“Profit” is a bad word! Entrepreneurship and the Guyanese mind

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By Dr. Ken Danns

I WAS teaching at the University of Guyana during the era of the Desmond Hoyte’s Presidency and that of the succession in government of the PPP/C. I introduced what I termed the “Sociology of Enterprise” as an integral component of my SOC 100: Introduction to Sociology course which had enrolment numbers of between 100 – 150 students annually. The course lasted the duration of the academic year and students were introduced to theories on the origins of capitalism and entrepreneurship and required and trained to enact the role of entrepreneurs. The students were required to come up with a lawful business idea, develop a business plan and operationalise a short-term economic enterprise. This assignment explicitly stated that the more profit students successfully made, relative to their investment of time and money, the higher their grades would be for that assignment.

The students reported with great pride to the entire class on their rather innovative projects. These projects ranged from food businesses, farming, craft, organising large entertainment ventures, daycare, cleaning and other services, etc. Some of these enterprises have continued long after the class ended. The first couple of years the Sociology of Enterprise students did so as “individual entrepreneurs” or formed groups and worked together as “group entrepreneurs”.

By the third year while maintaining the individual and group entrepreneurs’ initiatives the entire class was turned into a “corporate enterprise”, complete with a managing board of directors, including a finance director, and board chairman and secretary. My University of Guyana’s sociology class, as a business incubator, initiated and developed successful and enduring projects like “Academic Freedom” a large all day fair held on Easter Monday on the Turkeyen Campus with the tag line “Academic Freedom, you got fuh come”; AWE Society – a theatrical production held at the National Cultural Center and “Miss University of Guyana Beauty Pageant”. In all of these highly successful short term enterprises, repeated for several years, the students actively engaged the business community as advertisers, investors, service providers and the public as consumers. The media, paid and unpaid, were crucial in promoting the students’ ventures. Students understood that all entrepreneurship involved risk taking and that many ventures fail.

The University of Guyana kept half of all profits made for use of its brand and facilities and these monies were used to buy computers, printers, office furniture, etc. that the university otherwise would not have been able to afford. The board of directors elected by the students accounted for all monies and paid each student from the profits. The Sociology of Enterprise Project maintained an account at Citizen’s Bank leaving a token sum of money in the account so the next year’s class would have some capital to start with.

I also lived what I preached by creating two successful businesses AWE Society Productions and the Center for Economic and Social Research and Action (CESRA). Many of my students created and sustained their own businesses after leaving the class. Entrepreneurship was not only taught and learned. It was also lived. The hundreds of students who took the course earned marks, money and a creative disposition to innovation and entrepreneurship.

The biggest problem I had as professor for the course was to convince our Guyanese students that it was okay to make money for themselves from their created enterprises. Students understood readily and eagerly related to the necessity for and challenges of innovation. But, the students in every class kept asking me same thing: “To whom or where do I/we donate the money I/we make”. The idea of engaging in entrepreneurial activities exclusively for personal profit rather than for altruistic purposes made most students feel uncomfortable and seemingly clashed with their value orientations to economic life. For most of the students “profit” was a bad word. The path to success in life consisted of earning a degree and acquiring a “good job”. Becoming an entrepreneur was not on their career radar. It required an epistemological break by students from their current understanding of economic life. I had to act as a “moral entrepreneur” and assured them that making money and a profit for themselves was a good thing. Further, that through their business enterprises they were providing a public service for private good.

Emerging from it post-colonial socialist past the Guyanese people were largely a nation of job seekers rather than wealth creators. The government was the dominant entrepreneur, followed by foreign enterprises, and the local private sector comprised mainly of family businesses. In addition, there were numerous small farmers, vendors and artisans engaged in “survival entrepreneurship”.

Cooperative socialism
The Hoyte administration had abandoned cooperative socialism, restored market oriented economic policies and embraced the private sector as the engine of development. The emphasis was on attracting foreign investment – industrialization by invitation – and divesting state-owned enterprises. The PPP/C government maintained this trend and in addition promoted government partnerships with the private sector. While emphasising the role of the conventional private sector in the country’s development, as a reality and an abstraction, these preceding governmental administrations maintained state dominance in the economy and were not very effective in promoting a vibrant entrepreneurial culture in Guyana.

