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A Venture in Peace: The Intersection of Entrepreneurship and Peacebuilding in West Africa

Juliet Lancey Headshot
Members of a Local Business Association Meet
Members of business association ‘Working with the Hands’ stood together after receiving a sub grant as part of the Central African Republic Interfaith Peacebuilding Partnership (CIPP) project supported by USAID and partners on September 11, 2019.

Over time, West Africa has faced a significant number of armed conflicts, including civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte D’Ivoire; coups d’états in Niger, Guinea, and The Gambia; religious and ethnic violence in Benin, Nigeria, and Mali; and violent spillover from the security crisis in the Sahel. Despite numerous attempts at conflict mediation from international non-profits and global institutions, traditional peacebuilding models have largely been unsuccessful at building a long-term, sustainable peace known as “positive peace” due largely to their top-down nature. 

As case studies have shown, engaging a variety of local actors in peacebuilding generates a more integrated approach to conflict resolution and post-conflict stabilization. As this “local turn” gains traction, peacebuilding strategy has come to include an array of local actors, specifically entrepreneurs. While entrepreneurship is not a panacea for conflict, its inherently local ability to address root causes of conflict and already skyrocketing presence in the region—especially among the booming youth population—positions it as a promising force in contributing to sustainable peace. 

Entrepreneurship in West Africa: An Overview

While traditional literature on business and peace has focused on multinational or national corporations, small-scale entrepreneurship (10 employees or less) is a leading form of business employment and ownership in developing nations, including those experiencing conflict. In fact, small businesses account for up to 80% of businesses in poverty-conflict scenarios, as conflict zones generally lack strong formalized institutions, and business creation becomes a necessity

Both in and out of conflict zones, entrepreneurship rates in West Africa are booming. According to an African Development Bank Group report, 22% of Africa’s working-age population is starting a business, with rates as high as 40% in Nigeria. The high-risk tolerance and innovative nature of many individuals across the continent, a unique and explosive creativity dubbed “kanju” by Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade, has contributed to entrepreneurship’s rising force in West Africa and its salience to peacebuilding strategy. 

Entrepreneurship, Economic Development, and Youth Engagement 

Entrepreneurship first entered the peacebuilding conversation due to its ability to generate income, employment, and economic gains. By building capacity and training laborers, entrepreneurs are key actors in reducing poverty, which has been identified numerously as a root cause of violence and unrest. Entrepreneurs can also raise living standards by identifying unfulfilled needs and taking economic risks to fill these needs through firm creation and the generation of new services, ideas, and products. These economic contributions are thought to help reduce poverty rates as well as create alternative paths to engaging in violent extremist or conflict activity, as seen in a Wilson Center report on Côte d’Ivoire.

As the report acknowledges, many West African nations face an endemic of youth unemployment which, coupled with the region’s youth bulge, can breed frustration and disengagement. This presents an opening for greater youth involvement in “destructive entrepreneurship”, which is constituted by illegal or criminal economic activity or recruitment to violent extremist groups, both of which exacerbate conflict. Most individuals do not desire to join violent extremist groups—taking up arms and risking their own lives in the process—but in the absence of effective, legal opportunities for income generation, it may feel like the only option. When presented with the opportunity to start a business and thus a legal path to prosperity, conflict is less appealing, and young people are less likely to defer to this option. 

While economic strife and hardship are large contributors to a relapse into violence, economic benefits alone are not enough to create sustained, long-term peace. Studies suggest that in developing nations experiencing conflict (as with some West African nations), the economic benefits of entrepreneurship are concentrated at a local scale and do not stimulate vast increases to overall GDP per capita country-wide. Thus, positive peace cannot be supported merely through economic gains. The conversation regarding entrepreneurship and peacebuilding must go beyond the macro-level economic trends and include the other benefits of small business creation, such as its ability to generate stability. 

