Already the world’s youngest region, Africa’s youth population is expected to double to 830 million by 2050 – a reality that poses both a risk and an opportunity for the continent. Harnessing the potential of young people is central to stimulating economic growth in the region, while failing to do so increases the risk of economic and political instability.
Rwanda, where I have spent the last 10 weeks working, is addressing the issue head on. In my work with Education Development Center and the MasterCard Foundation’s Akazi Kanoze 2 project, we’re working to address the skills gap – the mismatch between what young people learn in school and the skills employers demand. Akazi Kanoze, which means “work well done” in Kinyarwanda, works closely with the private sector, the Ministry of Education, students, and teachers to equip youth with market relevant skills and opportunities for employment or entrepreneurship after graduation. By October 2017, the 3-year project will have reached over 16,500 youth.
My time here has been split between the technical and M&E teams – supporting the program’s implementation, continued monitoring, and endline evaluations. On the program side, I’ve visited over a dozen schools to support entrepreneurship teachers, listen to and brainstorm solutions to common teaching challenges, and foster teacher professional learning communities. I’ve supported the project’s “School to Work Transition,” which introduces secondary students to the workplace through brief work exposure and internships – something employers across the region are increasingly looking for in applicants. Again and again, I heard from students who, through their internships, gained the skills and connections necessary to secure employment or start their own entrepreneurial ventures after graduation, and from employers who saw internships as a win-win. I learned that youth unemployment cannot be addressed without improving the quality and relevance of education, and that employers must be engaged to ensure education systems reflect the skills demanded in the market. Akazi Kanoze is doing both.
On the M&E side, I conducted data analysis for the project’s Randomized Control Trial, which evaluated Akazi Kanoze’s effectiveness in improving youth livelihoods and employment outcomes. The overall results were positive – youth that participated in the project have significantly higher levels of “work readiness,” measured by improved financial, communication, leadership, and entrepreneurial skills, and are significantly more likely to be employed than youth in the control group. Young women that participated in the program also narrowed the gender gap in employment outcomes, though also reported increased feelings of insecurity in the workplace.
In follow-up interviews, I learned that young women are often asked for sex in exchange for job offers, encounter verbal and sexual harassment at work, face discrimination when applying for jobs in male-dominated sectors, and deal with the constant threat of unstable work and income. In a country often heralded for its progressive gender policies, the interviews demonstrated that policies alone have not always improved outcomes for Rwanda’s most vulnerable women.
Based on the RCT and qualitative follow-up, I developed key recommendations for future project designs to address safety concerns for women entering the workforce. My recommendations included working with employers to develop HR policies on gender-based harassment, offering female-specific workforce training to prepare young women to respond to safety challenges in the workplace, and developing mentor networks for female employers and young women entering the workforce.
Akazi Kanoze’s biggest challenge, like most development projects, is sustainability. With the project set to close in late October, the challenge is ensuring everything that has been developed over the last 3 years sticks; that, even without the additional support from project field officers, the Ministry of Education takes ownership over training and monitoring entrepreneurship and work readiness teachers, and schools continue to build and sustain partnerships with employers. In a country that has been inundated with international aid and become accustomed to a constant stream of technical and financial support from external donors, transferring project ownership to the government is especially challenging.
Akazi Kanoze’s primary sustainability strategy involves embedding aspects of our curriculum into the national secondary school curriculum. Our Entrepreneurship and Work Readiness curriculum were already embedded last year – a major success for the project – and we are working hard to embed the School to Work Transition into the curriculum as well. Doing so would ensure every secondary student in Rwanda graduates with work experience and connections to employers – keys for finding and securing employment after graduation.
In July, I attended the YouthConnekt Africa Conference in Kigali, which convened over 2,500 delegates from over 90 countries to discuss youth empowerment and entrepreneurship in Africa. There, the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa Director, Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, told a packed room of people: “If you want to see Africa on the move, come to Rwanda.” Through initiatives like Akazi Kanoze, Rwanda is harnessing the potential of its young people, ensuring it remains a country on the move.