Untitled.pngAfrican Angle Economy Human Well Being 

To Prepare Young People for 21st-Century Jobs, Design Classrooms Beyond Walls

By Reem Rahman and Lynsey Farrell

Walk into the small town where Actonville Primary School (APS) is located in South Africa and you may find yourself in the middle of a dance competition, an emotional and physical well-being checkup, or a community gathering—all planned and managed by primary-school students. At APS, students create and oversee “community heart and soul” days like these on a regular basis and nurture partnerships with more than 30 local organizations to offer services to the school and the wider community.

Just like APS, schools and social entrepreneurs in many African countries are redesigning education by offering hands-on experiences during the school year and, in many cases, asking students to apply what they are learning in the classroom to solve community problems. These opportunities reduce the likelihood that students will become disaffected by an education they find irrelevant. They do not have to wait for future internships or apprenticeships to gain real-world experience.

“This is game changing because by the time they go out to an employer, they’ve got a CV, they’ve got work experience. They’ve been a manager, they’ve been a leader, they’ve done everything,” describes Taddy Blecher, founder of the Maharishi Institute, a low-cost institution that enriches distance learning and supports post-high school student development with with real-world learning opportunities.

Schools that use this approach create accountability by ensuring that the curriculum supports the development of transferable knowledge and is applicable to projects outside the classroom walls. Changing classroom design to include problem solving in real-world settings makes a difference. This approach to education and skills development is creating a generation of prepared, skilled, and resilient youth who leave school with useful work experience.

There are two important principles that social innovators employ to effectively design classrooms that better prepare young people for successful livelihoods:

1. Structuring hands-on team experiences that require problem solving

2. Identifying creative financing models to make hands-on classroom experiences possible

Structuring Hands-on Team Experiences 

Practical, hands-on projects bring classroom theory to life and prepare youth to meet the needs of the job market. For example, the Actonville Primary School student-led community days employ math knowledge to organize project logistics and build essential skills for employment such as the empathy and critical thinking used to identify a problem, the ability to work on a team, the creativity needed to design a solution without a blueprint, and the leadership required to make decisions.

The educational institutions and social entrepreneurs that blend classroom experience with real-world or community problem-solving experiences can be found across Africa—they work in primary schools and universities, in vocational training centers, and in programs targeting students not tied to formal educational institutions.  Examples of team-based, problem-solving projects used in classrooms include:

– Household Action Plans. At the Uganda Rural Development and Training Program, a girls primary school in Uganda, Ashoka Fellow Mwalimu Musheshe leads a project that requires students to identify issues to solve outside of school, formulate a vision for change, and develop action plans to work on at home during the holidays.

– Energy Systems. At Imhoff Waldorf School in Kommetjie, South Africa, students compost their organic waste and manage the school’s 100 percent solar-power energy system.

– Awareness Campaigns. At the Senegalese American Bilingual Schools in Dakar, Senegal, students are encouraged to lead public awareness campaigns on social issues.

– Information and Communications Technology for Development and Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Rural Communities. In Kilifi, Kenya, more than 30,000 students have been engaged over the last seven years in ICT training on computer applications tied to entrepreneurship scenarios. The program is designed to reach out-of-school learners in rural areas and is offered at hours that accommodate farming schedules. The training emphasizes competence-based learning, preparing youth to be industry ready.

– Vocational Training via Entrepreneurship Centers. At Young Africa centers, equipment and space are leased to local entrepreneurs who offer apprenticeships to students in vocational fields. In 2015, 3,120 youth graduated from Young Africa, 76 percent of whom became economically active.

– Meeting Medical Shortages. At Umthombo Youth Development Foundation in South Africa, university students meet shortages of medical professionals in rural areas. They work in local hospitals while completing their studies and they participate in outreach activities with local communities, which promotes a proactive and empathetic approach to solving health-care gaps. Umthombo students have a pass rate of 94 percent, with 185 graduates thus far and 205 medical students currently supported by the foundation.

– Practical Agricultural Experience. Through the efforts of Solidarité Rurale in Porto Novo, Benin, the agricultural curricula at universities are shifting so that students gain technical and field expertise prior to completing their certification studies, developing the practical skills employers seek and the experiences they need to start their own successful farming ventures. More than 600 people visit the center each year to learn from this model.

– Meeting A Community’s Economic Needs. Through Enactus Senegal, students in every major university in the country can join clubs that work with community partners on projects focused on social impact. For example, a team from Bambey University worked with an agricultural cooperative to develop a gardening unit and a system that manufactures solar cookers. This allowed for the development of a new pricing policy, which boosted sales. Since its inception in 2005, Enactus Senegal has engaged 280 students in 12 projects across seven Senegalese universities.

Leveraging Creative Financing Models


The following are two creative financing approaches by social innovators that make it affordable to offer real-world experiences for youth.

“Pay It Forward” Scholarships

Distressed that only 14 percent of South African youth are able to access the higher education needed to compete for job opportunities, Blecher came up with a radical solution. He created the Maharishi Institute, which allows students to pay only a portion of their tuition fees when they matriculate, while the majority of the cost is paid through income earned over the course of their studies. Every student has several opportunities to earn an income and reduce their costs through campus jobs, paid internships at companies partnering with the university, and student-funded scholarships paid for by alumni looking to support new students.

All these methods enable students to feel a sense of co-ownership in the education and successes of their peers. These methods also allow them to gain practical, hands-on experiences outside the classroom, affordably. Upon graduation, students are required to complete the repayment of their bursary loan and are then able to ”pay it forward” by nominating a family member to attend Maharishi Institute.

Since its inception in 2007, over 5,500 graduates have gone on to find promising jobs. Additionally, the Institute is in the final stages of developing partnerships with the Department of Basic Education in South Africa and with the Government of Swaziland to incorporate entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, and mindfulness education into national curricula.

Match Schools with Entrepreneurship Centers

The Young Africa centers in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, and Botswana are not ordinary vocational schools. Each Young Africa center also leases equipment and space to local entrepreneurs who want to turn their informal ventures into formal businesses—thus covering their operating expenses. The businesses benefit from the Young Africa brand and network as well as the talent of the centers’ students, who pay a minimal fee to work as apprentices. These students eventually form a robust talent pool from which businesses can hire future employees. Additional costs are covered by recruiting initial institutional donors to build the centers and contributing students’ monthly fees to finance entrepreneurs’ wages and expenditures, resulting in a self-sustainable business model.

The students benefit because they experience a fluid learning and working space. The model helps them to explore career options and, as founder Dorien Beurskens describes, they develop the “skills of heart and mind” as well as “skills of hand” needed to succeed. Since 2015, Young Africa has trained 29,120 youth in vocational skills, with an average employment rate of 83 percent after completing the program.

When we interviewed social innovators, many of them saw the mismatch between education and the needs of the marketplace as the most pervasive problem contributing to youth unemployment in Africa. Designing learning experiences that feature hands-on, team-based projects, and identifying creative ways to make them financially feasible, are two innovation approaches to ensure young people have the skills needed to adapt to a continually changing job market.



This article is a part of a series on 6 Paradigm Shifts for Transforming Youth Livelihoods and Leadership in Africa, drawn from the recently released 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.

Reem Rahman is the director of Changemakers Learning Lab and Dr. Lynsey Farrell is the Ashoka Africa Director of Integration. 

[Photos courtesy of Ashoka and Umthombo Youth Development Foundation]

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