This is a question attributed to former EU Ambassador in Uganda Kristian Schmidt and is something that challenges us to think about the youth question. Is it a problem or promise? Before you answer, let’s explore some realities. The future is youth. You need no reminder for that given the level of attention and focus around the youth question. The most recent being the Commonwealth Youth Ministers Meeting themed: ‘Resourcing and financing youth development: empowering the young people.’
My attention was drawn to the 22 recommendations adopted by the meeting. Kudos for clearly highlighting what needs to be done, especially fundamental truths like “The youth should be on the table; not on the menu” and the need to address the cardinal challenges of access to finance, access to information and employable skills as well as sexual and reproductive health, and strengthening youth participation in the decision-making platforms.
Whereas we all recognise the ability of the youth to be real change agents for socio-economic transformation, you will agree that the devil has always been the implementation. We are failing flat on this. The situation can be compared to preparing for an exam overnight and not turning up the next morning because you were too tired and happened to over sleep. The biggest failure point at implementation has always been approaching the question from a level of designing solutions by those least affected by the problem instead of with those affected.
In other wards, on the menu, not on the table.
For example, though the Enterprise Scheme introduced in the 2011/12 Budget had four broad components that have synergies and are complementary in nature, (the Youth Venture Fund, entrepreneurship training, business development services such as incubation and workspace/infrastructure development), only the Youth Venture Fund (credit) seems to have taken off. Yet for entrepreneurship to thrive, it is crucial that these components are not implemented piecemeal, lest they have less impact.
With a current population of about 37 million and about 75 per cent below the age of 30, it is estimated that 25,000 young people will be joining the labour market every week by 2020. With our unemployment rate currently at 83 per cent, universities have become like assembly plants churning out fresh graduates faster than we are creating jobs. New initiatives to promote higher access to education like the loan scheme are increasing the supply side, but I shudder at a closer review of the terms and conditions therein. The 3,799, who have so far accessed study loans from government, will be required to pay back after a grace period of one year expires, which loan has an interest of 7 per cent. How many of these will actually secure a job to enable them pay the loan? Vocational education has been earmarked as an option so as to promote skilling, but is the approach and resources allocated to it reflective of the hope we have in it? For many youth, entrepreneurship has been the most feasible option.
No wonder Uganda is nominated as the most entrepreneurial country in the world.
But in the larger scheme of things, whereas 95 per cent of these die in their first year that does not even begin to describe the size of the problem.
For instance, in 2016, of the $388m that came into Africa to support entrepreneurs, $109m of that went to Nigeria, South Africa got $96m, Kenya - $92m, Rwanda $16m and Uganda walked away with $0.3m. How is it possible that the most entrepreneurial country is not tapping into these opportunities?
Further analysis shows that 72 per cent of financing for entrepreneurs in East Africa over the last three years has only gone to three companies while 90 per cent of the capital has gone to expat companies. This represents deep routed systemic gaps that cannot be approached at face value but also shows the impact of an early ecosystem.
Is all lost? Far from it. What is actually being lost are the opportunities we are failing to harness.
A good example are the various awarding ceremonies and competitions that select the top three from a possible 100+ submissions. We currently have about 15 of these; it is the “in thing” to show you care. Whereas the gesture is much appreciated, what is obvious is that the nature of support given to the three is not enough to enable them achieve any milestone. So these die soon enough; it goes without saying that the 97 die off earlier given no one actually pays attention to them. In all fairness, you can’t support all the 100, so the lazy thing to do is to support the top three.
I say lazy because the support they require is not a one man’s job.
This is a failure of a nonexistent innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. This would be made up of investors, corporate ventures, aligned government interventions that unlock potential, experienced mentors and coaches.
Our go at building an ecosystem at The Innovation Village has brought together 2,000 plus entrepreneurs - 40 per cent young women - in what is fast becoming the country’s largest density and destination for both startups and scale ups.
Problem or promise? This is not anyone persons problem to solve. It is a concerted effort of multiple stakeholder acting as one force for good.
Whether you are the public or private sector, you need to listen because a good number of them are not seeking help in form of grants, but collaboration based on the very value they represent to you and your aspiration as a community.
Mr CJ Japheth is a team leader,
The Innovation Village. [email protected]