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Geoforum 49 (2013) R1–R3

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Zigzag capitalism: Youth entrepreneurship in the contemporary global South

Prempal Singh is in his late twenties and lives in Bemni in the of public comment in contemporary Europe. But in the global
Indian Himalayas. He has a Tenth Class (high school) pass and South the speed of change has usually been more rapid than it
comes from a poor family in the village. After leaving school, he has been in Euro-America, in terms of the rise of formal education,
quickly realized that he was unlikely to get a government job. At cycles of boom and bust, and sudden shifts in the economic land-
roughly this time, electricity arrived in the village, and, seeing his scape that make it necessary to recalibrate expectations and strat-
chance, Prempal retrained as an electrician. He volunteered to fix egies (e.g. Newell, 2012).
cables in the village and learnt about how electricity works. He Young people are adept at finding economic niches within
then borrowed money from an uncle and started to hire himself uncertain economic landscapes. Chiumbu and Nyawahindi (2012)
as a DJ at local weddings. Two microphones strapped to a mule, have shown how poor urban youth in Zimbabwe made money dur-
he hauled his equipment up and down the mountain for village ing the 2000s through selling pre-paid mobile phone cards, which
functions, tacking back and forth along the steep rocky paths. He they sometimes used as a virtual currency in the context of the col-
knew how to bribe the local officials to ensure that there is a con- lapse of the Zimbabwean dollar. Thieme (2010) worked with young
tinuous flow of electricity to the village when a function is taking people in a Nairobi slum who were involved in the recycling of
place and he had developed good relationships with the main elec- waste. Young people’s entrepreneurship is also a central theme
trical equipment supplier in the nearby town. ‘‘The whole thing is in Jamie Cross’s ongoing work on the marketing of solar panels
running alright’’, Prempal told us in May 2012. in eastern India (http://solarassemblage.com).
There are several young people in Bemni who are responding to One of the key insights emerging from recent geographical work
a difficult economic environment by starting small businesses. is that the quality of the institutional environment mediates
They are, in their own words, ‘‘entrepreneurs’’ (using the English opportunities for entrepreneurial action within any specific sphere.
word). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an entrepreneur Langevang and Gough’s (2012) research on hairdressing and dress-
is a ‘‘person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on finan- making businesses in contemporary Ghana bears this out. The
cial risks in the hope of profit.’’ Entrepreneurship, unlike the re- introduction of new technologies, growing demand for customized
lated term ‘‘enterprise’’, carries with it the specific connotation of hair styling, and the existence of business associations encouraged
risk-taking. It is also often associated with a type of shrewdness. the emergence of a set of young women running small hairdressing
In an influential definition, Stevenson (1983, p. 24) argues that, businesses in urban Ghana. But local dressmaking declined in the
‘‘Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard same region because of a lack of technological innovation and
to resources currently controlled’’. To date, much of the social sci- the absence of supportive craft organizations.
ence research on entrepreneurship in this sense has focused on Another issue raised by recent studies concerns the discourse of
business elites. But ordinary people across the global South engage entrepreneurialism. The notion that youth can and should develop
in forms of business that involve considerations of risk and profit small businesses has become a powerful development idea. In an
and entail long-term planning. The poor in places such as India oft-cited report, the World Bank (2007) urged young people to take
are not only ‘‘surviving’’ but also making careful, repeated, and responsibility for their futures through entering business. Simi-
much-deliberated decisions about how to capitalize on new oppor- larly, the Indian Government has recently established a National
tunities and navigate difficulties. Innovation Council with the goal of fostering local entrepreneur-
People in their late teens and twenties are among the more ship across India, especially among youth. Enterprise is also being
prominent of these ordinary entrepreneurs (Vigh, 2006). Young celebrated in the media. The recent BBC documentary Welcome to
people in Africa, Latin America and Asia have moved into formal India is full of images of poor young people becoming grassroots
education in increasing numbers over the past quarter century, of- entrepreneurs.
ten with the intention of escaping agriculture and entering white- There are ideological risks attached to celebrations of youth
collar work (Lloyd, 2005). But there is a chronic lack of formal-sec- entrepreneurialism. The notion that people can ‘‘pull themselves
tor jobs in manufacturing and services in many parts of the global up by their own bootstraps’’ can serve as an ideological fig leaf
South (Jeffrey, 2010). One of the implications of this mismatch be- for state non-investment in core services. In addition, the rise of
tween ambitions and outcomes has been to propel young people market-oriented approaches to development has been bound up
into the informal capitalist economy where they often engage in with efforts by powerful institutions such as the World Bank to de-
a bewildering variety of microenterprise (World Bank, 2013). pict social problems as issues of individual responsibility, which
The rise of a precariously employed youth population is not of can decrease the pressure on government to improve people’s
course a peculiarity of the global South. It is a theme of Wilson’s lives, distract from issues of persistent inequality, and lead young
(1996) work on jobless youth in the US and a widespread topic people to blame themselves for their situation – the World Bank’s

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R2 Editorial / Geoforum 49 (2013) R1–R3

