Entrepreneurship mentors help graduates to create jobs

In Uganda as elsewhere, recent graduates are learning a tough lesson – a university education is no guarantee of a job. More than half of people under 30 are without full-time employment, and the problem is particularly acute among degree holders.

The country’s developing economy, still based largely on agriculture, is generating few highly skilled positions to offer the 40,000 university graduates each year. Uganda’s gross national per capita income, according to the World Bank, is just US$600 a year.

The government’s strategy is to encourage newly minted degree holders to create their own opportunities. But young graduates complain that universities are not equipping them with the knowledge of marketing, networking and branding that will help them succeed.

As universities scramble to adapt curricula to economic realities, a new initiative has sprung up to teach recent graduates and current students the entrepreneurial skills they need to survive in Uganda.

The unemployed graduate problem

Despite the country’s poverty, growth is robust – with the increase in gross domestic product projected to be 6.6% in 2015, again by the World Bank.

But this is not delivering enough skilled jobs.

For example, in June 2014 researcher Alex Mokori of the Kampala-based Centre for Nutrition Education and Technology started recruiting data collectors for a programme his United States-funded nutrition improvement project was planning.

Although they were only short-term contract positions, Mokori was flooded with applicants from among the ranks of Uganda’s unemployed graduates. During the interview process, he met people who had finished university three years ago and had not even secured an internship.

Unemployment rates are tricky to determine in a country with a massive informal sector, but a 2012 survey by the international anti-poverty group ActionAid pegged youth joblessness in Uganda at 62%.

And the Economic Policy Research Centre – a Kampala-based think tank – has found that unemployment rates actually increase with the level of education attained, rather than falling.

The hiring process last year left Mokori depressed: “I really felt a little bit frustrated that such skill sets were out there and were idle,” he said.

From frustration to action

So he decided to find out what had gone wrong for some of the young people he had interviewed. He gathered about a dozen applicants and asked them to develop projects they could work on as a team.

During a series of brainstorming sessions, there was no shortage of ideas to pursue. What the group lacked was an understanding of how to develop and market those ideas. “And if you don’t have those other soft skills, say for communication, negotiation, it becomes difficult for you to run a business,” Mokori said.

He agreed to provide “the guidance and inspiration” to help develop and take their best ideas to market.

But he wanted the experience to result in more than just a successful business. He wanted the group, which called itself the ‘Dream Team’, to then assume the responsibility of teaching others how to be entrepreneurs. They were willing, but needed a place to do it.

Mokori cobbled together some money and opened an Innovation Centre late last year. It is to be an incubator for new business ideas. What Mokori and the other founders pledge is to help young entrepreneurs develop their ideas – looking for funds, researching the market, and connecting them to mentors.

In exchange for their expertise, the novice business people are expected to bring five other students or recent graduates onboard to learn alongside them and, eventually, develop their own businesses.

Although they have only started a few projects and will not fully launch until July, the centre already has an agreement in place to help train nutrition students at nearby Kyambogo University.

Peterson Kato Kikomeko, an assistant lecturer of human nutrition, said he was eager to effectively outsource his department’s entrepreneurship training. “The university cannot do everything,” he said. “The best that can be done is for the university to liaise, to work with other partners.”

A personal triumph

Josephine Murungi is the Innovation Centre’s strategic information manager. The message she hopes the project conveys is: “If you have an idea, we can help you. Either you start it here or go on and do it yourself after getting what you need.”

At around a dozen, the team is still small and they have not had any breakout successes yet. But Murungi already counts the centre a personal triumph. Less than a year ago, she was a graduate with degrees in economics and statistics and no job.

Beaten down by applying for positions and never hearing back, she rarely left her parents’ house. Then Mokori, whom she had met through a friend, offered her an unpaid position at the Innovation Centre. She jumped at the chance.

Murungi isn’t a traditional entrepreneur. She does not want to start a business, but instead wants a career monitoring and evaluating projects. But she still adheres to the philosophy of the centre: she has leveraged her position to learn new data entry software, to recruit two mentors and, ultimately, to make herself more employable.

During her university days, she said, no one impressed on her just how important these skills and relationships are. “The way it is at university, they just give you theory,” she said. “Here you can get some of those skills.”

Entrepreneurship in the curriculum

Despite this lack of rounded education opportunities, Uganda’s academies have not entirely ignored entrepreneurship. The subject entered the national university curriculum in 2002.

Dr Ernest Abaho was a member of the first graduating class from Makerere University business school’s entrepreneurship programme. He became so convinced that it was the way forward for the country that he decided to pursue a doctorate and returned to head the programme.

“We’re trying to increase exposure of the students to the world of business practice so that they understand business rules, they understand the processes, they understand key issues, like negotiation, like contracting,” Abaho said.

He believes his graduates are among the best equipped to deal with Uganda’s economic realities. But the programme can only admit several hundred students each year.

Under the national curriculum, other courses – “whether science, arts or whatever” – are also supposed to study entrepreneurship. But while Abaho is open to helping professors structure their classes to include more practical advice, “the depth is limited. You cannot teach it on every programme exhaustively.”

He suspects that is why he sees students from other departments returning to university to study in his area. It is especially true of graduates in classes like social work and community development and sports sciences, where few job opportunities exist. But he also teaches medical, engineering and law students.

Students helping each other

Given the current job market, some of Abaho’s students still worry that the classroom training will not be enough.

Juliana Lanyero heads the business school’s Entrepreneurship Students Association, or MUESA. The job market is “very scary for us as students”, she said, which is why MUESA “looks at ways of encouraging students who set up their own businesses”.

They organise trips to visit successful entrepreneurs and encourage students to join savings programmes that could finance their businesses.

Lanyero has already started three businesses in her three years at the business school. The first two failed, but the third – a marketing company – has taken off. She officially registered the business earlier this year.

“I kept reminding myself that the jobs are limited,” she said. “They can never be enough for all of us.” Like members of the Innovation Centre, she is doing everything she can to make sure there is one for her – even if she has to create it herself.