Op-Ed: Could small and medium enterprises nudge education?

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Enterprise or entrepreneurship education has been ‘en vogue’ for quite some time before the hype around Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on quality education targeting skills for work (Target 4.4). The UN Sustainable Development Agenda aspired to substantially equip youth and adults with relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, employment, decent jobs, and entrepreneurship opportunities by 2030. That is an aspiration that has been hard hit by the global pandemic affecting almost 1.2 billion learners in 143 countries, impacting 70 percent of total enrolled students from pre-primary to tertiary levels worldwide.

Yet, even back in 2015 -the same year the SDGs were adopted- a World Bank report on entrepreneurship education and training programs worldwide found that awareness about and impact of 230 such programs, including in Africa (with highlights from Ghana, Kenya, and Mozambique), was nonetheless quite limited.

Based on the thin evidence available and a limited body of research, the report also made a distinction between programs imparting various types of skills and knowledge to different target groups: (a) entrepreneurship education programs catering to secondary and higher education scholars raising awareness and shifting mindsets on entrepreneurship and (b) entrepreneurship training programs that address prospective or current entrepreneurs focusing on how to start or manage a business. Among this latter category, it is imperative to distinguish between necessity and opportunity entrepreneurs.

On the same note, the most recent UNESCO Global Education Monitor 2020 emphasized the inclusion of the needs and aspirations of necessity entrepreneurs in education and training. This category of entrepreneurs is likely to have a lower level of education, limited experience, and a slim scale of ideas for products or services.

Despite the five-year gap between the two reports, interestingly, both have given credit to the ILO toolkit “Start and Improve Your Business” (SYIB) in catering to both ends of the continuum and reaching more than 10 million people in 100 countries. Yet, COVID-19 -an unparalleled game changer- came into play not only to fast forward the ‘future of work’ but to instigate disruption and create a ‘new normal’ on all fronts in skilling, re-skilling, and up-skilling, that pushed the ILO to put e-SYIB modules in place as of July 2020.

At the continental level, the African Union released a policy brief on promoting youth entrepreneurship in Africa last year. The 2018 Global Entrepreneurship Index had shown that Africa’s entrepreneurial ecosystems score the lowest in startup skills. Hence, a call for action was put to embrace entrepreneurship education into the formal schooling system whether, at primary, secondary or tertiary levels and beyond. At the same time, this has been the mainstream mental map of entrepreneurship education, whether it is taking place on-site or online through schools, colleges, universities, or training institutions. Yet, contrary to this very conventional construct, small and medium enterprises -by and large- constitute an “untapped force for good with the potential to make a profound impact on students, schools and educational systems around the world.”

The Global Business Coalition for Education 2020 surveyed 70 enterprises in 18 countries to give insights into how small companies are making significant progress in advancing education efforts. The key motivation for the engagement of small businesses with educational institutions is their sense of personal responsibility and self-interest regarding securing skills and sparking interest in their line of business. Decisions for SMEs to invest in education are more often than not taken by the founders, the leaders in action, or the board. The type of education interventions ranges from career mentoring, job shadowing, tutoring, scholarships, after-school programming, vocational training, investment in physical infrastructure, and policy advocacy.

Away from the crowded capital Cairo, two social enterprises in Egypt are on-point examples of SMEs spearheading global learning centers in Nuweiba, Sinai and Tunis Village, Fayoum; both cases having remained agile and resilient during the COVID-19 era. In both cases, the founder is an Egyptian married to a European, with offspring growing on-site into the business. These cases might come as an affirmation to what was alluded to in the philosophical essay ‘My Donkey Told Me” by the Egyptian writer Tawfik El Hakim, an early precursor of the ‘Nudge Theory’, on the role of foreign women applying elements of behavioral psychology to advance the lot of villagers in their surrounding rural communities, focusing on education, health, and hygiene. Prior to the global pandemic, these two lighthouses were able to influence environmental changes through subtle demonstrations to change their community’s behavior whilst allowing them to have ‘free will’ to take part or not. They raised awareness in their community about COVID-19 and availed safe open-air heavens for people with the easing of lockdown measures.

Mediation and mental health retreats have been on the rise. In Egypt, more than 16 percent of people resorted to psychological support in 2021 compared to 11 percent at the onset of the pandemic, with a new focus on connecting with nature.

Habiba Organic Community in South Sinai has been able to attract international and national volunteer tourists despite the pandemic. The Red Sea community comprises a camp, an organic farm, a community learning center, the Palm Date Foundation, and Womad. The five components complement each other and complete the circle to serve the neighboring Bedouin community of Arab Hemdan. The farm provides fresh produce to the camps nearby through the ‘green box’. It is also a launchpad for volunteers from Egypt and worldwide to try and test their ideas. The Palm Date Foundation, through its proceeds, provides a source of income to sustain the community learning center. The latter offers young children an opportunity to learn English and enjoy different forms of experiential learning through art. The mothers of the young kids attending classes in the center have been taught how to make natural soap from the vegetation in the surrounding environment, and their handicrafts and natural soap have been sold on the camp and in Cairo shops under the name ‘Womad.’

In Fayoum, artist Mohamed Abla founded the Fayoum Art Center in 2006 in Tunis village near Lake Qaroun to connect artists locally, regionally and internationally to create art by availing several spacious studios, an art library, living areas, and a communal dining room to encourage cooperation among participants. An inn is also available, offering residence and working spaces for artists, musicians, designers, filmmakers, digital nomads, writers, art lovers, travelers, and yogis. The center houses the only Caricature Museum in the MENA region and kids workshop that hosts a six-week winter academy.

The disruption of the status quo in the education space has been unparalleled. Still, it avails an unprecedented opportunity to build back better by engaging small and medium enterprises in nudging the education sector.

Amal Mowafy

Amal Mowafy (93’ & 98’) is the Chief of Party of USAID Scholars Activity implemented by the American University in Cairo.

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