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Entrepreneurs are heroes. So why do we treat them like villains?

Jun 02, 2013 Success, Sunday Nation

Kenya’s economic salvation will not come from its government, no matter how big it becomes. It will not come from its huge corporations, no matter how many bumper profits they declare. It will not come from its mineral resources, no matter how vast their quantities.

Kenya’s economic heroes are not politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats or executives. Its true heroes are right there under our collective nose, hidden in plain sight: our entrepreneurs.

I have written here before: to make ourselves “investor-friendly” is not about hosting delegations of smart-suited foreign magnates in five-star venues. It does not require PowerPoint presentations containing dozens of slides. It isn’t even about large-scale privatisations and billion-shilling deals.

The investments that drive our economy forward and provide livelihoods to millions are right there, all around us. They are made by small businesses, shopkeepers, kiosk-owners, artisans. Those people risk their capital to meet essential needs in society. They take chances. They try new things. They work long hours. They create employment and a tax base.

If you don’t believe me, study our local banks. After years of stuffing themselves silly on corporate accounts and government securities, they’re finally wide awake. What is the one customer segment they have ALL identified as their most attractive target? Small and medium-sized entrepreneurs.

Small entrepreneurs are absolutely essential. So why do we treat them like pests that need eradication by the goons of government?

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb goes further in his book Antifragile: “Heroism and the respect it commands is a form of compensation by society for those who take risks on behalf of others. And entrepreneurship is a risky and heroic activity, necessary for growth or even the mere survival of the economy.” Taleb calls for every society to have a National Entrepreneur Day to show our gratitude, just like we do for our armed forces.

The spirit of enterprise is Kenya’s great blessing and its singular competitive advantage. It is a greater national asset than our agricultural lands, our wildlife, or any oil we may find in the ground. To have people willing to engage in making, serving, connecting, buying and selling is a bigger deal than anything else is.

And it is high time those who run our government realized this fact.

It is not just disgraceful, but self-defeating, to harass people with the guts and initiative to start their own businesses. We routinely unleash gangs of thugs in the name of government who go around punishing people for not having the correct paperwork; for not painting their premises in a designated manner; for not paying silly fees to sustain pointless bureaucracies; for not greasing the palms of assorted gatekeepers.

And we force them to operate in an environment of costly and unreliable electricity and rampant insecurity.

Why do we do this? Those hard-working, enterprising folk are worth way more to the economy than any number of pen-pushers and ladder-climbers imprisoned in dead institutions.

Now, let us be clear: regulations matter. We must never allow businessfolk to run roughshod over rules to do with health, safety and order. We must never let them cut corners and evade paying their dues to society. But does anyone think our current harassment model enforces good behaviour? Far from it – it merely allows the most corrupt businesspersons to thrive. It drives the good people out of business, and sends the standards of our products and services plunging.

If there is one thing our new government dispensation – both central and local – can do for us quickly, it is to stop battering those that create value in the economy, and to rein in those that destroy it every day. If the counties want to generate new wealth, the single best thing they can do is to support and enable their budding businessfolk.

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