AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Success and Failures of Microbusiness Owners in Africa: A Psychological Approach. Michael Frese (ed.). Westport: Quorum Books, 2000. Pp. 203. Cloth $59.95.


Which factors make for entrepreneurial success or failure in Africa's microbusinesses? Who do you ask and where do you go for answers? The authors of Success and Failures went into African cities to observe and interview microbusiness owners. They talked to real people enmeshed in the daily grind of survival, impregnated with the uncertainty of success and failure in a precarious business environment. Altogether five studies were conducted in Zambia, Uganda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

The studies focused on two broad sets of factors that influence microbusiness success: psychological and socio-demographic factors. Psychological factors include entrepreneurial orientation, personal initiatives, innovativeness, proactiveness, planning strategies, and motivation of employees. Some of the socio-demographic factors include the age of the business, unemployment as the reason for start-up, employment of family members, and education. By investigating both of these aspects, the authors show that psychological variables are the better predictors of microbusiness performance. Frese and his collaborators challenge many stereotypes about microbusiness owners in Africa. For instance, they discovered that employing family members does not necessarily decrease success. The authors advise policy makers and researchers alike to pay more attention to psychological factors than the typical socio-demographic factors that have usually received more attention from governments, donors, and researchers.

The psychological factors identified in this book really amount to plain old management. This reveals a basic and commonly made observation: microenterprise owners in Africa need management skills. The authors are simply saying that owners who have applied some management principles (planning, goal setting, employee motivation, competitive analysis, etc.,) are more likely to succeed than their counterparts who have not recognized that management works. The researchers examine how thoughts, ideas, and attitudes regulate and control management actions. Their investigations reveal that psychological strategies (i.e., management techniques) are used when they are compatible with the personality characteristics of the owner and environmental constraints (resources and restrictions).

From this finding the authors argue that it is possible to find people with the "right" personality who are likely to succeed in entrepreneurial ventures. They advocate that training, selection, and support systems ought to be put in place to ensure that persons with the identified psychological factors are nurtured to success from adolesence. There are serious problems with this view. Advising African states to go beyond setting up proper economic and legal frameworks to selecting the "right" persons to succeed seems very unpalatable. Second, administering a test to ferret out who will succeed or fail is not in the spirit of competitive capitalism. This idea admittedly comes from the failed policies of communism. The authors state that "Many countries, particularly the early socialist ones (even poor ones), have used an early selection approach of high potentials in the areas of sports and music. Thus, often four-or-five-year-old children were selected in competitions and offered unique training opportunities in special schools. We think a similar model can be used in the areas of entrepreneurship" (p. 187). It is important to identify teenagers with high potentials in entrepreneurship, but this should be left to parents and the market. Government and public institutions should not use taxpayer money to give privileged access to resources and skills.

There is yet another problem with the advice offered here. These scholars unfortunately "psychologise" the whole development process in Africa. No doubt it is important to understand the actions and motivations of entrepreneurs, but it is more important to understand the historicity, institutional framework, and dynamics of social forces in Africa. To sever entrepreneurs from the specificities of Africa's colonial and postcolonial experience places undue weight on psychological matters instead of the concrete socio-political conditions that have primarily fueled development efforts.

At this point, what is needed in Africa is a balanced approach to tackling the recalcitrant problem of underdevelopment, not another scholarly perspective or tantalizing tool. Psychology can help us formulate policies for the ubiquitous informal sector, but it is wrong to over-emphasize this in defiance of the logic and dynamics of social forces.

Nimi Wariboko
Baldwin, NY