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Creating Opportunities in Rural East Africa
For most young people in rural communities in Africa, opportunities are scarce. With only 28 percent of Africa’s labor force holding stable wage-paying jobs, and most of those concentrated in urban areas, rural life can appear to offer little prospect for advancement.
On a recent trip to Kenya, I met 26-year-old Alice Micere from Njukiini, a rural community about two hours northeast of Nairobi. She had pursued a number of opportunities, including working as a community health employee, obtaining a diploma in clothing and textiles, and selling medical insurance. Yet, despite her evident drive and ambition, she was still facing a life of poverty. Only two percent of young people in her community have formal jobs. Her “friends” were idling, drinking too much and drifting off to the larger towns nearby. They were disinterested in pursuing their parents’ subsistence farming that offered little except backbreaking work for uncertain rewards. Alice did not know how to find help to advance herself.
By the time I met Alice, she had been through the Strengthening Rural Youth Development through Enterprise (STRYDE) program, a partnership between TechnoServe and The MasterCard Foundation. And she was on her way. Standing by a road junction near her home, Alice was running a small business selling products and a range of other items from a small trolley. Alice had been linked to ’s 5by20 initiative, which helped reinforce the basic business skills training and access to peer networks that she received through STRYDE. Her infectious smile, entrepreneurial creativity and energy had been channeled and honed through the program to help her establish the basis for a vibrant and growing business. “STRYDE made me what I am today,” Alice said.
I was in Kenya for the first regional stakeholder convening of the three-country program, which aims to assist 15,000 young people in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over four years. The young people are exposed to a three-month training that includes the transformative “personal effectiveness” module, which helps them recognize their talents and strengths, connect with their inner purpose and see themselves as more than a victim. This is followed by personal finance, which combines financial literacy, skills such as operating a bank account, and understanding the importance of savings and planning for the future. Other modules open up options for people to understand how to prepare to get a job, build their entrepreneurial skills and gain exposure to farming as a commercial rather than subsistence activity.
Following an intense “Think Business” simulation exercise, a nine-month “aftercare” phase helps the participating youth identify models to start their business, find a job or return to the family farm utilizing their new commercial skills. After the first 18 months, the 2,400 trainees in the first two cohorts have created more than 800 new businesses, expanded almost 150 others and gained more than 150 jobs.
Why is this program so important? Africa will add 122 million people to its labor force between 2010 ..., and even if the higher economic growth rates continue, about 65 percent of the continent’s working people still will be without stable jobs by 2020. Huge risks arise if those people lack the opportunity to advance themselves.
The evidence was before me that STRYDE can deliver such opportunity to the young program participants. But training and mentoring, no matter how good, will not on their own create jobs, build the agricultural and industrial sectors, open up markets and improve the business environment, so that those young people can find meaningful work, sell their agricultural produce at decent margins, and access finance to grow their small businesses.
Such change will require the efforts of a huge range of stakeholders. Many were represented at the convening. Rwanda’s Minister of Youth and Information and Communication Technology, Jean “Phil” Nsengimana, talked about how he wants to replicate the STRYDE approach across his country and link it to sectoral growth strategies. Businesspeople and industrialists discussed the best business models to create more jobs. Bankers and micro-financiers shared examples of the ways they are making financial services more readily available to young people, including new innovations utilizing mobile phones.
It is still early days. Proven results, as measured by growing business revenues and sustainable jobs, will require attention to emerging lessons including the intractable challenges with access to credit that should prompt increased competition between financial institutions; the need for constant attention to overcoming gender barriers that limit access to land and capital; balancing the desire of the young people to stay linked to their training cohort with allowing them the freedom to excel on their own and not feel they have to carry their entire group along; and the ongoing need to pull in more business, governmental and civil society partners into a supportive network.
But great promise is in the air. Participants such as Alice are emerging with higher self-esteem and confidence. Alice herself has distanced herself from her former friends and become closer with her fellow trainees, who also have a new motivation to succeed.
As I listened to Alice talk, I was inspired by her dynamism, energy and focus. I could easily envision her business progressing from a micro-enterprise to a small and growing business, and eventually to a regional distributor that creates jobs for others in her community. For rural areas in Africa, people like Alice offer the promise of a brighter future.
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