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How Purpose and Holistic Health are Foundational for Youth Career Development


By Reem Rahman and Lynsey Farrell

When Esther Eshiet graduated from the University of Calabar in Nigeria, she noticed a worrying trend. One of her friends had to take the first administrative job she could find in order to support herself and her family instead of taking the time to explore a career that aligned with what she had studied in school.  Eshiet also noticed that most of her classmates were struggling to find employment because they were not able to identify their own career goals. She was concerned that the education system failed to prepare these young people to choose careers. “The current approach,” she observed, “is you go to school, you take your classes, you read up, and you write your exams. You're basically preparing for an exam.”

Eshiet’s classmates were not the only ones—as many as 23.1 percent of university graduates are unemployed in Nigeria, 41.6 percent in Ghana, and 15.7 percent in Kenya. Eshiet founded the After School Mentoring Project in 2010, and has reached over 5,000 youth in Nigeria through the program, which encourages young people to find their passions and direct their energies towards relevant, purpose-driven careers.

In South Africa, RLabs is taking a similar approach among youth in the most underserved communities and achieving results, having created more than 20,000 jobs since 2009. Founder Marlon Parker says he believes that the discovery of a personal purpose is one of the key ingredients for success. “If we are able to get youth to start feeling that sense of purpose and mission, immediate things will take care of itself,” he explained. “I've seen it over and over again, in urban areas to very rural areas, in slums, I've seen it everywhere. The minute you get young people to kick into purpose, something happens to them. We must get young people to realize the end goal of life is not about a job.”

Social innovators such as Eshiet and Parker are seeking to close the gap in post-education unemployment by providing young people with two aspects of education that are promoted as must-haves, instead of as “nice-to haves:”

1. Guide the Discovery of Personal Purpose

The benefits of guiding young people through a discovery of their own personal purpose and creating a sense of belonging before they make career decisions are widespread. It enables young people to be more self-confident and to make better decisions regarding their future. In particular, alignment between passion and personal skills ensures that young people are more driven as future employees and find greater success in self-employment ventures. Youth become more agile and more desirable for a variety of potential job or entrepreneurial opportunities, because they’ve learned transferable skills instead of focusing all their energy on a single career or job.

There are many examples of social innovators who root their approaches in discovery of personal purpose:

Action Network for the Disabled (ANDY) in Kenya prepares youth with disabilities to play an active role in the workforce and in reshaping the leadership structure of Kenya. Youth are encouraged to identify their passion around which they develop a relevant skill set. Partner companies develop inclusive cultures that ensure people with disabilities can contribute. Since 2009, 60 percent of completed internships done through this program have led to permanent employment.

Ikamva Youth in South Africa prepares youth for national exams and careers. Active in nine townships, the program includes mentorship, career workshops, and exposure to diverse post-school opportunities, which help youth make the connection between academic achievement and accomplishing their dreams. Since 2004, more than 1,370 students have been reached, with an annual graduation rate of 85 percent. Additionally, 77 percent have gone on to higher education, internships, or jobs within 2.5 months of graduation.

Young Africa in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia, provides vocational education and training to young people across these five countries by establishing centers that are both youth-learning spaces and business hubs for entrepreneurs. Life-skills education is core to building students’ self-esteem, sense of purpose, and sense of responsibility for themselves and their communities. Since 1998, more than 29,000 youth have been trained—83 percent of graduates are economically active and 32 percent of these are self-employed.

2. Support of Holistic Health Needs

In addition to promoting the discovery of personal purpose among youth, social innovators have also deliberately found creative ways to ensure that the holistic needs—from physical and mental to financial and social—of young people are met without promoting a culture of dependency.

Physical Health: Social innovators promote physical health by incorporating programming or resources that address nutrition, fitness, and sexual health.

●   The teachers at Ndagani Children Center, an early childhood development school near Chuka, Kenya, lead a review of a child’s health, nutrition, and home environment with a child status index for each household established through open dialogue. Equal Education in South Africa organizes campaigns to address the material inequality between schools in aspects such as access to electricity and water, in addition to other needs like libraries and computer centers.

●    Ndagani Children Centre has also incorporated discussions on HIV/AIDS with the children through counseling and puppetry while Young Africa vocational and entrepreneurship centers offers informational workshops for teenagers.

●   RLabs provides a currency to youth to ensure access to food and health care.

Mental Health: Social innovators incorporate meditation and deliberately nurture empathy as a means of creating better focus, relationships, and classroom performance.

●   The Maharishi Institute in South Africa incorporates transcendental meditation twice a day as a part of its university curriculum as a result of research studies that demonstrate higher passing rates, reduction of ADHD, and myriad of other overall intelligence and health benefits.

Financial Health: Social innovators are offering income-generating activities, access to currency, and access to supplies to ensure young people can focus on their studies and trainings.

●   Young Volunteers for the Environment in Togo ensures youth can advocate for environmental causes while earning an income in related fields. Students at Young Africa centers receive access to micro-loans when they are ready to leverage their entrepreneurial education for running their own businesses, and Umthombo Development Foundation in South Africa offers medical scholarships in return for service at rural hospitals.

●   Also in South Africa, Kairos School of Inquiry for primary-school students has also established its own currency with which the children initiate mini-businesses with each other, an idea created by the students themselves.

Social Health: Social innovators are creating safe spaces to ensure young people have the opportunity to receive additional support that assists them to form healthy social relationships.

●   At Pinelands North Primary School in South Africa, students struggling with socialization are offered the opportunity for animal caretaking as a way to build their comfort toward participating in school. Pupils are also encouraged to document and celebrate observations of other students doing good for others.

It goes without saying that skills training and improved job matching are essential ingredients for addressing the urgent unemployment challenges for youth in Africa. However, social innovators across the continent are demonstrating how two additional ingredients are necessary for successful livelihoods as well: activities that lead to self-discovery of personal purpose and strengths, as well as programs that support holistic health.



Reem Rahman is the director of Changemakers Learning Lab and Dr. Lynsey Farrell is the director of integration at Ashoka Africa.

This article is a part of a series on 6 Paradigm Shifts for Transforming Youth Livelihoods and Leadership in Africa, drawn from the upcoming report by the Future Forward Initiative, “Youth Unstuck” which features lessons learned from interviews and case studies of over 45 leading African social innovators in 17 countries. 

[Photo courtesy of sicrump]


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