Uganda is one of the most youthful countries in the world. Over 82 percent of the population under the age of 35. Under the right circumstances, this is a strategic economic advantage for thecountry. But for that advantage to be realized, we must ensure these young people have access to dignified work opportunities. By some estimates, Uganda needs to create an estimated 2.5 million new work opportunities over the next five years. This is a significant undertaking.
How will we achieve this goal? Before delving into specifics, the overarching answer is simple, but important: together.
True collaboration and coordination
Many initiatives exist to focus on young people—skilling them, empowering them, linking them to opportunities and so on. This work spans sectors, sometimes led by the government, and other times by the private sector or philanthropic institutions. These important and well-meaning efforts are encouraging—and often impactful. Yet they can be limited. One challenge that can arise is when initiatives of this nature are not synchronized or speaking to one another. That’s when important and practical lessons learned by one stakeholder focusing on an issue can be missed by another stakeholder focusing on a similar or adjacent problem.
The result can be duplication of the wrong kind—and inefficiencies that ultimately undermine the positive mission and create disillusion among young people.
A different approach can center on collaborative action
A few weeks ago, the Mastercard Foundation launched a strategy, Young Africa Works—Uganda, that defines our work in the country for the next decade. Young Africa Works in Uganda aims to enable 3 million young people to access dignified and fulfilling work over the next 10 years. The strategy builds on 11 years of Mastercard Foundation’s work supporting education and youth livelihoods and improving access to finance among unreached or under-served groups; work that has positively impacted over 2 million people, including farmers and out-of-school youth.
But what makes Young Africa Works unique is not our Foundation, but our partners—including government, the private sector, and several non-profit organizations. In many ways they are the true owners of this strategy. They played a critical role in shaping it, including defining its targets, and have committed to work together in the spirit of true collaboration to execute it. What does that mean in practice? It means that they have pro-actively and intentionally designed their programs to be interlinked. And they have committed, contractually, to sharing data and information with one another, in near real time, to support the full range of implementation activities. So, for example, young entrepreneurs who will receive business development services from a startup incubator under Young Africa Works, will also have access to financing from a bank participating in Young Africa Works. It also means that challenges identified in one program, can be avoided by other partners to avoid the replication of mistakes.
In Uganda, Young Africa Works will focus on supporting agri-food systems and businesses, enabling opportunities in the construction sector, improving vocational training, expanding access to financial services, and strengthening the tourism sector, which was one of the fastest growing sectors pre COVID-19, and which many young people already rely on for work and income.
COVID-19 makes enabling youth employment a more urgent imperative
Indeed COVID-19 makes tackling youth unemployment more urgent, and highlights the need to develop interdependencies and ensure connectedness among sectors and players in the economy, in order not only to overcome the present challenges, but to build resilience. We know, through data and anecdotal evidence, that young people have been materially affected by the pandemic. Many have lost work. And while Uganda’s young people are known to be among the most enterprising in the world, young entrepreneurs are struggling, under COVID-19, to keep their businesses alive.
The first thing we must do is step in and safeguard the already existing opportunities for young people. Young people like Asiat, a single mother who 6 years ago began making clothes and shoes primarily because she could not afford them herself. But what started as a private pursuit for personal ends, turned into a budding business. She steadily grew her business to over 20 employees. Then COVID-19 hit. It took its toll. Business dipped, revenues dropped, and before long, she was knee-deep in 6 months of rent arrears. Her business was in the red-zone, close to closure, when one of our Young Africa Works partners, The Innovation Village, made contact with her. Seeing its potential, and her drive, they immediately stepped in to help her offset her arrears and retool her business to increase production.
Now Asiat is ready to multiply production as conditions improve, and create more opportunities for young people as her business continues to grow.
There are millions of Asiat’s across Uganda. They hold the promise for a prosperous Uganda. Supporting them, and enabling them to access and/or create dignified opportunities is more important than ever. And it requires a team of players, a team of sectors and a team of transformative leaders guided by evidence.
It is the collaborative effort of these teams that mimics the old traditional African setting that embodies this phrase, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. And that’s our approach.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an Op-Ed Article by Mr. Samuel Yalew Adela; the Country Head, Uganda at the Mastercard Foundation. Samuel played a key role in the development of the Foundation’s Young Africa Works strategy as well as its rollout in Uganda.