anosike that doesn’t appear in his CV?

Given that Africa still represents the most striking symbol of global inequality and post-colonial failure, I have always been driven by how I can use my social identity as a British academic of African descent to level the playing field, not just for Africans, but for the vulnerable in our society. Humanity has achieved so much toward social, political, and even economic justice. Economic justice goes hand in hand with individual rights and shared prosperity. Ultimately, individuals are enabled regardless of background to have access to economic opportunities and can fully enjoy the five freedoms Amartya Sen – the respected and well-known Harvard economist and philosopher –talked about in his best-seller: Development As Freedom. Ironically though, the global inequality gap in all aspects of society, in education, health, and income, continues to rise.

We know that those without economic power are still marginalized in all areas of society. There remains much work to be done to overcome global inequality, perhaps much more in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) than in any other region. We saw that during the COVID-19 pandemic. I always worry that we may never be able to close the inequality gap between SSA and the rest of the world in my lifetime. So, my underlying motivation was to use this book to start a serious conversation with everyone involved in the Africa project. I firmly believe that we can alter the playing field in a genuinely fundamental way and build a fairer world for everyone – I don’t mean handouts from rich donor countries – but when people, particularly Africans who have the power to push forward new ideas and mobilize resources work together to tackle head-on inequality. As a person, this is what I am fully committed to.

We use the idea of sub-Saharan Africa – and we will in the questions that follow as a sort of shorthand. But it’s such a huge expanse both geographically and culturally. How does any organization or prescription for action address that? What are the dangers of that shorthand, and what are the advantages?

Sub-Saharan Africa is indeed a region of vast cultural and geographic diversity. This is the case in the nature of the regional challenges it faces, which seem broadly similar. But there are contextual differences. Any stakeholder in the Africa project, be it an organization or a State, must be aware of these differences and recognizing that there is hardly no one bullet that can solve all of Africa’s social, political and economic challenges.

Take, for instance, how poverty varies across regions in Africa. As of this year it hovers around 55 percent in Central African region – including Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Republic – Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, 45.1 percent in Southern Africa, nearly 37 percent and 34 percent in Western and Eastern Africa respectively. Yet, efforts by outsiders to address this pressing challenge have followed broadly similar lines. Because it is easier, perhaps even more economically beneficial and in their best interest, rather than in Africa’s, to do it that way. But what worries me the most is that such efforts remain tainted by and locked around aid-giving, even though what Africa now needs in the 21st century has long evolved and dramatically changed. Clearly, what Malawi needs in terms of poverty intervention is fundamentally different from what a large economy like Nigeria needs.

So, there is a danger that interventions targeting poverty are misguided. This explains why the impact is often marginal and lop-sided. To level the playing field, a nuanced approach to understanding sub-regional challenges and their unique needs is vital. This requires a tailored approach – one that actively engages local stakeholders and communities. In that way, we can achieve in the region a far more meaningful and stronger impact than has been the case.

If asked to describe your book while on a lift, what are the key takeaways you would try to get in before the doors opened?

Inequality represents the greatest economic concern of the 21st century. By shining a light on how to overcome this concern through human capital and entrepreneurship development, governments, policymakers, researchers and students will find this book particularly helpful in understanding decisive steps Africa must take to overcome inequality and achieve shared prosperity.

While by no means automatic, there can be tensions between entrepreneurship and sustainability. How does your book, or your research, reflect or reduce any tension?

Yes, the tension exists because of our misguided belief that ethics and enterprise cannot co-exist. Of course, they can. By fostering a culture of responsible business practices, promoting the benefits of long-term rather than short-term thinking and socially responsible practices that embrace green economy norms, entrepreneurs and, indeed big businesses, can be encouraged to prioritize sustainability. This can include utilizing environmentally friendly materials, minimizing waste, and prioritizing ethical labor practices. Also, the book shows how by embracing sustainable business practice as a core value, entrepreneurs can create a business model that is not only inclusive and profitable, but also contributes to the well-being of the planet and society. We see this in chapter 6 with the Enactus project piloted by student entrepreneurs from SSA. Furthermore, governments, policymakers and consumers can incentivize sustainable entrepreneurship through tax breaks, subsidies, and increased demand for eco-friendly products and services.

The award for your book is called the ‘social justice’ book award. How does entrepreneurship play into social justice?

As I alluded to earlier in terms of why I wrote this book, investment in entrepreneurship and human capital development can help to level the playing field for the vulnerable and marginalized through empowerment and creating innovative solutions to social issues, such as, poverty and unemployment, particularly among young Africans. Also, by providing access to economic opportunities for underrepresented communities and groups, including women, to participate in the economy, the book showcases how to promote and sustain diversity and inclusivity across different areas and layers of the economy. For instance, female social entrepreneurs are known to use their business models to challenge dominant male power structures in our society, and advocate systemic changes that create fairer ways of doing business. By doing so, women entrepreneurs contribute to the broader movement toward social justice. Ultimately, entrepreneurship has the potential to curtail, if not dislodge, the scourge of inequality that has held humanity back for so long.

