Using Lean To Decrease Youth Unemployment In South Africa And Beyond

South Africa has a big problem on its hands. Even though they make up less than 1% of the world’s population, they have one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. It’s a problem that’s compounded over time. Every year, nearly two-thirds of young people who enter the job market end up unemployed, resulting in a population of between six and nine million unemployed young people.

It’s a problem not easily solved. It’s not just a matter of not having enough jobs or a lack of the right type of education — although, those are big problems. But even at the most basic level, there are barriers to entry that are just now being recognized. Things like not having the resources to properly look for a job or enough money to afford transportation to an interview are factors that haven’t traditionally been considered in the past.

But when businesses began to recognize their difficulties in finding young people to fill open positions, they got together to try to find a solution. Their efforts led to the creation of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. Today, the award-winning non-profit uses data and innovation to bridge the gap between employers and unemployed young people as they work to solve the global youth unemployment crisis.

“It’s made to feel like a business solution to a business problem and not a charitable cause for funding young people when there isn’t real work for them to do.” Click To Tweet

Solving the Problems of Two Customers

Maryana Iskander, the CEO of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, thinks that the non-profit’s unique approach to solving the problem is really powerful. “It’s made to feel like a business solution to a business problem and not a charitable cause for funding young people when there isn’t real work for them to do,” she says. Because when you have to solve for a real problem, it becomes easier to think of scalable solutions.

Harambee recognized that focusing on the needs of the customer would be the best place to start. In their case though, they felt they had two customers they had to solve for — young people looking for a job and businesses needing to hire.

Harambee got to work trying to understand the needs of their customers in order to find solutions that could really work. In their case, they have two distinct customers: the young people looking for work and the businesses needing to fill positions. What they discovered was that there needed to be training on both sides of the marketplace.

The businesses needed to learn how to be good employers “because they are the reason that people will stay in the job longer,” Maryana says. But, and perhaps more critically, young people needed to be properly trained in the skills they’ll need for any given job. Depending on the opportunities available, this could be anything from basic problem-solving skills, to speaking English better, or even learning how to swim. These are hurdles that people wouldn’t necessarily be able to navigate on their own. But Harambee tries to think outside the normal conventions when it comes to helping the young people get employed. “Whatever the job needs is [our] motto,” says Maryana.

The Importance of a Peanut Butter Sandwich

From the beginning, Harambee has been focused on solving the unemployment problem. Of course, this has meant learning as they go and pivoting accordingly along the way. “We’re trying to keep falling in love with the problem,” Maryana says of their continued efforts, “not staying in love with our solutions.”

Maryana points to three key learnings — one which they found by accident — that have greatly help shape what Harambee is today.

The first was the idea of working with consultants, organizations, and partners. This allowed Harambee to focus on their core strengths rather than needing to be good at everything. Or, as Maryana puts it, “what are we going to be really good at and what do we rely on others to be really good at?”

The second learning was that they needed to feed the young people before their tests. Assessment scores went up by 30% just by giving test takers some fruit and a peanut butter sandwich before sitting for the tests. “When people are hungry, they can’t actually perform on tests at a level that really demonstrates their true potential,” Maryana point out.

The third and, in Maryana’s opinion, most powerful thing they learned was the way we measure ability. She points out that many places give math tests as a way to see how someone thinks or solves problems, when in fact, “all a math test does is measure whether anybody taught you math well.” And sometimes behaviors matter a lot more than skills in terms of qualifications. So Harambee worked on finding ways to measure someone’s learning potential and ability to do a job based on other factors. Teaching employers how to look for different things — the things that are about future potential to do a job — has been a huge game changer and has allowed young people who were failed by poor schooling to find success.

“We’re trying to keep falling in love with the problem, not staying in love with our solutions.” Click To Tweet

Guided by Data

Even though Harambee is a non-profit, they’ve always run themselves like a business. After all they “are in the business of changing people’s minds,” Maryana says. Perhaps because of this mentality, they are extremely data focused.

Harambee was founded on business principles, of course, but Maryana thinks that the need to receive and utilize public funding responsibly also makes data very important. By being aware of the numbers — everything from retention rates, to call center metrics, to how many peanut butter sandwiches they’ve made — they can better demonstrate the value of what they’re doing. And by knowing who and what they’re affecting, they can then get institutions to think differently as well.

But collecting data isn’t always easy. When it comes to retention rates, for example, businesses don’t always have the best information. Harambee came to recognize that they needed to foster the relationship journey with the young people and that the data that they could get from them would be invaluable.

So Harambee came up with a survey called “My Employment Journey” that goes to the young people in the network every three months. It asks them a series of questions about what’s happening in their lives in terms of their job (promotions, what they’re earning, etc). Harambee uses this information not only for their own reporting, but to help think about new opportunities for the young people in their network.

To Rwanda and Beyond

As Harambee has found success, they’ve been able to scale their efforts. First by expanding on the number of people they’ve been able to help in South Africa, and recently by expanding to Rwanda. The latter has been its own journey of recognizing how things work differently in different countries. “We’re learning [that] Rwanda and South Africa are very different economies and look very different,” Maryana says. But, they’re not discouraged. It just means they have to pivot their model to make things work.  

As they continue to grow, Maryana points to three things that they’re looking at to help them get to scale: using technology to help reduce costs, figuring out how to show cost-effectiveness to drive more government funding “to things that actually work,” and partnering with people and companies who are willing to work on solving problems together.

These are all things they’re implementing as they continue to look towards the future. In the next five years, Maryana hopes to grow Harambee’s network by about 600,000 each year while also finding more opportunities for the young people in that network. Looking farther down the road, Maryana thinks that Harambee can play a big role in helping cause a shift in the labor market. “In twenty years, my hope and dream is that there [are] a billion young Africans that are going to need a pathway to something,” and that Harambee will be there to help figure it out.

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Thanks to Shannon Lorenzen for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help.