Of course, survival entrepreneurship as a method to generate “income” rather than “profit” has always existed in Guyana. Tens of thousands of relatively new survival entrepreneurs have emerged unable to rely on paid employment alone from the government or from the private sector. Herein lies a virtual reservoir of untapped entrepreneurial talent waiting for a salubrious policy climate and appropriate incentives like paved roads, transportation, power, potable water and access to local and international markets to explode. Many operate in the informal sector and in the underground economy as “guerilla entrepreneurs”. People are getting their hustle on, starting their own small businesses or at a minimum buying and selling commodities and services. Seems like everybody in Guyana selling something. Guyanese are earnestly seeking to explore entrepreneurial activities outside of their conventional employment. Sugar workers, for example, supplement their seasonal incomes as taxi and minibus drivers, farmers, artisans and shopkeepers.

A few months ago, I travelled along the coastlands from the University of Guyana’s Turkeyen Campus in Georgetown to its Tain Campus in Berbice. I was fascinated to see the roadside markets in many villages with their bounty of greens, vegetables, colourful fruits, fish, shrimp, crab, chicken, beef, and other commodities tantalisingly displayed. These markets seemed to be flourishing more than ever. I tried only to think of this endless bounty of produce as “organic” and fresh, rather than wondering about their shelf life and what happens to these primary commodities when they are not sold. I tried to think of how very blessed and verdant Guyana is. If you even spit on the soil something will grow. Truly a green economy!

Most of these small enterprises are wholly dependent on the labour power of these survival entrepreneurs and lack survivability and prospects for transformative growth. A visa to the United States or Canada is a huge incentive to abandon these small enterprises and the country. If only the production of these primary goods can be converted into value added commodities through the application of technology to preserve, to can and to export. If only these vendors can be trained to tap the wind and hot tropical sun as reliable energy sources for manufacture in their communities.

Marked departure
The two year old APNU/AFC Coalition Government in Guyana has made a marked departure from its predecessors. It is decidedly and openly fostering entrepreneurship to generate employment, stimulate manufacturing and other value added enterprises and in general to give citizens a stake and a say in the development of the country and their communities. President David Granger in urging villagers to develop cottage industries stated: “Get into manufacturing; open packaging plants and factories! Villagers can do simple things by planting guava and using them to make jams and jellies; villages today are empty, so the villagers need to get involved in various manufacturing activities.” Guyana’s Minister of Finance Winston Jordan encouraged residents in the Town of Linden for example to “get involved in business” and assured them that the government will support their entrepreneurship.

This is a major policy shift where entrepreneurship is seen as a protocol for wealth creation and development not only by the conventional private sector, both local and foreign, but by Guyanese everywhere in the villages and townships. The Guyana government is seemingly cultivating an entrepreneurial culture among its peoples. Remarkable indeed! When the state plays the major and activist role in promoting private entrepreneurship countries develop rapidly. Examples are, China, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

This major paradigm shift in thought on Guyana’s development must of course be accompanied by the conscious recognition that “profit” is not a bad word”. Government regulations and taxation must function as incentives to wealth creation and profit generation rather than onerous burdens and disincentives. Celebrate the generation of wealth and profit. Promoting an entrepreneurial culture in Guyana as a development strategy importantly requires buy in by government administrators and not only its articulation by political leaders. Government bureaucrats must be oriented to stop seeing profit as a bad word. Emergent or established businesses must come to perceive government functionaries as enablers, rather than deadweights and vampires. The caring actions and long term commitment of the government are crucially important for bringing large segments of the vibrant survival entrepreneurship into the formal economic sector and above ground and enabling their sustainability. This is by no means to suggest that emergent business enterprises must be dependent on government for their survival. Private enterprise is economic freedom and a foundation of modern democracy.

The entrepreneur is important for development. It is through entrepreneurship that the forces of production are organised and revolutionised to create the wealth associated with industrial and postindustrial societies. The generation of profit is a good thing. It must be seen and treated as such by those committed to their own and the country’s development.