Youth Unemployment is Unsolvable Without Addressing ‘Waithood’

By Reem Rahman and Dr. Lynsey Farrell

In a scenario illustrated by the World Bank, “Africa will need at least two decades to change the structure of employment sufficiently to offer dramatically different prospects to its youth.” However, what this scenario may not fully consider is the persistent problem of “waithood,” or “waiting for adulthood.”

Practitioners and social entrepreneurs in over 43 African countries who are passionate about solving youth unemployment have often observed the challenge of “waithood”—a period of suspension when young people are no longer children, but have not transitioned into being adults. The stage, beginning in late adolescence, can last for a decade or more. Professor Alcinda Honwana, one of the first to use the term, explains: “In southern Mozambique, in the past, becoming a labor migrant in South Africa constituted a rite of passage into adulthood, as jobs in the South African mines helped young Mozambicans become husbands, fathers, and providers for their families and, in turn, allowed young women to become wives, mothers, and homemakers.” She adds, “Today, however, African societies do not offer reliable pathways to adulthood; traditional ways of making this transition have broken down, and new ways of attaining adult status are yet to be developed.”

A key component of the “waithood” period is that youth often suspect that those older than them—people who have reached adulthood—are leaving them behind. To ensure youth are better equipped for job or business opportunities, social entrepreneurs are creating new intergenerational structures to dismantle the culture of waithood. These structures ensure that individuals from different generations collaborate and form sustained relationships, with the explicit intention of supporting members of the younger generation and helping them secure their own livelihoods and well-being.

By examining interviews and case studies of over 45 social entrepreneurs in 17 African countries, we found four main techniques that are used to create intergenerational support:

1.     Establish decision-making pathways for parents

2.     Create cross-grade units in schools

3.     Incentivize mentorship programs

4.     Facilitate learning circles

Establish Decision-Making Pathways for Parents

Implementing decision-making pathways is one way of mobilizing greater parent engagement in schools. This method offers parents the opportunity to make meaningful decisions about their children’s education. For example, Equal Education in South Africa facilitates a youth-led movement to transform the quality of schools and has engaged over 200,000 youth within five years of its founding. These young people have led a number of campaigns that resulted in significant change— including the improvement of the pass rate of the matric, South Africa’s school-leaving certificate, from 50 percent in 2009 to almost 70 percent in 2012 in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township. Another success was the creation of the Bookery Project to address a critical shortage of libraries—over 21 fully functional school libraries were opened and staffed by previously unemployed students. In both campaigns, core components of Equal Education’s approach involved organizing parents through dedicated workshops and training sessions. The organization also includes parents at every level of the decision-making process to select and execute new projects.

Create Cross-Grade Units in Schools

Some schools choose to connect students from different grades by creating small “family units.” These are structured to ensure that older students are motivated to serve as role models and gain life skills as they coach younger students, and that younger students receive additional support and guidance from their more experienced peers. For example, at Sun Valley Primary School, in South Africa, students are chosen to be “Hoofies,” which stands for “Head Of Our Families.” Throughout a student’s school life, he or she is part of a “family” of learners, a group made up of one student from each grade (from one to seven) that meets every two weeks to build their relationship as a family and support each other in all matters related to both their school and personal lives. These meet-ups often continue voluntarily after moving on to high school, with students still connecting with their families of learners from Sun Valley.

Similarly, at Imhoff Waldorf School, also in South Africa, the administration regularly organizes Work Parties, where parents, children, and their teachers meet on a Saturday to do maintenance or gardening around the school. The students either participate in a Work Party with just their classes or, from time to time, attend a school-wide Work Party. This is further supported by a family buddy system across grades, which encourages regular community service at the school’s farm. This structure also nurtures critical workplace and entrepreneurial skills such as empathy, teamwork, and a proactive attitude.

Incentivize Mentorship Programs

While mentorship programs are nothing new, ensuring quality participation is a consistent challenge. Innovators are making participation as mentors more attractive by offering incentives such as course credit or invitations to networking events for potential employment. For example, Ikamva Youth in South Africa is working with University of the Free State and Durban University of Technology to award course credits and waive registration fees to incentivize students to commit to the mentorship program. Similarly, Tech Needs Girls in Ghana has partnered with four local universities to build all-female information and communications technology (ICT) clubs, whose participants then serve as volunteer mentors for younger girls interested in ICT training. The volunteers help teach ICT courses and each girl in the program is assigned a mentor from a local university who either studies coding or works in the ICT field. In return, every mentor is invited to participate in networking sessions and is connected to job and internship opportunities.

Both programs cite mentorship by older generations as a critical component to the academic and career successes of engaged youth. Ikamva Youth reports that, since 2004, more than 1,370 students have gone through its program, with an annual graduation rate of over 85 percent. Seventy-seven percent have gone on to higher education, internships, or jobs within 2.5 months of graduation. While Tech Needs Girls is in an earlier stage of development, with 500 girls completing the ICT curriculum between 2012 and 2014, it is continuing to expand to other areas throughout West Africa, building an ICT curriculum and creating a new generation of girls who are not just users but developers of technology.

Facilitate Learning Circles

Learning circles require one generation of students to transfer their learning to subsequent generations. For example, at the Maharishi Institute, a nearly-free university in South Africa, students are required to visit their hometowns during the school break and host learning circles for other students. Additionally, the school offers a unique scholarship program that is instrumental for creating intergenerational rapport. Financial assistance comes from a revolving scholarship fund—graduates are asked to pay back their scholarships once they have secured their own jobs at a manageable rate of just R600 ($45) per month, which remains interest-free for seven to 10 years. The system guarantees that students graduate with a continued connection to those who completed program before them, as well as a commitment to supporting the next generation. The founding organization of the Maharishi Institute, the Community and Individual Development Association, has educated over 15,250 unemployed South Africans and helped them move from poverty to the middle-class through a fully fundededucational experience. Ninety-eight percent of graduates have found employment, 32 percent of which are working as entrepreneurs.

Similarly, at MOMI Africa in Nigeria, students currently participating in an entrepreneur training program are responsible for recruiting and mentoring the next cohort of young people who will be trained, receive seed funding, and launch their own ventures. In this self-replicating model, youth are challenged to be socially responsible and financially literate leaders who work as a team to improve their livelihoods. Additionally, in the Uganda Rural Development & Training Programme, primary school students sit with their parents at the end of the school year to create a project that they can implement together at the household level during the holidays. This “back home” program ensures that skills in teamwork, empathy, and leadership are shared among the greater community.

The scale of the youth unemployment challenge is too large to rely on just one solution, but the way social entrepreneurs are reviving intergenerational teamwork is a key part of the puzzle—one that is necessary for overcoming the barrier of waithood that otherwise blocks young people from successful employment and leadership.



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 Ashoka]

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