Promoting entrepreneurship to combat youth unemployment

Nora Lindstrom, Lilongwe Community Manager
Lilongwe, 16 February 2015

Malawi is a young country. More than half of the population is below 18 and a fifth fall into the age bracket 15-24. Increasingly, this is a problem, as the educational system is failing the country's children and they graduate — if they graduate — into a labour market with no decent jobs for them.

On the face of it, Malawi's youth unemployment figures are, while not commendable, also not alarming: of those aged 15-24, 12.5 percent of men and 14.4 percent of women are unemployed, according to the World Bank. The figures, however, hide a depressing reality. A 2013 report on global youth employment trends by the ILO estimates that over 90 percent of Malawian youth are in informal employment, at least 75 percent are poorly paid, and over 80 percent are in a job they are unqualified for. That's not only depressing reading but also a grave concern for the country's future.

One approach to improve the situation has been to train young people in entrepreneurial skills. In 2010, the government launched the Malawi Youth Enterprise Development Fund, with the intention of providing seed funding and training in business skills for youth. It's hard to come by data on the success of the fund, which was recently merged with other similar funds; however, the government is not the only actor seeing entrepreneurship as key in engaging Malawi's youth.

Chance For Change is a UK-based organization that works with young people across the world. Their Lilongwe operations are based in Area 23, a dense settlement home to tens of thousands of people. The organization runs six-month programmes aimed at training young people to become independent adults. That includes teaching business skills.

Chance For Change's target group is young people who have previously been involved in crime, gangs, prostitution, and other anti-social behaviour. Unfortunately, these problems are not uncommon among Lilongwe's dejected youth, who have easy and cheap access to both alcohol and marijuana. Chance For Change is, however, not a rehab, notes Louis Parkinson, Country Director for the organisation. "We're for people who want to move on," he says.

Key to the organisation's approach is to teach young people life skills in combination with business skills. This includes training on subjects such as global citizenship, HIV, and sexual health, as well as drugs and alcohol. Only then does enterprise training come in. Parkinson sees this holistic approach as important in making the programme successful, and considers it a missing element in many trainings run by other institutions.

Being a young entrepreneur in Malawi, however skilled, is nevertheless not easy. At a recent TEDxYouth event in Lilongwe, Happy Kavalo, a Chance For Change programme graduate, gave a talk on his multiple failures in the business world. The talk was delivered tongue-in-cheek by a young entrepreneur currently running a peanut butter business, but it highlights a cultural challenge facing many entrepreneurs. "When someone fails, the community response is very negative. And then after someone has failed a few times, they just stop," says Parkinson. "Access to start-up finance is of course also an issue, but more than anything it's the cultural attitude to failure that is debilitating."

The consequences of Malawi not solving its youth unemployment problem are also likely to be debilitating. Already, scores of youth have joined the swelling population of disgruntled street vendors in Lilongwe, and are increasingly recruited to participate in a variety of demonstrations, which in the past have turned violent. There clearly is no magic bullet, but perhaps a first step towards improving the situation would be for the government, instead of issuing regular threats to evict street vendors, to start working with them, as street vending is, if anything, an exemplary type of entrepreneurship.

Photo: Chance For Change

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