Entrepreneurship, Stability Generation, and Reintegration

After the immediate cessation of hostilities, fostering stability is key to preventing a relapse into violence. Entrepreneurship can assist in stabilization by creating long-term buy-in into the economy and resulting aversion to violent disruption. A powerful example of this buy-in occurred in Kenya, where more than 900 firms came together in 2013 in recognition of the conflict’s negative effects on profits. The Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) spearheaded the My Kenya campaign, which sought to influence key actors for a peaceful democratic transition through 200+ peace initiatives over 15 months focused on national cohesion, conflict mitigation, and citizen awareness campaigns. 

It is important to note that the connection between economic buy-in and stability generation does not suggest that without buy-in, there is no desire for stability; conflict is a profoundly complicated phenomenon, and individuals often find themselves involved without consent. This notion of buy-in merely outlines how, when economic ventures are at risk, individuals have monetary incentives to seek alternative pathways to peace before resulting in violence. In this way, local entrepreneurs and their business creation can help facilitate post-conflict stability—a key factor in positive peace—and prevent a relapse into conflict. 

Other instances of stability generation by entrepreneurs occur when entrepreneurship is used to reintegrate ex-combatants into society through programs, such as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. In a case study of Uganda, researchers found that entrepreneurship created opportunities for recognition, networking, and innovation at an individual and societal level, contributing to post-conflict recovery. In Nigeria, peacebuilding programs have used entrepreneurship to provide effective pathways to legal market activities for ex-insurgents. 

Social Entrepreneurship and Peacebuilding 

Lastly, entrepreneurship provides a unique opportunity for creativity and innovation and provides the option for individuals to engage in social entrepreneurship. By centering their business venture around a facet of conflict such as reintegration, entrepreneurs can contribute to peace by orienting their business venture directly around peacebuilding. As those who witness and experience conflict firsthand, local entrepreneurs have a unique perspective and deeper knowledge of the intricacies of violence in their nation or community, which empowers their ability to generate creative solutions through business that traditional top-down peacebuilding models often overlook.

Conclusion and Recommendations 

Across the continent, individuals living both in and out of conflict zones are finding new ways to generate income in the absence of formalized economic institutions and the presence of conflict. The micro-, medium, and small enterprises (MSMEs) emerging from this surge are providing benefits in economic development and stability generation. 

It is vital to consider entrepreneurs not just as contributors to peace but as locally-embedded peacebuilders themselves. 

Based on entrepreneurship’s economic benefits and  inherently local nature, the international community must focus on foreign direct investment, blended finance, financial capital providence, and partnerships with locally-based MSMEs, specifically in conflict zones, to increase the accessibility and affordability of starting a business. This process has begun, reflected in the recent US-Africa Business Summit’s  engagement with MSMEs, the US-Africa Leader Summit’s emphasis on business investment, and the Biden Administration Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa’s focus on strengthening business partnerships and empowering entrepreneurs. This momentum must continue and expand further to include more emphasis on the importance of MSMEs in locally-led peacebuilding. 

Additionally, international bodies, regional institutions, and governments seeking to create lasting peace should focus on generating systems that break down the barriers to entrepreneurial prosperity and divert incentives for destructive entrepreneurship. These systems must vary based on the individual circumstances of each nation and center local voices in their creation, potentially taking shape as infrastructure development programs, social cohesion initiatives, or business-based educational training.

While local start-ups alone are not panaceas for conflict, a strong private sector stimulated by entrepreneurs and the resulting benefits, such as job creation, innovation, and buy-in, are locally-driven pieces of a deeply nuanced peacebuilding puzzle. Due to their ability to address the root causes of violence and foster stability, local entrepreneurs have emerged as key innovators of a vital product for hundreds of thousands of regional stakeholders: a locally-generated positive peace. 

Juliet Lancey is the Communications Intern with the Wilson Center's Africa Program for the Summer 2023 term. She is pursuing a BA in International Affairs accompanied by a concentration in International Development and a minor in Journalism at George Washington University. 

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center’s Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Juliet Lancey Headshot

Juliet Lancey

Former Communications Intern
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more