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Redefining What Counts as a “Good” Job

By Reem Rahman and Lynsey Farrell

Employers and job seekers across the continent are struggling with an employment mismatch of unprecedented proportions. Adetoun Adewolu-Ogwo, founder of the National Career Centers of Nigeria, experienced this firsthand when she was given the responsibility to hire new employees at one of her first jobs at a beverages company in Nigeria. She posted about 15 management trainee openings and her company received over 96,000 applications. 96,000! “It was a tipping point for me,“ she describes. “I knew there was a disconnect somewhere, because these people met the basic application criteria,”and yet they were struggling to find jobs.

This pivotal experience inspired Adewolu-Ogwo to launch the National Career Centers of Nigeria, joining other social entrepreneurs who tackle the youth unemployment crisis by shifting young people’s views of the options they have for success. There are three major societal shifts that entrepreneurs such as Adewolu-Ogwo are promoting through innovative solutions:

1.     Elevate informal jobs as viable, respected livelihoods

2.     Leverage alternative industries

3.     Shift from jobs to entrepreneurship.

Elevate “Informal” Jobs as Viable, Respected Livelihoods

On any given day in a major African city, young people are hustling—delivering goods on pushcarts, driving motorcycle taxis, or hawking in traffic. But if you ask many of those young people what they do for work, they might (and often do) reply that they are unemployed. This reality means that some of the most essential jobs in society are the least valued. Social entrepreneurs are creating ways to elevate the role of jobs—particularly informal and manual jobs, which are usually disparaged, even if they are essential, in African communities. To bring greater ease and recognition to the young people involved in this kind of work, innovators are creating mechanisms to allow them to operate more successfully. Examples include:

Mobile, Social Referrals Create Steady Income Opportunities

Duma Works is a mobile career-building platform in Kenya that enables the un(der)employed to leverage basic phones to match with job opportunities, resulting in steadier income on informal jobs, such as transportation, or access to formal employment. Algorithms and social referrals activate an SMS alert and an invitation to further sector-specific skills tests. Top-performing candidates are then recommended to employers. Since 2001, over 2,510 job matches have been made with over 250 companies and 60,000 platform users.

Affordable, Hands-On, Entrepreneurial: Vocational Training Redesigned 

Dorien Beurskens is challenging perceptions that vocational training leads to low-status jobs or prevents the pursuit of higher education. Through her organization, Young Africa, she has developed an affordable way to provide vocational education and insights to youth in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia. Training centers double as business hubs for entrepreneurs in the community—the center rents its space, equipment, and brand to local entrepreneurs who, in turn, train students in their respective fields. Since 1998, more than 29,000 youth have been trained, with 83 percent of graduates becoming economically active (32 percent self-employed).

Leverage Alternative Industries

The conventional mindset on “good” jobs is that young people are expected to search for employment in traditionally stable and established sectors like finance, government, law, and marketing. Social entrepreneurs are identifying industries where skills are scarce but opportunities are ripe, and are building pathways for youth to participate in these fields and recognize them as respected jobs. Examples include:

Wellness Industry

Through the Africa Yoga Project, Paige Elenson is training unemployed young people from the most under-resourced communities in East Africa to be yoga instructors and to run their own yoga businesses, recognizing a rising market in Africa. Wellness is a fast-growing industry with over $3.4 trillion in global economic impact, three times more than the global pharmaceutical industry. Active in 13 countries including Kenya, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Rwanda, over 100 young people have received training and employment and are now small business owners, and over 6,000 people have been reached in over 80 locations, including schools, hospitals, homes, and prisons.

Textile Industry

At the age of 18, Ellen Chilemba founded Tiwale, a business that ensures young women have access to a range of services for entrepreneurial success: business education, microfinance, vocational skills training, and guidance on entering the ripe markets that they typically did not have access to, such as the textile business. Chilemba noticed that even though Malawi was one of the largest producers of cotton in Southern Africa, locals struggles to source local textiles. Since 2012, over 150 women have been taught entrepreneurship skills and over 40 women have started their own businesses through microloans.

Climate Change Prevention Industry

Verengai Mabika is nurturing a generation of young people who are informed and energized to advocate for environmental sustainability. He founded the Development Reality Institute—a climate change virtual school that offers a diploma, a social innovation fund to launch actionable community-based solutions, “cool clubs” in secondary schools to stimulate student engagement in community-based efforts, and a knowledge hub to exchange best practices on preventing or preparing for climate change. Since 2009, over 2,000 students have been trained in 32 African countries.

Shift from “Jobs” to Entrepreneurship

New, viable industries often emerge from the entrepreneurialism inherent in informal-sector activities. Likewise, because youth learn to be flexible about their working conditions depending on their own goals or interests, they easily adapt to changing definitions of work. Encouraging and supporting young people to consider entrepreneurship as the source of successful livelihoods is another central part of redefining work and jobs. To make the shift toward entrepreneurship as a normative path for young people, social innovators are incorporating opportunities to launch initiatives as a part of educational training, and many are creating supportive ecosystems that offer opportunities to access finance, mentorship, facilities, and collaborative teams. Examples include:

Advocacy for Uganda-Wide Entrepreneurship Curriculum and Youth Clubs

Irene Mutumba has established a nationwide network of Young Entrepreneurs Clubs that offer mentorship, financial education, entrepreneurial training, and support for members to run their own business projects in primary and secondary schools. As a result, she provided support for a national plan that proposed the inclusion of mainstream entrepreneurship education and financial literacy into the Ugandan school curriculum. Over 503,279 youth are reached through nine programs in over 313 schools, and the umbrella organization Private Education Development Network is creating a “curriculum of entrepreneurship” for the formal education system nationwide.

Advocacy for South Africa-wide Entrepreneurship Curriculum and the Country’s First Free University

Taddy Blecher founded Maharishi Institute, the first university to provide free, high-quality business education to young people throughout South Africa. It offers tangible skill training in computing and business management, generates work opportunities for students, and is consulting with the national government on how to incorporate entrepreneurship as a part of the national curriculum. With over 650 students enrolled each year in Johannesburg and Durban, students graduate with a 98 percent job placement rate.

The Big Power of Small-Farming Enterprises

Salim Dara is shifting agricultural education away from a theory-based approach to hands-on approach, ensuring students can launch self-sustaining enterprises. The curricula and demonstration farms she creates teach youth how to be sustainable with smaller amounts of capital or land, as well as how to simultaneously leverage produce, livestock, fish farming, and an attached market within a small land area. Dara has established curricula partnerships with West Africa’s leading agro-economic vocational institution, Songhai Center, and two Benin universities.

While redefining what counts as a “good” job is only one piece of the puzzle for addressing the massive disconnect between jobs and job seekers Adewolu-Ogwo faced, the type of solutions pioneered by leading social entrepreneurs across the continent—elevating informal jobs as viable respected livelihoods, leveraging alternative industries to expand job options, and promoting a shift in focus from jobs only to including entrepreneurship—all offer a compelling way forward.

Redefining Work and Jobs



Reem Rahman is the director of Changemakers Learning Lab and Dr. Lynsey Farrell is the director of Ashoka Africa Diamond Future Forward. 

This article is a part of a series on 6 Paradigm Shifts for Transforming Youth Livelihoods and Leadership in Africa, drawn from the upcoming report by the Future Forward initiative, “Youth Unstuck,” which features lessons learned from interviews and case studies of over 45 leading African social innovators in 17 countries.

[Photos courtesy of Young Africa, SkillsDev, PEDN, and Changemakers]

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