In Uganda, could entrepreneurship be the key to tackling youth unemployment?

Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi (center), Uganda’s youth minister, meeting youth at the official launch of the East Africa Youth Inclusion Program in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by: Adva Saldinger / Devex

KAMPALA, Uganda — On an August morning, at a festival ground less than an hour from Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, banners touting agribusinesses bent in the breeze across from a small stage. There, a young group of grass-skirted performers danced and sang, a youth brass band blared its horns, and a circus troupe performed acrobatics to the cheers of a crowd largely made of dignitaries working on youth issues.

The performances were part of a celebration to mark the official launch of a new initiative to tackle one of Uganda’s great challenges — youth unemployment. 

Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world, and hundreds of thousands of youth enter the job market each year. As more search for work each year, the International Labour Organization has charted a rise in youth without jobs, from 13.3 percent in 2013 to 18.6 percent in 2015. As is often the case, the statistics don’t paint the full picture, with more than 90 percent of  youth informally employed, while many are working limited hours or left uncounted. There are a host of barriers to employment, but part of the problem is a general lack of jobs. And so the country, and a growing number of nongovernmental organizations, are looking to entrepreneurship to help solve the problem.

Amid the festive atmosphere, many of the young people Devex spoke to said they struggled to find steady work. Most had ideas for businesses, or thoughts about how to expand their farms, but lacked the skills or capital or linkages to market to sell their products. They said they were hoping additional support would help them find sustainable work in a country where many are unemployed or underemployed.

Sylivest Mugagga Jr., 22, farms a small half-acre plot of land his brother gave him, works occasionally as a hairdresser and is working towards a refereeing certificate. In many ways that makes him fairly typical — many young Ugandans cobble together work to support their families. Mugagga is a member of the Kitula Self Help Group — which brings youth together each week to address their challenges.

The group has been trained by Heifer International about business and social skills. Through the training, Mugagga and his peers have learned a variety of new skills, including how to save collectively. They also swap ideas and teach each other new skills as they learn them. Mugagga, for example, recently learned about growing tomatoes and in turn taught others in his group, which is starting to work together to pool resources in order to buy seedlings at lower prices and improve access to markets — two of their greatest challenges.

“The one-and-a-half months of training helped a lot,” he said. “Communication is good in our group, there is accountability … there’s a change, people work together better than before.”

Launched officially in early August, the East Africa Youth Inclusion Program is a  Heifer International in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. The project will equip 25,000 youth between the ages of 15 and 24 in Uganda and Tanzania with the skills they need to run agriculture-related businesses.

The program complements a government focus on youth jobs and employment. The government’s priority is to transform Uganda into a middle-income country, in part by empowering youth entrepreneurs, Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi, Uganda’s youth minister, told the crowd gathered for the launch ceremony. The government has, for the past four years, funded entrepreneurs through its youth livelihoods program, supporting thousands of youth-led businesses, she said.

 “Investing in youth is good business, they are energetic ... I assure you youth are hardworking focused and hungry for development,” Kiyingi said.

The EAYIP program is a test of a model in a country, which like many others, is working to find productive opportunities for its youth, and the lessons learned there could help other countries, where governments and development partners are looking at how to tackle the challenge.

The challenge

The numbers speak for themselves. About 60 percent of Uganda’s population is between the ages of 13 and 30, with more than 50 percent below the age of 18, according to World Bank data from 2014, the most recent available. And the numbers are trending upward.

Uganda is not alone; across Africa some 11 million youth enter the labor market every year, according to the World Bank, and there just aren’t enough jobs in the formal sector to match that growth.  

And while jobs are key to moving young people out of poverty, they are also crucial to preventing the type of disenfranchisement that can spill into radicalization and conflict.

In addition to a lack of skills or opportunities, youth in East Africa and in Uganda face a variety of social and cultural barriers that prevent them from playing an active role in the economy, said Karen Moore, the youth livelihoods program manager at the Mastercard Foundation. They often lack representation, lack both technical and soft business skills and lack access to capital, she said.

While about 70 percent of Ugandans rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, according to the government, many young people are not seeing opportunities for advancement in agriculture, and are often working in the informal sector or have vulnerable employment. But when weighing issues of food insecurity and livelihoods and urbanization, finding ways to help youth transform agriculture can mean not only improved productivity but opportunities for growth, Moore said.

“Youth employment is a complex challenge and [it] takes a holistic approach in order for success to emerge,” she said.  

The barriers and what’s needed

Youth face a host of barriers in finding work or starting businesses, and there’s an added challenge of generating interest in agriculture. But there are also some lessons that have already been learned that help create a framework for what needs to be done.

