Youth Must be Trusted to Lead in Africa

By Reem Rahman and Lynsey Farrell

Shootings and flying petrol bombs turned Mitchells Plain in Cape Town, South Africa, into a war zone for a week in late March 2015. Buses and taxis refused to enter the township established by the apartheid government in the 1970s. Eric Coetzee, a community leader, describes this neighborhood as “a world of gangs, violence, and poverty.” When he was young, Coetzee joined a gang for safety. But the story changed when he started as a student at RLabs. “I finally found the place where I fit in. I don’t have fear anymore,” he says.

RLabs’ goal is to ensure students are able to access long-term and sustained employment as well as provide young people safe spaces to learn skills like project and event management, coding, and photography. After advancing through the program, approximately 80 percent of graduates find employment, aided by the hard and soft skills they have gained. As Coetzee describes it, “The community believes in the power of youth; youth teaching other youth. We are giving youth the tools to change themselves as well as their communities.”

Social innovators across Africa are leading a shift away from the traditional mindset that Africa’s youth are problems to be solved. They know that trusting youth to lead by giving them opportunities to make real decisions, have their voices consistently heard, and make meaningful contributions to their communities ensures young people avoid long periods of “waithood” before fully entering adulthood. RLabs founder Marlon Parker explains: “It is possible to get a young person in a short space of time from being someone that says ‘Oh, my needs are not being met,’ complaining and not knowing what to do,” to instead, “getting [them] to a place where they could see they are now contributing to society.”

There is no shortcut to create an enabling environment for effective youth leadership, but social innovators are demonstrating three interrelated factors:

a)     creating meaningful youth leadership roles,

b)     ensuring adults provide guidance, support, and partnership to make leadership possible, and making sure adults are accessible enough that youth are not derailed due to a lack of guidance or failure to address holistic needs,

c)     and facilitating experiential learning to ensure youth learn marketable, life-long skills.

Create Youth Leadership Roles

RLabs provides a space where young people are trusted in leadership roles and empowered to take the lead in their own learning. Youth are taught software design skills, which they go on to use to design IT innovations to address social challenges in their communities. Young people are responsible for designing workshops and events to tackle issues they deem important, such as unemployment, drug abuse, robbery, gangs, teenage pregnancy, and alcohol abuse. Young people are encouraged to think critically and participate directly in the learning process.  They gain accredited certification during the program, as well as experience exercising creativity and teamwork. The results are striking: Almost 80 percent of the 300-400 annual graduates from the academy find employment in the IT sector and beyond. By 2014, RLabs’ 22 IT-powered enterprises and 185 RLabs-inspired business products created 20,000 jobs, directly and indirectly.

Another South African youth organization, IkamvaYouth, also trusts young people to lead and sees this approach as an important way to help them  pull themselves and each other out of poverty. Active in 14 South African townships since 2004, Ikamva Youth has had more than 1,100 students graduate from its after-school support and mentorship programs. Over the past five years, 89 percent of alumni have gone on to higher education, internships, and jobs.  A key component of IkamvaYouth’s model is the promotion of a culture of peer learning. Teaching is driven by student inquiry and stronger-performing learners assist those who are struggling. Many graduates return to the program as volunteer tutors, contributing to the sustainability of the model.

Position Adult Champions and Ensure Accessibility

Model Mission of Assistance (MOMI Africa), founded by Theresa Michael, is similarly leveraging youth leadership to reverse the unemployment rate of youth in Nigeria—estimated at 38 percent, and over 45 percent for those graduating university. MOMI Africa creates an environment where learners don’t play a passive role. Instead, they actively decide what they study. Young people choose vocations based on their interests and research they conduct about the job market. After that, MOMI Africa provides a platform where supportive peer cohorts can be formed for each vocational field. Young people work closely with adults to identify experts who can offer training and guidance as they create their own socially responsible business plans. The youth then receive seed funding to support their ventures, which they’re expected to pay back in two years. The vocation-focused cohorts are responsible for their own learning and for recruiting the next generation of learners.

Facilitate Experiential Learning

When Salim Dara, founder of Solidarité Rurale, was a student in Benin preparing to graduate and pursue a career in agriculture, his education was brought to a brutal halt when he was imprisoned for five years following his participation in student strikes demanding fair treatment of students. After his jail term, he was determined to create a successful agricultural model, no matter the obstacles. His goal was “to show the young people that they don’t have to wait for anybody to succeed in life.” Salim established a demonstration farm to show young people how to achieve self-sufficiency even with limited space or funding. He then shows how, through phased expansion, farmers can grow their businesses. He has established curricular partnerships with West Africa’s leading agro-economic vocational institution, Songhai Center, and two Benin universities to provide practical, hands-on training to complement theory-based instruction. The experiential learning is meant to make their education truly relevant to market and community needs and spark their passion for a career in agriculture.

Solving the youth employment puzzle in sub-Saharan Africa requires a complete reframing of the roles young people play in their communities and society. Africa’s youth must be seen as actors able to define issues, invent jobs, devise solutions, and meaningfully engage in their own career development. This shift in perception is necessary to make sure young people are equipped to contribute to their own success, as well as that of their peers and those who come after them.



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. Dr. Lynsey Farrell is the director of integration at Ashoka Africa.

[Photo courtesy of MOMI Africa]

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