Following up on that, you were a banker before entering academe. Without meaning to be disrespectful, banking isn’t always used in the same sentence with social justice. Should it be? And if so, what needs to change – banking, how we interpret social justice, or a combination?

Yes, that’s correct. Banking and social justice are not often associated with each other. But in actuality, it should given that technology is now affecting our lives in unpredictably complex ways. The banking industry plays a crucial role in creating economic opportunities and addressing inequality, both of which are central to the social justice movement.

To achieve this, banks must prioritize inclusive lending practices that provide access to entrepreneurship or start-up capital for underrepresented and marginalized groups, including youths and women. Additionally, banks must take a proactive role in promoting financial literacy, education and inclusion to empower individuals to make informed financial decisions. This requires a shift in the way banks interpret their social responsibilities. They need to create increased value by moving beyond profit-driven models to act as the social glue that gives financial teeth to the shared prosperity agenda. Ultimately, achieving social justice through financial inclusion requires a combination of changes in both practice and our interpretation of social justice.

COVID-19 changed practice around the world, but a lot of Western media attention centered on North America, Western Europe and China. How did COVID affect the terrain you study in Africa?

While Africa defied global predictions with a lower prevalence and, consequently, a lesser COVID-19 related mortality rate, the region bears the brunt of the socio-economic vulnerabilities of the diseases. Contributing factors, such as weak limited fiscal capacity to offer employer and employee recovery stimulus and technological infrastructure to keep schools open have led to more than a decade’s loss in progress made to improve young people’s life chances.

This disparity is most pronounced in education, especially the region’s higher education sector. So, for instance, only 29 percent of Africa’s higher education providers moved online compared to about 65 percent in Asia and 85 percent in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although African universities marginally contributes to these regional vulnerabilities, they nonetheless share a big chunk of the blame in churning out unemployable graduates before the onset of COVID-19. Because of this, there is now a growing pressure on them to establish more resilient educational systems that are aligned with our changing world in which technology has become a key success driver. But the main problem is that coupled with capacity issues, African universities are extremely squeezed on their finances.

To help address this challenge in a holistic manner, in 2021, I founded the Forum for Innovation in African Universities (FIAU). FIAU is a fully independent non-for-profit initiative through which I work with the academe, industry and government to accelerate innovation in African universities. Our Annual Global Meetings, now in its third year, attract icons from these sectors to push forward ideas and mobilize resources to capacitate African universities to integrate technology into teaching and learning. 

What’s the connection between academic explorations of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship on the ground, both in general and in particular in sub-Saharan Africa?

Academic explorations of entrepreneurship play a crucial role in our understanding the drivers and barriers to entrepreneurship on the ground. By analyzing trends and patterns in entrepreneurial processes, academic research can inform policy and practice, identify best practices, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. From SSA standpoint, academic research can shed light on the unique contextual factors and challenges that shape and influence entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial outcomes in the region, such as access to capital, infrastructure, and regulation. By helping to advance the domain of entrepreneurship, academic research can point policymakers and practitioners to develop evidence-based strategies that address the specific challenges facing entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa, thereby also helping to promote inclusive growth and economic development.

While you yourself come from sub-Saharan Africa, you’re now at Bristol. From that special perch, what would you say Africans in your area of work expect from academics, donors, and business people from outside Africa, especially those countries with a less-than-stellar historical record in Africa?

Indeed! Bristol is one of the most vibrant of European cities not just in England. So, as a proud Nigerian, I am privileged to be working with colleagues who are some of the most leading minds in their field. What is even more exciting is that as one of UK’s top higher education providers, the University of West of England where I work is strongly engaged with both regional and international leading industry players, which offers me an unrivalled opportunity to do my research and work with businesses. So, I probably would think that African entrepreneurs, particularly the young, expect academics, donors, and business people from outside Africa to approach their work with more cultural sensitivity and a commitment to understanding the diversity of the local contexts. This requires a willingness to collaborate with local stakeholders and a recognition of the diverse challenges facing entrepreneurs in different African countries.

Equally, there is a need for external actors to recognize that different historical contexts have defined and shaped access to opportunities and outcomes for individuals. As such, it is important to prioritize business practices that promote equitable outcomes for all parties.

Ultimately, outside actors should approach their work with more humility, empathy, respect and a genuine desire to create a positive change and image of Africa in a win-win. I think this shift in thinking is already happening. Millennials and Gen Zs are more keen than generations before them to embrace the dynamism that comes from Africa and Africans. This will continue well into the future with Generation Alpha showing greater levels of cultural awareness and sensitivity, which I view as digital assets needed for survival in an increasingly globalized world. 

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