In 2007, the Rwandan government implemented a new entrepreneurship curriculum in all secondary schools to promote self-reliance and drive economic growth.

“The goal of the policy was to transform an entire generation’s ideas about education and work,” said Catherine Honeyman, visiting scholar at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) and managing director of Rwanda-based Ishya Consulting.

As it turns out, however, students and policymakers had two very different ideas about entrepreneurship. Students complained that the courses were not a good use of their time. At the end of the curriculum’s first year, less than a third of the planned courses were actually being taught.

Honeyman explored this phenomenon in her latest book, The Orderly Entrepreneur: Youth, Education and Governance in Rwanda, which launched last Wednesday, Sept. 14, at an event hosted by International Comparative Studies and co-sponsored by the Africa Initiative, Duke’s Cultural Anthropology Department and DCID.

While students were more interested in how to obtain capital and pursue their ideas, the government rejected what Honeyman referred to as the “iconic, lemonade-stand view” of entrepreneurship.

“The lemonade stand is not registered, it’s on the street, and its owners do not pay taxes,” Honeyman said. The Rwandan government was more interested in ensuring that new businesses were registered, conforming and law-abiding. In short, orderly. 

For five years, Honeyman observed curriculum development processes and Rwandan classrooms and conducted focus groups and interviews with teachers, policymakers and nearly 500 students in grades seven through 12, where the entrepreneurship curriculum was taught.

She found that the curriculum called on teachers to spend more than a third of their time covering rules and regulations rather than helping with business plans, teaching basic accounting and providing advice on how to raise funds.

“The student response was: ‘You can make this course practical by giving us capital,’” Honeyman said. They argued that the money that went to paying teachers should go toward a capital fund to support small businesses. 

“According to them, they already knew how to be entrepreneurs,” Honeyman said. “Most of them already had family members who were self-employed or ran some kind of small-scale business.”

What they needed, they claimed, was either more money to start their businesses, or traditional classroom instruction that would allow them to do well on their exams and go on to college.

“Here in Rwanda, you can’t do something with just a little money,” said one Rwandan youth Honeyman interviewed three years after graduation. “Either they tell you it’s dirty, or they say it’s disorderly.”

Giving youth a say in policies that affect them

The book demonstrates that policymakers have to involve young people in creating policies that affect them.

“Here the students were not passive recipients of policy; they also actively shaped its meaning,” Honeyman said. “Education and other policies that affect youth need to be developed with a deep understanding of their experiences and perspectives.”

Francis Lethem, professor emeritus of the practice of public policy and former director of DCID, praised the book as a reminder that “no reform can succeed where there is no demand for it.”

“Surprise, surprise: Most [students] are not interested in a course that will not produce the credentials necessary to obtain a modern sector job,” he said.

Lethem also stated that the government could better promote entrepreneurship by removing administrative and financial obstacles facing small and micro enterprises.

Anne-Maria Makhulu of Duke’s Cultural Anthropology Department asked how the curriculum fit into the current “lyrical view” of Rwanda as one of the world’s burgeoning economies. There is tension, she said, between Rwanda’s neo-liberal policies and interventionism.

“Rwanda is changing all the time, and so much of the country is highly functional and works well,” Honeyman responded. “At the same time, the approach of combining neo-liberal ideas about the entrepreneurial self with high levels of regulation may be [leading to] reduced opportunities for the disadvantaged.”

Making the curriculum work for youth

All in all, Honeyman said, there is still value in incorporating entrepreneurship in the education system in Rwanda and other countries.

“I believe knowing how to be an entrepreneur is helpful, but there are ways to make the current curriculum more effective,” she said. She suggested including more case studies, teaching simplified accounting procedures and legal aspects of running a business, and encouraging savings and loan groups among youth.

Despite its challenges, she said, Rwanda has tremendous potential to become the self-reliant, highly functioning economy that the government is trying to promote.

“There is a lot of hope and a positive picture in a country with so many capable people who want to make progress.”

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