BLOG: The Future of Work for Youth in Africa, July 2016


How to Put Young People in Charge to Boost Africa’s Youth Employment

Youth unemployment is a hot topic globally these days, especially in Africa, where the growing number of young people entering the job market will be critical to economic development.

African countries are experiencing the issue in varying degrees. Education and infrastructure problems are often cited. However, members of Future Forward, a network of leading social entrepreneurs, youth-serving professionals, and youth changemakers across Africa, have pinpointed a key — and often ignored — challenge: young people in Africa lack the opportunity to become authentic leaders.

In other words, young people don’t have many options when it comes to leadership opportunities, in part due to mindsets around the capabilities of youth. And without such opportunities, they are struggling to build in-demand skills, secure quality jobs, and become entrepreneurs.

What can youth and youth-serving programs do to turn this problem around? Meredith Lee, Deputy Director of the MasterCard Foundation’s Youth Livelihoods program joined the Future Forward network for a live Q&A session about this topic. Speaking from her perspective of more than 15 years of experience working with youth around the world, Lee discussed how young people themselves are critical to designing solutions that work.

Here are five tips we learned for putting youth in charge:

1.Involve young people in the design of solutions

And not just in a token way, but by giving them authentic, decision-making roles. Young people are a critical piece of the employment ecosystem, and yet are often left out of solution-creation. The MasterCard Foundation, however, has built in processes that ensure youth are at the center of their research and partnership selection.

“We really try and put young people at the forefront,” Lee said. “[The MasterCard Foundation’s] Youth Think Tank is a representative of 15 individuals from about 10 different organizations on any given year. They go out to their own communities and ask young people what the issues are around a specific question. For example, ‘Is agriculture a viable career option for young people?’ They go out and ask questions around that and come back and give us some feedback.”

Young people also attend the foundation’s visits to potential partner organizations, read proposals, and sit on advisory groups — because young people are “really the people that could actually say whether something’s going to function or not, based on their own experience and those of their peers.”

1.To engage governments, youth leaders should start locally and build partnerships

Several African nations are shining a spotlight on youth employment as a critical issue area, and pioneering youth leaders have been eager to share their ideas with governments. While some governments have youth advisory groups, for the most part, influencing policies can be an uphill battle when dominant mindsets don’t consider young people as sources of knowledge and wisdom.

Lee noted that “rolling influence up the chain” was what she had seen work best. She encouraged young people not to be afraid to ask national questions, but to start with the most immediate vehicles for change.

Getting governments on board with youth programming can also be challenging, because supporting youth can be high-touch and resource intensive.

“Each young person comes with their own aspirations, challenges, circumstances that often requires a one-on-one support to truly be able to get young people to the next level,” Lee said.

“But that one-on-one mentorship comes at a very high price, and so that is a huge challenge when it comes to scaling.”

The solution? Collaborate and share the work.

Lee noted that the foundation has seen successful programs “involve various different types of players from the beginning of a project.”

“For example, not just a youth organization, but the youth organization that partners with a banking institution, that partners with the private sector, that partners with the skills development. So that from the beginning, there’s ownership that’s shared amongst all of those various different players, and all of them have a stake in the game to really have this project succeed.”

By leveraging partnerships, youth programs can reduce their risk and scale through being able to reach different types of young people from different channels. Ultimately, this type of networked collaboration works to build a broader ecosystem of change with more players invested in the end goal.

1.Two promising approaches for youth-serving programs

Lee noted that effective organizations often work with one of two powerful approaches. Some organizations, such as Harambee, start with understanding high-potential markets and then work backward to skill young people to that sector. In this approach, the organization partners first with the private sector to “identify what the jobs are and the job needs are, find the young people who are interested, and then make sure that the skills gap is solved.”

Lee gave another example with the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), a research institution in Ethiopia that has identified beekeeping and silkworms as a growth opportunity for the country. ICIPE has already built partnerships with textile and honey companies, and it is now determining how to skill young people to fulfill the jobs created by this emerging industry.

Other organizations focus on equipping people with broad, transferable skills. “Things like communication, punctuality, work ethic, or working in teams,” Lee said. “Those [skills] are a little bit intangible, but are transferable no matter what job you’re working in. They also make sure that the young person is ready to work in an employment environment.”

2.Understand deeply what young people need

Obviously, Africa is a vast continent, and each country’s young people will have unique needs to unlock their potential. For example, youth in countries that are undergoing reconstruction or conflict will have a very different set of needs than those in a country with stronger infrastructure. Lee encouraged youth-serving leaders to continue building a deep understanding of the profile of their target young person.

For example, “the needs and the requirements of young people who are coming out of post-conflict countries are really very unique,” Lee said. “Some of the models that I’m seeing…the International Rescue Committee, for example, are really trying to build the confidence of young people, build that notion of optimism, that notion of possibility, the notion of aspirations. [These young people] may not have other role models around them who can exemplify that for them.”

3.Think outside of the box when it comes to the definition of “work”

The challenges of an unprecedented number of youth reaching working age while education and job opportunities still lag mean that it’s a good time to think creatively about what a “job” might be. With traditional, formal sector jobs being hard to come by, the informal sector, entrepreneurship, and social innovation could be tapped to create more skill-building and income-earning pathways for young people. Mixed livelihoods and having a diverse set of income sources may also be the new normal for many young people.

Lee offered this encouragement: “A lot of young people are working but they may not call what they’re doing work. They may be helping out in their family’s business. They may be helping out on their family’s farm. That is all work. It may not be waged work, it may not be paid work, but it’s still work and it’s giving them both experience and skills that they can then kind of build further out to realize their own career dreams and aspirations.”

She also noted that it’s important to look at the entire value chain when it comes to a particular field of work. For example, agriculture is a driver of economic growth in many African countries, but many young people and their families think that “farming” means a hard life tilling the soil. However, pre-production and post-harvest processes present tremendous opportunities for young people to be involved, whether it be in inputs, extension work, access to finance, food storage and transportation, and technologies.

Lee also noted an example of social innovation in agriculture — a young woman from Kenya who, at the age of 14, started a rabbit farming association of women agri-entrepreneurs. Laetitia Mukungu went on to win the Anzisha Prize, which enabled her to access additional growth investment.

Thus, “broadening the definition” of sectors like agriculture can unlock opportunity. It can also be fruitful to recognize that opportunities can cross borders — ”especially where tariffs are low and barriers are low to crossing countries. I would really encourage [multi-international thinking]. I’ve seen that as being a real opportunity for young people in the continent.”

Lee gave the example of Andrew Mupuya, a rural Ugandan who identified an opportunity once Rwanda banned the use of plastic bags. He started a business that now employs 40 people making paper bags and envelopes with paper imported from Kenya.

The future of work thus stands to be reshaped and redefined by young people themselves. And it’s up to everyone working in the youth employment ecosystem to shift the conversation.

“If you look across the continent, you’ll see a significant number of governments that have put youth employment at the top of the agenda,” Lee said. “All of us who are in this space need to help [build] understanding and open minds around the definition of employment.”

“The future of work in Africa looks to me like creativity, like adaptability, like creating something new. It will look completely different than anything we see now that we expect. It will be completely different from the way that we see work now.”

Interested in more insights on changing the future of work in Africa? Sign up for updates from the Future Forward network, supported by Ashoka and the MasterCard Foundation. Don’t forget to check out the MasterCard Foundation’s new Youth Think Tank report on economic opportunities for youth in East Africa.

Originally published by: ASHOKA