Tsega Belachew

Four Lessons From a Social Entrepreneur : Tackling the youth employment crisis in Southern Africa

News headlines are replete with stories of a growing youth bulge and impending youth unemployment crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is the bad news. However, many social entrepreneurs are at work even now creating solutions to these types of challenges—a sort of counter-balance that shapes fortune out of misfortune. And within Africa, innovators are stepping up to the challenge of affecting behavior and pattern change with a deep understanding of the context of their communities’ problems. Young Africa (YA) founder Dorien Beurskens and her partner Raj A. Joseph are part of a wave of social entrepreneurs who are identifying root causes for the youth employment challenges in Africa and developing innovative solutions, which place the needs, assets, and priorities of the youth and the wider community at the forefront.

Beverly Schwartz, Ashoka vice present and author of Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World, had the opportunity to talk with Beurskens, and she shared key approaches that Young Africa adopts to address the youth employment challenge in Africa.

1. Organize local assets and place community leaders at the center of the solution.

One of YA’s approaches is creating a model that identifies and strengthens local assets, placing members of the community at the center of sustainable long-term solutions as stakeholders, patrons, and owners. Today, there are four YA Centers in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where entrepreneurs rent space in dedicated facilities that help them transform into professional business establishments. Simultaneously, these entrepreneurs offer local youth “skills of hand” apprenticeships — affordable vocational training in trades such as carpentry, welding, sewing, catering, and more. Seventy percent of YA’s six-month curriculum is practical, bringing on-the-job training to the students and utilizing entrepreneurs as teachers and mentors.

The model meets the needs of the youth and the entrepreneurs at the same time. The youth gain marketable skills through their work experience and an introduction to positive role models. The entrepreneurs gain access to a pool of potential employees and have the opportunity to prepare youth for career paths of their choice.

“Young Africa in Mozambique is graduating 1,000 students every six months. Eighty-three percent of the graduates secure economic opportunities and start earning an income within three months after their graduation. In four years, 26,000 youth have received vocational and management training,” says Beurskens.

2. Empower youth to learn “skills of heart and mind” and enable them to stand strong on their own feet.

“It is the whole package that allows the young person to stand stronger in his/her own shoes,” notes Beurskens (pictured left) as she describes the need for YA’s “skills of heart and mind” training, which helps nurture the social and emotional skills of young changemakers.

“We run a life skills training program, which is mainstreamed into the curriculum and includes lessons in personal empowerment, [e.g.] how to stand up for civic and human rights, build self-confidence, and develop leadership skills.

“Every day we open with a five minute ‘pep talk,’ which emphasizes the need for youth to take responsibility for the change they want to see in society and the change they want to achieve in their lives. Young people are naturally incredibly dynamic and willing to change. They want to improve their society.”

YA encourages youth to nurture their capabilities through hands-on involvement in activities like the student government and an annual art festival. Through these activities, youth learn to tackle challenges, problem-solve, and work with others.

3. Focus on creating a scalable model and be ready to share it across all sectors.

The power of a social entrepreneur’s work is in the ability of the solution—the ideas and insights—to spread. Success, therefore, means a system or pattern change in which the public, citizen, and/or private sectors see value in the creative and entrepreneurial approach and help restructure the system to incorporate these solutions. When it comes to youth employment in sub-Saharan Africa, this is especially relevant given the multi-sector and country/community-specific nature of the challenge. Young Africa’s approach: spread the model by setting a trend, while adapting the model for country/community differences.

“We are trying to set a trend by setting up 15 centers in particular countries in Southern Africa. But we also want other organizations and the governments of the countries where we work to take and apply this model, because it is cost-effective, self-sustainable, and maximizes opportunities to equip students to join the labor market, getting them ready for economic opportunities,” says Beurskens.

4. Anticipate the employment trends of the future and adapt skills training accordingly.

Youth unemployment is a consequence of both the lack of job opportunities and insufficient or poor training for the opportunities available and those yet to come. Young Africa addresses the latter issue by developing a future-focused curriculum.

“The trends are different for each country. [In Mozambique] we see a trend toward employers asking for higher levels of skill. So we are modifying courses to be ahead of the trend. [In addition], we are setting up a new agricultural skills training center and a center in Namibia to experiment with training in green (solar and wind) technologies,” says Beurskens.

Young Africa’s approach—and ensuing success—is making a sustainable impact on the youth unemployment crisis in Southern Africa. By understanding the unique assets and needs of the community, YA is improving the livelihoods of Africa’s youth in many different ways. In closing the interview, I asked Beurskens which stories of youth have resonated with her most. She told us, “For me, the most amazing stories are those of the girls living and studying in the YA hostel. We have girls who came to our program who are very young and very scared. After two years, they are strong enough to have a job, rent a room, to even start working, and settle into life. Now they can look after themselves and contribute positively to their communities. You can see how much they can leap forward in terms of self-confidence—it is an amazing transformation.”

This article was based on an interview with Dorien Beurskens and was written by Tsega Belachew with input from Ashoka’s Future Forward team. The Future Forward partnership aims to identify and support the mostinnovative social entrepreneurs who address youth employment challenges in sub-Saharan Africa. Through this collaboration, Ashoka and The MasterCard Foundation aim to identify and convene innovators, thought leaders, and youth to inform the conversation about solutions that can move #AfricaYouthFwd.

Join the next Future Forward webinar event “How can job creation be improved for young people?” The youth inspired event will encompass a livestream panel discussion and a live Twitter chat. Use hashtags #AfricaYouthFwd and #SocEntChat to take part via Twitter at 9:30 A.M. ET Thursday, (Dec. 5) prior to the panel discussion at 10 A.M. ET. For all details and to sign up, click here.

skill development