Rwanda teaches students that orderly innovation is the path to national progress.
Pineapples with juice dripping down their sides, neatly tied bags of passion fruit and tree tomatoes, shiny green imported apples, golden-skinned finger bananas—at one time, the intersection close to my Kigali home was crowded with women carrying their merchandise, in wide baskets atop their heads and in woven bags slung over each arm. Near them, you could always find a young man or two selling sweets and biscuits from a cardboard box. Needed to clean the dust off your shoes before venturing into town? Someone was always carrying around packages of tissues for 100 francs each.
Rwanda is the site of one of the most extensive efforts to promote youth entrepreneurship in the world.
Once a characteristic image of street life just about anywhere on the African continent, this sort of scene has almost disappeared in Rwanda. Street businesses have been tidied up and brought into the formal market, and they are required to have a fixed and formal place of business. Prepared foods must be properly labeled and inspected for consumer safety; motorcycle taxi drivers must belong to a cooperative, wear numbered uniforms, and provide helmets; all businesses must register, obtain a license, and become part of the tax system.
These are all sensible regulations, arguably modeled on the way things work in many developed economies. And in Rwanda, they are enforced with increasing effectiveness each year. This is Rwanda’s contemporary aesthetic of entrepreneurship, of national progress: clean streets, orderly businesses, everything registered and known—an orderly and regulated form of self-reliance from the broadest policies down to the tiniest details.
In Rwanda, in other words, the streetside “lemonade stand” wouldn’t be considered an iconic and positive image of the youthful entrepreneur—it would be disorderly conduct, plain and simple.
And yet the Rwandan government is in favor of youth entrepreneurship. Highly in favor, in fact. Rwanda is the site of one of the most extensive efforts to promote youth entrepreneurship in the world—since 2009, all secondary school students have been required to take a six-year course in entrepreneurship. And just like their other subjects, this course is examinable on the high-stakes national examinations that are popularly seen as determining access to university—and therefore to “good” jobs.
Entrepreneurship education in Rwanda, however, can sometimes seem like a contradiction in terms. Efforts toward self-reliance meet regulations that present significant barriers to small business start-ups. At the same time, rote learning in schools with an emphasis on examinations often seems incompatible with independent problem solving. Cultivating entrepreneurial creativity may, in other words, conflict in real ways with the simultaneous emphasis on introducing controls to regulate an orderly process of development, and with the widespread perception that school is more about acquiring credentials than capabilities.
Entrepreneurship education in Rwanda, however, can sometimes seem like a contradiction in terms. Efforts toward self-reliance meet regulations that present significant barriers to small business start-ups.
Yet this delicate, tension-filled balance of creativity, credentials, and controls is in fact just what the Rwandan government hopes to achieve as it works to harness the population’s entrepreneurial initiative in service of national development. And Rwanda is not alone. A number of former developmental states with strong traditions of state regulation and strategic economic planning—such as China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan—are pursuing goals essentially along the same lines. Like Rwanda, these states are all involved in attempts to transform their educational systems in order to promote qualities like creativity, independent problem solving, and entrepreneurial initiative while still retaining a strong state role in a regulated process of economic growth.
Since Rwanda has explicitly adopted Singapore as a role model, this similarity is no coincidence. In an age when these very states figure so prominently in the global picture of economic growth, we would do well to look more deeply into the economic and social ideals that shape them. Rwanda’s experience with entrepreneurship education, I argue in my recent book, provides insight into a “post-developmental” approach to governance that is rising on the world stage, promoting an ethos of regulated self-reliance and envisioning the ideal citizen as a sort of orderly entrepreneur.
Drawing on several years of ethnographic research involving nearly 500 participants and spanning each stage of the policy process, I have worked to bring together a set of ideas that will make it possible to discuss what is happening in such disparate parts of the world, countries that—while they will likely never share a single form of government—nonetheless may be developing a recognizably similar style of governance. I also seek to make available my observations of the underlying processes at work in the cultivation of the orderly entrepreneur in one particular context—among Rwanda’s youth studying in or near the country’s capital, Kigali.
For young people, not surprisingly, have their own perspectives on the policies that are intended to shape them into orderly entrepreneurs—and it is their interpretations and reinterpretations that will help determine the eventual significance of post-developmental government strategies, in Rwanda and beyond.
This post has been adapted from The Orderly Entrepreneur by Catherine A. Honeyman.