From soap-makers to electricians

Home to 13,000 people, Kroo bay slum in central Freetown had just two running water taps before Sidiki Mansark formed the “West Sie Boys” youth cooperative and set up public showers for slum residents.

“We saw the people lacking, and we decided to do something about it,” Mansark told IRIN. “Now everyone comes to us when they want a shower. We are not rich yet, but water is life and we want to bring it to the people.”

Youth unemployment programmes must move beyond post-conflict skills-training, such as tie-dying, tailoring and soap-making, to identify market opportunities in emerging industries in order to lower the 1.2 million-strong youth unemployment statistics, say youth employment experts in Sierra Leone.

“We need electricians, mobile phone repairers, air conditioning cleaners -- and this requires us to research emerging markets, to attract private sector investment and get more support for apprenticeship schemes,” said Helga Gibbons, International Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor at the government’s newly formed Youth Employment Secretariat (YES).

With 60 percent of the country’s youth population unemployed and many fearful that unemployment compounded by chronic poverty could derail fragile stability, donors and partners are looking for new solutions.

Shifting mentalities

Set up in 2008, YES, supported by the UN Development Programme, has established a fund of US$700,000 to distribute grants and micro-finance loans to youth groups that present viable applications for business start-ups, public works projects or agricultural initiatives.

Hundreds of youth groups who have applied for funding are awaiting approval, among them the Water Sie Boys who requested US$9,000 to open a new community shower.

Gibbons said youths need better business-management training to use this money profitably. “Many youth groups still see themselves as non-profits rather than money-making enterprises…this mentality has to shift,” she told IRIN. Ultimately all business plans will be dependent both on their own merits and on the vagaries of the wider economy, she said.

YES’s partner, the NGO International Rescue Committee (IRC), is trying to match urban youths with existing businesses, such as pharmacies, and asking them to open a new branch. Youth development coordinator Annalisa Busati told IRIN that this way, “they [youths] get the backing of the firm’s name, branding and supply chain, and they can avoid common business start-up mistakes.”

Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN
Most Sierra Leonean youths get by on petty trade. This woman sells Valentine's Day cards in Kroo Bay

Common pitfalls

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) works with regional association, the Mano River Union, to research existing and potential private sector demand for youth labour.

The group’s youth employment officer, Julia Rowe, told IRIN youth employment actors must make sure to avoid common pitfalls.

Youths must have access to loans despite having no credit history, and project managers must cater to youths with little to no formal education- hundreds of thousands of youths missed out on schooling because of the country’s elevent-year civil war that ended in 2002.

Abubakar Konteh, secondary-school educated member of NYMCOS, a car-washing cooperative in Freetown, is in the minority in his business. “Most of these boys are school dropouts,” he said. “But in the end we are all in survival mode and cannot think beyond keeping [our] family going each day.”

The car washers each return home every day with at most $3, far more than the US$0.65 a day average earned by employed Sierra Leoneans in 2007- according to the World Bank.

“Projects must not favour dynamic, educated, visible youths over invisible, more marginalised groups, or urban over remote rural youths,” said employment officer Rowe. “Finding stuff for youths to do in slums is really hard – we all need to reach out to these people more.”

Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN
Car washers at NYMCOS car wash in Freetown, can take home up to US$3 a day

Next steps

The next challenge, said Shaw, is to bring together different donors supporting individual youth employment initiatives under the YES umbrella.

An unnamed UN official told IRIN, “There is no shortage of activities centred on youths. There are 20,000 initiatives out there, but their impact has been limited - there is no strong government institutional framework to support them.”

But things are slowly changing, said Maria McLaughlin, West Africa coordinator for the UN-led Youth Employment Network, based in Senegal: “YES is a sign of progress. The government has developed a national youth policy and has come up with a definition of youths. Now YES needs to build its capacity to manage projects…The system is being built up slowly –it is not fully functional yet.”