Kenya's unemployed youth
find fresh hope in the form
A social enterprise project that trains young people to sell goods of benefit to local communities in the slums of Nairobi is thriving
In 2010, Tania Laden and Maria Springer founded LivelyHoods, a social enterprise project designed to create work for young people in the urban slums of Kenya. In the two and a half years since, an initiative born of the willingness of two American twentysomethings to listen to the needs of Kenya's youth, and tailor their methods accordingly, has shown that – with invention and open-mindedness – it is not impossible to forge economic opportunities for a generation faced by massive unemployment.
An estimated 17 million people are without work in Kenya, 70% of whom are between 15 and 34. Government measures have had little impact on these numbers, with President Uhuru Kenyatta's Uwezo Fund – a 6bn Kenyan shilling (£43m) initiative designed to foster economic growth among the country’s youth and women – the latest scheme to falter.
The LivelyHoods project, which began in Kawangware, a densely populated urban slum about nine miles (15km) from Nairobi, is designed to create employment opportunities by training young people to sell products tailored to the needs of their communities. Cornerstones of the scheme’s iSmart brand include fuel-efficient cookstoves, of which 3,233 have been sold so far, as well as solar lamps and reusable sanitary products for women. All the products are vetted for their suitability, first by the LivelyHoods sales team and then by potential customers.
On completing their training, sales agents are invited to select a daily consignment of goods worth $75 (£50) from one of the project's two shops. They earn up to 20% commission on everything they sell, and are free to return or replenish stock as they see fit. So far, the scheme has provided training for 227 young people, 84 of whom have been given full-time jobs. In 2014, Springer and Laden hope to double the number of trainees.
Regardless of whether participants go on to work for LivelyHoods, the emphasis is on equipping them with transferable skills that will bolster their future employment prospects. "When we bring in new recruits, we tell them: 'This is a very special opportunity, a chance to change the rest of your life, so it’s up to you to do something with that’," says Laden. “We train them not only in basic sales skills, but also in team-building and how to manage their own futures – their goals, finances, and success – because it requires a big mindset change to go from idle youth to full-time employee.”
From the outset, LivelyHoods has been defined by the ability of its co-founders to think on their feet. Laden and Springer originally arrived in Kawangware to work on a microloans project, but altered course after canvassing opinion among 278 young people, the overwhelming majority of whom said they wanted jobs rather than funding. When the time came to open a second shop, Springer fronted a crowdfunding campaign in which she put 25 sticking plasters on her face, peeling one off every time $1,000 was raised. It's fair to say imagination has not been in short supply.
While the project remains a work in progress, it is growing all the time. Already the second LivelyHoods store, which opened in August in Kangemi, another Nairobi slum, is almost matching the sales figures of its predecessor. A $64,802 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation will fund training for a further 585 young people in Mombasa, while a D-Prize fellowship award worth up to $20,000 will encourage further expansion.
By enabling companies to get their products into the hands of people in slum communities – a global market that Springer estimates has an annual purchasing power of $4bn – Springer and Laden have created an initiative that looks sustainable and scalable.
"We're figuring out ways to penetrate even the hardest-to-reach markets," says Laden. “You normally have distribution points or stores on the periphery of the slums, but they struggle to reach every single customer in that area. So we look at the way we want to scale kind of like a Starbucks or a McDonald’s – on every corner.”
“We tap the talent of populations that are completely overlooked as unemployable,” adds Springer. “Human capital among the youth workforce is one of the largest untapped resources of our time, and there’s no reason we can’t ensure that all of these young people have an opportunity. The results so far have been incredible.”
The above article by Les Roopanarine first published on theguardian.com in 2014.