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How this program is fighting youth underemployment in Rwanda

In Rwanda, only 8 percent of young adults go to college. College tuition fees are high and, for many struggling families and individuals, the need for immediate income often outweighs the potential long-term benefits of higher education. Many of Rwanda’s youth go straight from high school and into the workforce. Some go even earlier. When they do, they find themselves without job skills, searching for employment in an economy with few wage-earning jobs on the market. Where does this all lead? A debilitating 63 percent youth under-employment rate throughout the country.

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These challenges are not unique to Rwanda. Countries across Sub-Saharan Africa are struggling to combat high youth un- and under-employment rates, with more than 70 percent of the region’s population under the age of 30.

Given the economic landscape for youth in Rwanda, and across Africa, there is a pressing need to equip young people—and especially young women, as they are less likely to be formally employed than men—with marketable skills to help them achieve sustainable livelihoods. So we at Indego Africa put our heads together and came up with an idea: to create a vocational training program designed to address this exact need!

How does it all work? Here’s the scoop: The program runs on six-month semesters with 45 participants per semester. Three days per week, these young people receive artisan vocational training at Indego Africa partner cooperatives—the artisan businesses responsible for the bright baskets, accessories and apparel you see on our website. There, they learn artisan craft-making techniques from sweetgrass basket weaving to sewing, beading, banana-leaf weaving and more.

The other two days out of the week, the program participants gather at a central space in Kigali (Rwanda’s capital) to take our Basic Business Training course, where they learn fundamental business skills such as bookkeeping, budgeting, quality control, marketing, and technology use for the workplace.

Programs like this, which empower youth to earn their own livelihoods, are critically needed in the communities we work with in Rwanda. While all of the participants in our Vocational Training program graduated from high school, none of them were able to continue on to college because their families could not afford the tuition. The majority now live with their parents (most of whom are also not formally employed) and scrape by on subsistence agriculture.

These circumstances leave young people in precarious and vulnerable situations, without means to provide for themselves or secure their own futures. As Clarisse, a program participant from the Kayonza Province of Eastern Rwanda, said: “[The Vocational Training] program is very important. Right now, it is very difficult for people who finish high school to find jobs—there are no wage-paying jobs, no office jobs. People who don’t get these opportunities are left behind. This program is helping us learn skills so that right after high school, we can earn income and start working.”

Clarisse’s enthusiasm for learning and working is echoed by all of our Vocational Training students. From day one of the program, they have hit the ground running, quickly mastering artisan skills and diving into the business training coursework. Some trainees have even begun to sell their own handmade products locally!

While access to vocational and business training can be life-changing for young people in Rwanda, it also has a wider impact on their cooperatives and communities. For example, most of the artisan cooperatives that we partner with are comprised of survivors of the 1994 genocide. As their members grow older, some cooperatives are starting to face challenges with their production capacity and are eager to train and incorporate younger women.

As Jacqueline, the president of Twiyubake Cooperative in Rwanda, said: “We’re struggling because some of our members are getting older and aren’t able to work as quickly. We are really excited to train these young women and bring a new generation into our cooperative. We believe that this will improve the way our business is run and keep it going far into the future.”

By training and employing young people, artisan cooperatives across Rwanda are able to ensure the longevity and sustainability of their businesses in the long-run. This, in turn, creates opportunities for younger women to rise up as leaders, grow their cooperatives, and help generate economic activity and employment opportunities in their communities.

Through hard work and determination, we have no doubt that these talented young women will, with time, begin to chip away at Rwanda’s youth underemployment problem.