(2007) language of giving young people ‘‘second chances’’ in their capitalist endeavor. Eschewing old models of how to do business,
late teens and twenties (as if they had a first chance) is especially they refer to themselves as people engaged in creative improvisa-
disingenuous. Moreover, the spread of discourses of success tion. This is most evident in the growing popularity of the phrase
through participation in the market may lead young people to ‘‘kukiya kiya’’, a complex term which means at its most simply
downplay community solidarities and ideas of shared citizenship. ‘‘making do’’ or ‘‘seizing opportunities in the moment’’ but also
In short, a type of neoliberal mentality may take hold that has a connotes a brash form of pragmatism, savoire faire, and an
destructive effect on young people and their wider social milieu. incessant hustle reflected also in the English word ‘‘zigzag’’. Young
But this critique of entrepreneurialism discourse must be read people argue that older, ‘‘straight’’ economic transactions are no
in context. To disparage all references to the promotion of longer possible or even desirable. Life has become an exercise in
‘‘entrepreneurship’’ as fundamentally tainted by their association ‘‘zigzagging’’.
with free market capitalist ideas and the pronouncements of the The spatial metaphor is surely appropriate, highlighting how –
World Bank is too detract attention from the need to support – literally and symbolically – young people feel they have to
practically and ideologically – the types of enterprise being pushed constantly move about, hustle and find novel lines of approach to
forward by young people such as Prempal. get things done. But Jones’ analysis is geographically interesting
Questions about how to evaluate entrepreneurship and dis- for other reasons, too. Young people adopted the new language
courses of entrepreneurship become still more complex when we of zigzagging in the specific context of feeling that normal life
turn to forms of youth enterprise that are illegal and serve to had been suspended in Zimbabwe. The hyper-entrepreneurial
reproduce pernicious social inequalities. Prempal’s neighbor, mindsets that Jones describes reflect a generalized sense of
Karminder, dropped out of school after Eighth Class and set up a occupying a type of netherworld in which ordinary rules no longer
shop in the local town, which was the front for a local poaching apply.
operation. He then started to ingratiate himself with his brother- The particular recent political turmoil in Zimbabwe means that
in-law, a much older man who had become a successful contractor it cannot be taken as in any way ‘‘typical’’ of the global South. But it
on government building projects in the region. Contractorships is remarkable how often the type of suspended animation that
offer the opportunity to accumulate large personal fortunes Jones describes – the sense of living in a time of interruption in
through the embezzlement of funds ear-marked for government which new strategies and new ways of thinking become necessary
projects. They have became one of the chief ways in which – is repeated in other work. It is a theme, for example, of Roitman
relatively powerful people on the ground capture and control state (2004)’s work on underemployed young men involved in illegal
resources in provincial India, reflecting a marked increase since the trade in the Chad Basin, Vigh’s (2006) research on youth violence
early 2000s in the quantity of money invested by central and State in Guinea-Bissua, Jeffrey’s (2010) research on criminal entrepre-
governments in infrastructural projects across the country. neurship in India, and Newell’s (2012) study in Cote d’Ivoire.
Karminder spent a couple of years as a lackey for his brother-in- The larger point emerging in the work of Jones, Roitman, Newell
law and politicians and he was duly rewarded with the opportu- and others is of the emergence of forms of individualistic, self-
nity to make money from a bridge building project. He soon began enterprising discourse that in some ways exceed and bend into a
to take on projects himself. It is competitive, dangerous and new form the notions of neoliberal responsibilization being pro-
difficult work, entailing regular trips to Nepal to hire workers, mulgated by powerful institutions such as the World Bank. Young
numerous visits to politicians to ‘‘keep them sweet’’, and a people are not only absorbing neoliberal ideas and in some in-
constant vigilance with respect to competitors. stances rejecting them: They are inventing their own notions of
Contractorships are a key mechanism through which a minority entrepreneurship and individualism. This poses yet another chal-
of politically influential men accumulates large sums of money at lenge to simplistic accounts of a need to ‘‘fight back’’ against the
the expense of the poor in north India. People like Karminder spread of neoliberal discourse. In policy terms, national govern-
siphon of funds formally ear-marked for local development ments and NGOs need to combine a focus on entrepreneurship
projects, such as handpump construction, widow’s pensions with attention to addressing social inequalities and improving
schemes, and midday meal provision for children. The aggregate the institutional environment, for example through bolstering
impact of this predatory brokerage has been to prevent poor people’s access to cheap credit, reducing corruption, and enhancing
people from gaining access to basic development goods. the standard of school and post-school education.
Karminder’s example is highly suggestive in terms of the wider
youth literature. Young people are often accumulating money and Acknowledgements
influence through occupying niches within patron-client networks
in the global South, as research in Africa (e.g. Vigh, 2006), Latin We are very grateful to Padraig Carmody, Katherine Gough,
America (de Vries, 2002), and India (Jeffrey and Young, 2012) Esther Rootham, Sahar Romani, Amanda Snellinger, and Stephen
attests. This includes work as mercenaries in areas of conflict, hired Young for comments on earlier drafts of this article. We are also
thugs for political parties, and activity as brokers or patrons in the grateful to the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ES/
corrupt disbursement of state resources – all quite ‘‘old’’ forms of J011444/1) and the John Fell Fund for supporting the fieldwork
narrowly self-interested accumulative politics into which youth upon which this editorial is partly based. None of these individuals
are sometimes breathing fresh life. An especially telling recent or organizations bears any responsibility for the final content of the
example comes from Newell’s (2012) work with young men in piece.
Cote D’Ivoire. He charts the widespread move of men into forms
of ‘‘bizness’’ – a Francophone African word covering activities such References
as phone fraud, forgery, extortion, blackmail, and dealing in stolen
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What emerges powerfully in these studies of illegal enterprise is Press, Cape Town.
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