Following a decade-long civil war that decimated its fragile, emerging economy, Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, still lacks such basic infrastructure as paved roads and traffic lights. But the city once called the Athens of West Africa is gearing up for prosperity.
The School of Management building now under construction at the University of Sierra Leone is one sign of the country's push to nurture entrepreneurship at home and investor confidence abroad. Following a visit in January by Cesar Bandera, an assistant professor of management, the building's entire top floor has been dedicated to a business incubator modeled on NJIT's Enterprise Development Center.
"In the developing world, these incubators work well because there are so few jobs that many people are already entrepreneurs by necessity. In fact, entrepreneurs make up three times the percentage of the population in West Africa than in the United States, with greater gender equality. But their businesses tend to be informal with little to no growth and no new job creation," noted Bandera, who met government ministers from Sierra Leone when they toured NJIT's EDC in November and solicited a white paper from him on the topic of business incubation. The country's president, Ernest Koroma, then invited him to visit Freetown for further consultation after reading his proposal.
"The government wants to establish a pipeline of companies from the Freetown Enterprise Development Center (FEDC) to the Sierra Leone Stock Exchange," Bandera said, adding that likely first occupants of the incubator would include companies supplying basic, needed services such as food processing and communications technology and support.
Unlike most incubators in the U.S., the FEDC would include manufacturing resources not typically found in high-tech locations, including a loading dock, warehouse space, a machine room, and back-up power for process control that would allow companies to prototype new products and services and conduct field trials with initial production runs.
But the proposed center shares core principles with NJIT's EDC, including its close connection with the university, which gives its entrepreneurs access to faculty, top students, and training programs.
"The first thing I told them is that EDCs are not just hotels for small businesses. Entrepreneurial education is an important component of success as well," Bandera recounted, adding that the incubator would also house "a critical mass of tenants, because they learn a lot from each other."
"The School of Management is glad to be a partner in this international effort to assist Sierra Leone build a diverse and healthy economy anchored on innovation and new business startups," said Pius Egbelu, dean of the School of Management, adding, "Our faculty share their knowledge outside the classroom through published papers, lectures, and collaboration with other schools nationally and internationally."
Bandera, who spent his own faculty funds to make the trip, will return in April to consult on the set-up of the temporary space being retrofitted to serve as the FEDC until the School of Management building is completed next year, while also helping the university plan courses on entrepreneurship.
"The entrepreneurship program at NJIT does an excellent job promoting high-tech innovators. But to broaden the program's economic impact, I like to include the non-tech entrepreneur," he said. "Establishing best practices for setting up these incubators in different parts of the world is also an area of research that I am interested in. Clearly there is a great need for them in the developing world."
NJIT, New Jersey's science and technology university, enrolls 10,000 students pursuing bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in 120 programs. The university consists of six colleges: Newark College of Engineering, College of Architecture and Design, College of Science and Liberal Arts, School of Management, College of Computing Sciences and Albert Dorman Honors College. U.S. News & World Report's 2011 Annual Guide to America's Best Colleges ranked NJIT in the top tier of national research universities. NJIT is internationally recognized for being at the edge in knowledge in architecture, applied mathematics, wireless communications and networking, solar physics, advanced engineered particulate materials, nanotechnology, neural engineering and e-learning. Many courses and certificate programs, as well as graduate degrees, are available online through the Division of Continuing Professional Education.