Nairobi, Kenya. Wikimedia Commons

Young Entrepreneurs Grow Up

Teaching a trade, giving the foundations for opening a business, but above all, accompanying young people in rediscovering their dignity, because “it is not enough to teach someone how to fish, you have to share why one fishes”
Paola Ronconi

St Kizito’s School is a short distance from Nairobi. Since 1994 (thanks to a joint project between AVSI and the Nairobi Archdiocese), it has organized training courses to develop the skills and abilities that will enable young Kenyans to enter the workplace. Courses are given in car electrical repairs, electricity, carpentry, tailoring, secretarial work, and computer science.

Stefano Montaccini, from Pesaro, has been in Kenya since 1997, working with St Kizito’s, and is now the coordinator of a project between AVSI and COWA (Companionship of Works Association), a local not-for-profit organization. He is in Italy for a few days, and we took advantage of this fact.

“It is first of all a cultural challenge,” Montaccini says. “You know the saying, ‘Don’t give people a fish, teach them how to fish’? Well, I say this is a decidedly reductive concept. It is not enough to teach a technique; the point is sharing why we fish. I am absolutely against the kind of charitable relief so much in vogue for solving Africa’s problems, because it inevitably leads to dependence. It is as though I took someone else’s place in things he should do (this ‘should’ is not a moral imperative, but an existential one); I would be removing him from his personal relationship with the Mystery.” This is why Stefano speaks constantly of the value of the “person,” of rediscovery, of giving value to the person’s dignity, which is so weak in African culture. He explains, “Two passages from Fr Giussani’s The Religious Sense struck us dramatically: the one where he says that a person cannot be understood except in action, and for this reason the unemployed are in grave danger, because their possibility to understand themselves is impaired. Then, the one where Giussani says that life is full of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts.’ So how, he asks, do we get past them? There has to be a humus in which the seed sinks and from which it draws life, without the humus taking the seed’s place, but instead bringing out what it is, fulfilling it in its uniqueness. This is it, we want to be this type of companionship for these youths. When they come to school, they have to feel accepted and loved. They come from disastrous situations of poverty.”

Two strands of activity
Montaccini wonders, “We give these kids a vocational training, a contact with companies, but can we really accompany them into the work world?” Stefano and his colleagues (four Kenyans) at COWA have tried to answer this question, and from this was born a service for unemployed youth with two strands of activity.

The first is “getting started working.” “I am referring to young people (from age 16 to 30) who have finished the courses at our school or unemployed people who come to us, sent by parishes, associations, government institutions, or simply by word of mouth. First of all, we take them in and spend time talking with them individually; we help them to draw up a curriculum and try to understand their potential, on which we can build. We teach them to write a job application and how to approach an interview. Almost all of them come to us discouraged; they have no hope that something could happen to enable them to take a step forward. So then we urge and encourage them to get themselves going, to value their abilities. For us, the greatest thing is not to find work for all of them, but to help all of them to get going again.” Stefano and his co-workers seek out contacts with companies and find internships that sometimes turn into permanent jobs.

Against the money wall
The second strand is “support to young entrepreneurs,” for whom, as Montaccini says, “we have had to knock down the money wall, which around here, unfortunately, is a typical objection: ‘I would like to but I can’t because I don’t have any money.’ But in the meantime, no one moves.” To be sure, money is indispensable for starting any activity, but “we have to teach them to keep their eyes wide open and to risk. More important than the money is the entrepreneur.” Stefano explains, “We structured the service in different phases. Phase one: a moment of introduction; we say who we are and explain our method. We aim at identifying each one’s resources, at their capacity to look for opportunity and to imagine hypotheses of work. In a course of four half-day sessions, we offer elementary notions like product analysis, cost/profit analysis, customer analysis, reaching finally the very simple (for us!) feasibility study. For those who are interested, we go on to the next phase; in individual meetings with a consultant, we work on a hypothesis.” Phase two: another course (more intense, five full days) on marketing, personnel management, finance, business plans, and accounting. Then they have to walk on their own two feet, “but we always stay in contact with these people, to provide any kind of advice or anything they need. Certainly, it is not easy to find the money; indeed, in some cases, we give a contribution, but this is a point of arrival, not of departure.” Already, sixty people have gone into business for themselves, thanks to the services offered by COWA (there are door-to-door fruit vendors, a photographer, carpenters, seamstresses, and even someone who set up business as a guide for climbing Mount Kenya).

As Stefano himself acknowledges, “I can’t sit still,” and he is already thinking about afterwards, i.e., how to help these micro-businesses to expand. “It is an incipient phase, but a first step has already been taken: we invite young entrepreneurs to come here to exchange ideas, opinions, and advice, and we act as support.”

The government authorities and international institutions are starting to get to know this initiative; there are relationships, acquaintances that every so often bring someone from these agencies to the northern edge of Nairobi to listen to Stefano and his co-workers. In this way, relationships have sprung up for finding internships, jobs, and new opportunities, in a country where unemployment of young people reaches 61%.

In October 2002, their data bank had 1,200 names of young people–mere students or young entrepreneurs–and more than 110 businesses contacted.

Montaccini concludes, “We are always here for these kids, no matter what happens in their life.”