The high rate of youth unemployment is one of the challenges the Business Booster is designed to tackle. Now that my time in Sierra Leone is almost over, having spent 10 weeks surrounded by locals at home, in the office and during my free time, and inspired by the theft of my laptop two days ago, I feel like writing a few words about the youth employment issue.
Around ten years ago, Sierra Leone faced the problem of many youth being uneducated and unskilled as a result of the war. In a broken economy, the employment options for the young population were very limited. Thanks to massive foreign aid for the educational sector and a successful reintegration program, teaching former rebels and other youth in different professions, some initial successes were made. The emerging of “pocadas”- commercial motorbikes transporting people from A to B- could absorb some of the young workforce, too.
But the problem remained: today, according to the UNDP, an estimated 800,000 youths between the ages of 15 and 35 are actively searching for employment (Note: Sierra Leone’s total population is estimated at around 6 million). While some of them might still be unskilled, a large part holds certificates and even university degrees. The jobs are too few and the profiles of applicants do not match the companies' expectations. I heard a lot of concern about the lack of skilled labor from companies in the food- processing sector, especially for machine operators and quality managers.
Until now, the education at colleges and universities is highly theoretical: resources for research and equipment are lacking and graduates miss practical understanding. This is why most companies require certain years of work experience before they would employ someone, thus creating a vicious circle of unemployment.
The newly created Ministry of Youth (formed after the separation of the Ministry of Youth and Sports into two separate Ministries) tries to implement a nationwide internship program. The approach has been successfully tested by various NGOs before: graduates work for established companies and receive mentoring and living allowances from the NGO. After this year of practical experience, there is a realistic chance to be taken on as an employee.
A second chance for employment is having a good network. If you know the right people, they will link you up with this or that person and you may find yourself back behind one of the bank’s counters. Leaving me with the third and maybe last option: you just have to be smart enough and/or lucky.
What about the rest? They have to employ themselves. In rural areas, youth become day laborers on farms and construction sites, working for around one dollar a day. Some youth would help out parents or start their own farm. In the urban areas, opportunities are more diverse, in the legal, undergound and illegal sectors. As mentioned earlier, “pokada drivers” can make quick and easy money. Less quick and easy are street sellers: from shower curtains to handkerchiefs, pirated copies of diverse CDs and DVDs, water sachets and tables, everything is offered to passengers stacked in traffic jams.Another very low income-generating employment opportunity is given through security services. You see plenty of guards in nice uniforms, sitting in front of entrances of offices and private compounds all day, for a salary of 170 000 Leone (approx. US$ 35) a month. Hardly enough to survive on if you are alone and completely insufficient to feed a family.
In Sierra Leone, girls are attracted to the men with money. So quite a few young men will forget about the law and try their luck with stolen goods, sold as second hand in certain areas of Freetown, as I had to experience myself this week - my laptop was stolen in the taxi. The first thing my friend did was to inform his “boys” on the street to watch out for my silver Sony Vaio. I was amazed by this matter of course as a lot of my friends turned out to have friends or acquaintances dealing in these areas. And I was even more amazed that this trading in stolen goods was an “open secret,” after having been stopped by the police for not using the seatbelt for 5 meters, or having seen bike-drivers offer useless helmets for their customers to please the police and demonstrate safety.
I hope the Business Booster will be able to create legal and reasonable employment that will lift these youth out of the illegal sector into a job that can enable them a decent life and the love of a girl or boy.
Business Booster is a joint program of the YEN (Youth Employment Network), UNIDO and Endeva. The project seeks to pilot a holistic multi-stakeholder approach to increasing the earnings of youth-led cooperatives in Sierra Leone, by enabling them to access premium markets such as the US and/or the high value domestic market where they would compete with foreign imports. In doing so, the project will not only increase the revenues of young low-income farmers’ but also test an innovative approach that can be scaled up and help smallholder farmers and producers in a range of contexts tap into premium markets.
At the center of the Business Booster approach is the One Stop Shop. This will be a local organization that will serve as a central player and link food processing companies and/or smallholder farmers to opportunities in premium markets both locally and abroad. It will be serve as an interface for farmers and producers to receive the support they need in key areas such as product quality, marketing and access to markets.
Maren Peters, is currently in Sierra Leone conducting a needs assessment of the cooperatives involved in the Business Booster and a country assessment of the agro-processing sector in order to prepare the business plan of the One Stop Shop.
Maren shares her experiences in this blog with Business Fights Poverty members.
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