Tue | May 23, 2017

Jamaican entrepreneurship - The power within

Published:Sunday | August 31, 2014 | 8:00 AM
Christian Stokes, GUEST COLUMNIST
1
2

Christian Stokes, GUEST COLUMNIST

So it's about 7 p.m. one Saturday night and while heading into New Kingston from Jacks Hill, I stop at the Matilda's corner intersection.

Up comes a young man with windscreen-wiping equipment and a big smile.

I made my usual assessment of the risk and decided simultaneously not to wind up my windows, but not to give any money. Before I knew it, I was the victim of a masterful display of sales acumen.

I was greeted well, asked how my evening was going, informed as to why it might be dangerous to drive with a dirty windscreen, then given an immediate service solution, which I would only have to pay for if I was satisfied with the service.

The young man introduced himself: "My name is Orlando Anthony Smith."

That got my wife's attention: "Oh, my brother's name is Orlando Antonio Smith."

Before I knew it, she was reaching into the depths of her handbag to find every red cent to give to this suitor. I remained stunned!

Just before driving off with the confidence that my windscreen was now safe for driving and I posed no threat to other motorists, pedestrians, or stray goats, Antonio invited me to 'like' him on Facebook.

Jamaicans are intrinsically entrepreneurial. Amid the inhumanity of slavery, Jamaican slaves grew produce, raised livestock, and manufactured household items for sale in local markets. By the time of emancipation, Jamaican slaves controlled as much as 20 per cent of the island's currency. This culture was enriched with the arrival of Arab and Asian immigrants.

energising entrepreneurs

Our entrepreneurial pioneers include George Stiebel, who made a fortune from his shipping and gold mine businesses and built the iconic Devon House.

Marcus Garvey had extensive business holdings through the United Negro Improvement Association in a variety of fields including media, real estate, trucking, and shipping.

Today, we have charismatic and energising entrepreneurs like Butch Stewart and Michael Lee-Chin; quiet giants such as Donovan Lewis and Chris Blackwell; innovative financiers Richard Powell and Franz Alphonse; and diaspora leaders such as Lowell Hawthorne and David 'Squeeze' Annakie.

As a nation, I do not believe we have tapped into the full economic development potential of entrepreneurship for two main reasons. First, the mainstream economic development thought to which we have been subject does not explicitly consider entrepreneurship as a potential contributor to economic development.

The neo-classical view of development focuses on factor accumulation for developing countries. Growth via entrepreneurship was only applicable in developed countries through a process of knowledge-based innovation and creative destruction as articulated by economist Joseph Schumpeter.

Second, we have followed the British and historically downplayed in our society and educational system the role and importance of entrepreneurship.

What we were good at found no honourable place in our society but things are changing. Once again, the stone that the builder refused must become the cornerstone.

Economists now have a much better understanding of the contribution entrepreneurship can make to a developing country. In his book Growth of Nations, N.Gregory Mankiw connects the rapid growth of the Asian 'miracle' economies to the emergence of entrepreneurship in these countries, supported by government policy.

Michael Porter is even more direct: "Invention and entrepreneurship are at the heart of national advantage."

Entrepreneurship in Jamaica is diverse. The main feature remains needs-based entrepreneurs - people who are self-employed mainly because they have no options. This class of entrepreneurs perhaps contributes modestly to the economy, but they sustain a culture of entrepreneurship and provide a variety of social benefits outside of profits.

The activities of opportunity entrepreneurs are increasing, driven by global trends and the activities of local institutions such as the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, UTech's Technology Innovation Centre, the JSE Junior Stock Exchange, and a variety of angel investor networks. The nation's long-term economic success may depend more on the success of these institutions than on bauxite, tourism, or Goat Island.

It should not be the role of Government to pick winners and direct investments, but rather, to prepare the field for fair access and fair play then get out of the way.

In her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs describes the landscape and outcomes of successful entrepreneurship at the macro level. "In its very nature, successful economic development has to be open-ended rather than goal-oriented and has to make itself up expediently and empirically as it goes along ... . Entrepreneurs have to find improvised solutions for unforeseeable problems." And this has little to do with 'long-range planning' and meeting 'targets'.

We have given the world a religion and a music form entirely our own. I have every reason to believe that Jamaican inventiveness, work ethic, and entrepreneurial flair ought to be first and foremost in any plan for national economic and social advancement.

N. Christian Stokes is the founder and CEO of NCS Enterprises.Email: ncstokes@ncsenterprises.comTwitter: @NChrisStokes