Youth Employment Imperative: Shifting from Youth Exploitation or Entitlement to Rewarding Meaningful Contributions

By Reem Rahman and Lynsey Farrell

In her region in Ghana, Regina Honu witnessed homes being destroyed during periods of heavy rainfall. But it wasn’t the destruction alone that worried her. “When I was young,” she explains, “I used to always see how people would wait on somebody. They would come and see me and say ‘We’re waiting for the government.’” She would wonder, “Why is it that somebody else must come and solve the problem?”

So Regina launched Tech Needs Girls to connect girls throughout West Africa to ICT careers in Ghana and to ensure they are equipped with the right skills to creatively meet local needs. “Simply put,” she said, “I want Africans to be responsible for their own problems and Africans to solve their own problems.”

Regina’s reflection echoes a concern of many social entrepreneurs designing interventions for youth employment: the potentially harmful effects of asking young people to work or volunteer in critical roles without offering compensation, recognition, or a decision-making voice. To remedy this problem, social entrepreneurs are finding creative ways to ensure young people—even those in the most under-resourced of communities—receive compensation or opportunities in exchange for investing their own time or money. Importantly, this should not take away from the cultivation of intrinsic motivation for learning and work, as discussed in our prior installment.

There are three main ways the social entrepreneurs we interviewed are leveraging compensation in order to create a culture of self-sufficiency:

1.     Create new currencies

2.     Offer paid work experiences

3.     Request payment for services offered

Create New Currencies 

When Kenyan mobile telecom company Safaricom launched M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer system, in 2007, it revolutionized the way that money was used and shared across Kenya and, eventually, much of the continent. Virtual currencies—some backed by real cash, others by other kinds of assets, services, or goods—are not new, but social innovators are using them in creative ways to ensure that program beneficiaries can maximize non-monetary assets. One example is Bangla-Pesa, a community currency used by the residents of the informal settlement of Bangladesh outside Mombasa, Kenya. Citizens earn Bangla-pesa by delivering services and goods they can access, like produce from a small garden plot or a ride on a motorcycle, and then spend the currency on similar offerings in their communities. This creates a virtuous cycle that ensures that even in a cash-poor region, people are able to meet their needs.

This concept has been adopted by institutions working with youth. By creating an organizational currency that ensures youth participation and whose use provides insight into which learning or services are most valued, youth can access resources without becoming dependent. Social innovators who are leveraging this approach include:

Marlon Parker, founder of RLabs, a social innovation academy and incubator in Cape Town, South Africa, has established the “Zlato” virtual currency. It is used by young people in the Mitchell’s Plain area of the Cape Flats to select courses or events to attend at the academy, access laptops and book rooms at RLabs Youth Cafes, pay for snacks and coffee at the Cafes, and obtain medical care or basic goods at local partner institutions. As R-Labs Youth organizer Craig Jephta explains, “It’s like giving an incentive for learning—not just to spark curiosity but to make young people more eager to learn things.” Since its inception in 2008, RLabs has helped over 20,000 young people get jobs and is active in 22 countries.

Kairos School of Inquiry, also based in Cape Town, has established its own currency for primary school students. The children use the currency to initiate mini-businesses, an idea developed by the learners themselves.

Offer Paid Work Experience

One of the major complaints of young people who participate in youth-livelihood programs is that they must volunteer rather than be paid a wage. When they receive wages, they often come in the form of stipends, sitting fees, or transport, making what could be valuable work experience and contribution to a work history into continued exploitation. Social innovators strategizing to provide income-generating activities for youth include:

Hoffman B. Moka Lantum, 2020 Microclinics Initiative, Kenya. Having begun with a pilot program to train and employ a team of six youth, 2020 Microclinics aims to have over 5,000 young people working in technical support in health clinics by 2020, ensuring the health system operates at 90 percent optimal levels.

Sena Alouka, Young Volunteers for the Environment, Togo. Alouka establishes partnerships with companies that align with his program’s educational focus, and ensures that young people both gain work experience and earn an income. Youth are employed in environmental management as part of three large-scale, income-generating projects, including a solar-powered water disinfection system, improved cooking stoves that reduce wood consumption, and the distribution of solar lamps at affordable prices to communities without electricity. Over 1,000 youth have gained skills in green entrepreneurship and an audience of over 1 million is reached via a weekly TV program run by Alouka. Young Volunteers for the Environment has national programs in 28 African countries, with 14 operational offices.

Andrew Ross, Umthombo Youth, South Africa. Umthombo Youth addresses the shortage of medical professionals in rural areas by requiring students who participate in the program to work in rural hospitals during their studies and participate in outreach activities in local communities, providing them with experience in addressing the specific problem of health-care access. In exchange, students are offered full tuition, university accommodations, and mentorship from both rural doctors and program alumni. In 2015, Umthombo supported 230 students, producing 38 graduates. The pass rate for the program is 93 percent—far exceeding the national average of 50 percent.

Regina Honu, Tech Needs Girls, Ghana. After a 6-month ICT course, girls who participate in the program are eligible for a paid internship with a software company partner to gain practical experience. Since its founding in 2013, over 3,500 girls have been through Honu’s program. Honu has expanded into Burkina Faso, and has established a school in Ghana for coding and human-centered design.

Request Payment for Services Offered

Asking youth participants to pay real currency for participation in job-training programs, even if only a nominal amount, reinforces a culture of self-sufficiency and leads to higher program completion rates. Jonathan Mativo, founder of ICT for Development Kenya describes his approach: “Let the participants contribute, because when they do that they feel that, ‘yes, I have an obligation to complete this training and to ensure that I get something out of it.’” Social entrepreneurs that are asking youth participants to pay at affordable rates include:

ICT for Development, Kenya. The program trains, mentors, and connects members of underserved communities in Kenya to encourage self-sufficiency and sustainability. It has a one-month curriculum designed for youth to cultivate their information and communication technology, personal, and entrepreneurial skills. Since 2014, over 30,000 individuals have been trained, including youth and children, men and women. Participants pay for training, which incentivizes them to fully engage in and complete the program.

Young Volunteers for Environment, Togo + 24 countries. This initiative engages young people to be environmental champions and support the creation of a green economy in the Sahel region. All participants pay in some way for the program—whether in cash or in kind.

Social entrepreneurs are demonstrating how to encourage self-sufficiency among youth by having young people invest their own time or money in career-enhancing programs or by offering creative forms of compensation for young participants. As RLabs Youth organizer Craig Jephta explains, while describing the program’s Zlato currency, “It’s about putting systems and processes in place. The goal is to transform people’s lives. We are developing their lives so that they can develop others; youth are skilled up, trained up, and personally developed.”



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 Changemakers Learning Lab Director, and Dr. Lynsey Farrell is the Ashoka Africa Director of Integration.    

[Photo courtesy of Soronko Solutions]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.