Too often, previous programs have worked on skills development or training that have not taken into account the needs of companies, or what jobs are available. Youth would be trained and still unable to find work, said Aloysius Kiribaki, project coordinator at Swisscontact, an independent foundation working on international development. To address this issue, training must be designed in consultation with the private sector and only after evaluating relevant companies and value chains, so that the trainings and certifications match the need, he said.

Programs also need to look beyond just the technical skills, and teach soft skills, and business literacy, said Moore.

“Because of the level of informality, entrepreneurship is key to work opportunities.”

— Meredith Lee, deputy director of youth livelihoods at the Mastercard Foundation.

Through other programs, the Mastercard Foundation has found that mixed age and mixed gender groups can present unique challenges, she said. In a culture where elders are highly respected, youth are not often allowed or given the opportunity to speak up and share their views or ideas. Finding ways to create spaces where youth can take on leadership roles and pursue their ideas is crucial to supporting entrepreneurship and to them creating or finding job opportunities, particularly in agriculture, Moore said.

“Because of the level of informality, entrepreneurship is key to work opportunities,” said Meredith Lee, the deputy director of youth livelihoods at the Mastercard Foundation.

While some will turn to entrepreneurship driven by passion, others will turn to it out of necessity, she said.

Whatever the motivation, however, entrepreneurship will also be a key part of job creation for youth in Uganda. But those who choose that path often have to struggle with a lack of access to finance, a lack of business support services, a lack of mentors and a lack of connections to markets, Kiribaki said.

Meanwhile, though there are a number of government programs offering financing to youth entrepreneurs, there are often barriers that make it cumbersome or impossible for young people to access them. Sometimes that means travel costs to the capital, where one has to apply in person, or requirements that preclude youth from doing other work, or forms that are difficult to complete for those with low literacy levels.

“We are thinking about how do we take some of these approaches to young people,” Lee said, perhaps through mobile money so that those in rural areas have better access.

A new program takes aim

The $18 million, five-year EAYIP project  grew in part from a successful partnership in the region around dairy supply chains. Farmers’ livelihoods were improving through the East Africa Dairy Development program, but the farmers were aging and young people in those communities often didn’t have the rights skills or see a future in agriculture. EAYIP is designed to help tackle that problem.

“When I looked at the average age of farmers, that worried me, because at some point the hubs would collapse,” Heifer Country Director William Matovu told Devex.

The program will help youth gain the skills to create businesses around dairy hubs — from yogurt making, to producing feed, and more — or find employment in agribusinesses. It will also seek to help entrepreneurs access finance and increase youth participation in agribusiness.

The selection process is carefully identifying only youth who are serious, hardworking, motivated, and understand the value of networks, he said. Parents are also being engaged, in part to get their buy-in and ensure that youth are not vulnerable to cultural power dynamics.

Helping youth see agriculture as more than just traditional farming, but as an opportunity to create businesses around agriculture is key to making the sector more attractive, Matovu said.

The Mastercard Foundation, which has worked extensively on youth issues, has also learned along the way that one of the best ways to convince youth to see agriculture as an opportunity is through peer-to-peer mentorship. Other youth can help them to see farming as something new and modern, a sector where you can make a good living, Moore said.

One of Heifer’s partners in the process is Youth Alive, a Ugandan non-governmental organization, which has long worked with groups of youth on a variety of health-related interventions. In the past few years they have started combining those health interventions with livelihood support and training — from teaching financial literacy and skills, to helping set up apprenticeships, Jude Okongo, Youth Alive’s training and development manager told Devex. Youth Alive will be helping to implement the project and is already forming groups of youth.

They’ll build off a model they’ve honed and the youth groups will meet weekly, like a group Devex visited in August. That group, made up of more than a dozen young mothers, met in the waiting area outside a local health clinic. Some women held their babies swaddled in blankets, while others set them down for naps next to them as the group trainers talked to them about issues ranging from health and hygiene to employment and their burgeoning soap-making business. It was a rather boisterous bunch, eager to answer questions, laughing or adding their affirmations as they identified with others’ responses or stories, particularly when they discussed challenges around getting fathers involved in their babies’ lives or the additional challenges women face in finding work. The group of young women and girls wasn’t always that way, explained one of the Youth Alive trainers. When they started the program, they were a shier bunch, but they have become comfortable speaking up about what they need. 

Some of the women wanted to learn new skills such as hairdressing, agriculture or tailoring, but they also needed other support — particularly childcare. Several of the young women told Devex that employers were reticent to hire mothers, and often turned them down when they sought employment, compounding the challenges they faced in raising their children with often absentee fathers.

“Youth should not despise jobs,” one of the young women said. “Peer groups like this one are helping each other to raise funds to do something.”

Read more Devex coverage on youth unemployment.

Update Dec. 18, 2017: This story has been updated to reflect that the Mastercard Foundation is partnering with Heifer International on EAYIP and to clarify that the program operates in both Uganda and Tanzania.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.