Tapping Youth Energy for Productivity

Published on 5th June 2007

There is a widely held misconception in Africa that to escape poverty, one ought to be employed! You can rightly add that for one to be employed one must go to school, hence the popular song: “someni vijana,muongeze pia bidii, mwisho wa kusoma, mtapata kazi nzuri sana” (Young people, put more effort in class for you will finally get a very good job). The late 80s witnessed a discourse in the media that pointed at the argument that more universities would lead to unemployment!

In a world where only governments and corporations are expected to “donate” jobs, it becomes understandable when villagers scoff at unemployed university graduates that hit the tarmac. “These days education is valueless, our children do not get jobs upon graduation,” some parents have been known to lament. A huge investment in seeking “marketable degrees” is the order of the day in such a world.  

Last Wednesday, a Nigerian undergraduate pointed out to me that “impossibility is a big word thrown around by small people”. I compared this to a group of undergraduates in Kenya who are making attempts to get rid of academic straitjacket approach to life. Sample this: Masinde Muliro University undergraduates mentored a group of youth in Bukura to establish an anti – malaria Indoor Residue Spraying business that targeted 982 households. A fully fledged anti-mosquito “combat team” of four is now making profit spraying schools, houses, and shops against mosquitoes, cockroaches and flies in Western Kenya.

Moi University students transformed an idle Kesses Dam into an excellent kayaking sports facility. The fish industry on this dam picked up as enthusiastic sports people opted to refresh themselves with fresh fish snack washed down with a cool drink. University of Nairobi pioneered a tree planting project with street children at the globe cinema round –about. What started as a 500 tree seedling project has attracted demand for 100,000 seedlings from a major corporate Syngenta East Africa Ltd. Long before the Nairobi Stock Market gained popularity among ordinary Kenya’s, Africa Nazarene University set up an African Nazarene University Stock Market and were eventually allowed to own and run their school canteen through share ownership. If any university administration ever harbors fears that students will break into a canteen facilities, visit Nazarene and witness how ownership translates to discipline!

A total of 92 universities in 12 countries in Africa, and specifically 14 universities in Kenya, working on a minimum of six business projects each, are transforming students through what is popularly referred to as a SIFE experience. SIFE introduces undergraduates to the powerful lesson of how to overcome failure and succeed. Undergraduate students of various disciplines set up projects focusing on entrepreneurship and how to fit in a competitive market. At the end of SIFE year, leading business executives are invited to judge impact and reach of students’ projects. The wining university is crowned national champion and proceeds to international competition described as “SIFE World Cup” where they compete with 40 countries and are judged by over 1,500 business executives.

This crop of young undergraduates demonstrates the fact that more universities do not necessarily dilute education: rather it is the utilization of that education that matters. Africa must not entertain unemployment talk when problems of famine, disease, poor infrastructure, poor shelter, illiteracy and lack of value addition to products still hang on our necks. Impossibility should be for small minded people, and all others should focus on translating African problems into business opportunities. For instance, must rural farmers stick to selling a whole chicken when a piece of it can be affordable to the less than a dollar a day person? Let us make money by turning African challenges into opportunities!

This article was first published by Business Daily, a publication of Nation Media Group

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