This week, I had a meeting with a friend who is a management consultant to development organisations in East Africa. We discussed the potential for a new e-learning course aimed at work skills for urban youth in the Sub-Saharan African context.
If we use Kenya as an example, there is a fast annual GDP growth rate of 5.6% (comparing to India’s 5.8% and China’s 6.2%). With an ever-expanding population, increase in life expectancy and growing middle class, demand for goods and services that were previously considered luxury items is at an all-time high.
At the same time, poverty still exists on a grand scale with 36.1% living below the poverty line (World Bank, 2015). Public provisions such as schools, hospitals, and access to safe water and sanitation still lack sufficient coverage and quality. And, while secondary school enrolment continues to grow, children still leave school ill-equipped for the workplace. Despite this, many young people leaving or dropping out of school set themselves up as entrepreneurs because it is more appealing than the low wages and long hours endured in un-skilled jobs. This entrepreneurship might often take the form of selling low-cost items from a kiosk or a table set up in their community.
So, this was the background for our discussion on the need for work skills. Informal micro-entrepreneurship can be quite scalable, but the skills needed to select, train and manage staff, market your business, and build relationships with suppliers and clients are lacking among the majority of low-income urban youth. The school system perpetuates this through a culture of rote learning where students are discouraged from public speaking, discussion, problem-solving, taking initiative or thinking for themselves.
Suppose someone starts off by having a small ‘café’ consisting of two tables with two benches either side of each placed on the dried mud next to a road. The business owner has one dish on offer, cooked on a portable wood-fired stove in a large saucepan that is kept warm all day. Sweet, milky Kenyan tea is served from a flask. After some time, the café makes enough money for the owner to buy some extra tables and plastic chairs that allow different customers to sit separately. She expands to serving three different stewed dishes with a choice of chapati or rice as an accompaniment.
Eventually she decides that she would like a better location and finds a small indoor restaurant space with a larger cooking area. Her clientele are now more discerning and expect better service, but our restaurant owner has actually never had the opportunity to eat at a restaurant in her life. She not only struggles to understand the requirements of her new customer base, but has no experience of training or managing staff, none of whom have experience of dining at restaurants either. Staff turnover is high, quality of service is low and so it is at this point that the scaling up stops. The business can go no further.
Empowering youth through work skills training
Empowering youth, in particular women, with the necessary skills to scale their businesses has been a focus of various development projects aimed at work skills training, but delivery has been a sticking point. According to my friend, one-off or time-limited training courses have been unsuccessful. So, with internet coverage across much of Africa ranging from good to excellent, and smartphones becoming the norm, even on low budgets, we are presented with an opportunity to allow people to access training and coaching in their own time and at their own pace. E-learning has the added benefit of being able to embed a coaching component whereby course participants can personalise their training to their own preferences, experiences and situations (as we have done with the Feel Great @ Work course). Over the next few weeks, I aim to further discuss the delivery of work skills coaching through e-learning with other potential partners. Please do get in touch if you are interested.
Brain Happy director, Sarah Morris, lived and worked in Kenya and Sierra Leone from 2012 to 2017 and continues to maintain close ties.