Student Enterprises Harness Power of Youth to Change Africa

A few months ago, learners at Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa protested against archaic hair rules that discriminated against natural African hair. They were angry about having to use harmful and expensive chemical relaxants to adhere to Western grooming standards. Their protest made us deeply question our prejudice against African women’s appearance, and the long-held view that a Western look is more beautiful. The rise in the sale of natural hair products in Africa is an indication that times are changing and that unique identities are being embraced. In Nigeria alone, according to Euromonitor, people spent more than $440-million in 2014 on natural hair products. This was an 11% rise from 2013 and the growth year-on-year is expected to be exponential.

The big multinationals have caught on, but there’s also a growing market for handmade natural hair products sold by small business owners, such as Mario Tomar and Haby Ka. What’s so special about these two is that they’re 16 years old and have been obsessed with creating a unique product made from raw materials sourced from their own countries – the Cabo Verde Islands and Senegal – for years. As a young boy, Tomar would watch YouTube videos on grooming and beauty and was entranced with all the styling possibilities of natural African hair.

“I also used to see my mother and aunts suffer terribly after they put chemical relaxants on their hair to straighten it. My aunt burnt her scalp really badly once,” says Tomar.  He and Ka met at African Leadership Academy where they are both students in the pre-university two-year diploma. The pair founded Yellow Shea as part of their entrepreneurial project (entrepreneurship is a fundamental part of the Academy’s curriculum) and it’s reached incredible heights in two short years. The product, made from nine essential oils, with a base of macadamia oil, is authentically African – sourced, made and sold. A 50ml bottle sells for R40 and a 100ml bottle, for R60.

As background, in year one of their studies in Entrepreneurial Leadership, students are partnered with local organisations where they create products and services in response to a problem that that organisation has.   If their idea is  sound and worth pursuing, it’s considered as a Student Enterprise and enters into development phase. Teams work out a mission statement, set out their goals and pitch for funding to a panel. Businesses are held accountable to the broader community and so good governance structures, like board meetings and annual audits, are par for the course. Yellow Shea was chosen as a viable student enterprise.

Yellow Shea was then given the perfect platform to develop into a fully-fledged business with the potential to scale across Africa: The Original Idea for Development program. The business owners came up with a sound business plan and decided to first focus on selling their products to the wider African Leadership Academy community – made up of staff and students. Tomar and Ka won first place for their outstanding pitch. Today, the enterprise employs six people.

Tomar and Ka have boosted interest in their product with their strategic use of social media. Yellow Shea’s Facebook page has interesting content, generating conversation around beauty standards and authentic African fashion, professional videos interviewing Yellow Shea’s most avid fans and profiles of the team members. “We are a community-based business and that’s what has made us successful so far,” adds Tomar.  It also helps that the social media team responds immediately to messages and requests for products.

The Student Enterprise Program run by the African Leadership Academy is an important starting platform for many young entrepreneurs. Many alumni have sustained their businesses. All the businesses combined have created 209 quality jobs, reached six million customers, and have attracted $1,5-million in investments.

Ziyad El Mouniri, a 2010 alumnus of African Leadership Academy, founded Lankey, a study-abroad programme based in Morocco. Young people from all over the world learn to speak French or Arabic in a classroom environment and to boost their skills, are hosted by Moroccan families. Interesting cultural and social excursions around Morocco are also part of the programme. The Lankey programme has boosted tourism to the country and has encouraged young people to consider Africa as a destination to learn languages, rather than Europe. Lankey has 10 full-time employees and earns revenues in excess of $100,000 each year.

While there will always be a need for doctors, lawyers, accountants and teachers, entrepreneurial ventures are important for job creation and Africa’s overall growth. “We want to position our entrepreneurs at the forefront of this growth,” says Kim Hoffman, head of the Student Enterprises Programme. And the need to empower Africa’s youth as economic leaders has never been greater: Africa, according to the UN, is the youngest continent on earth with a population of 226 million 15-24 year olds, and set to increase by 42% by 2030. By 2055, the youth population is expected to be about 500 million.

“Our learners, during their two-year programme, are given the skills to launch and sustain their own businesses,” notes Hoffman.  She says there is such a strong focus on entrepreneurship at the Academy because increasingly, public institutions and private companies won’t be able to absorb the growing number of people seeking work.  Ghanaian and Kenyan youth, according to World Politics Review, are forging ahead with their entrepreneurial ventures, and not relying on the interventions of government and big business. Youth in those countries are  particularly focusing on the use of mobile technology to improve agricultural production.

Farmerline, cited in the article, was established by four Ghanaian youth in 2013. It’s a mobile-based service company in Ghana using voice messaging, SMS and android platforms to collect data, share new farming techniques and better link smallholder farmers to others on the value chain. Farmerline also provides information on prices and weather so that farmers can improve productivity, negotiate good prices, and adapt to changing weather patterns.  The company has reached 200,000 small-scale farmers in four African countries.

“Beyond ticking the boxes of increased employment and scalability,” says Hoffman, “our youth ventures must also measure their successes through the contribution to poverty reduction, to increased access to health and education and to a heightened sense of wellbeing on the continent.” To find out more about the entrepreneurial leadership course, click here.

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