Young Africa Works Summit – Learning from students

The MasterCard Foundation hosted its inaugural Young Africa Works Summit 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa, from 29-30 October. The gathering focused on preparing young people for employment and entrepreneurship in agriculture. REUBEN KYAMA, for University World News, spoke with REETA ROY, president and CEO of the Toronto-based foundation, at the close of the summit.

UWN: What do you think has come out of the summit, in terms of new ideas around the summit theme and developing sustainable youth employment strategies?

Roy: The summit was really meant to feature practical examples, fresh thinking around ways young people can make the transition into employment, especially employment in the agricultural sector, which is so vast and yet so critical to transformation of the continent economically and socially.

I think the first thing that has come out of the summit is high energy; that’s what I have heard because we put young people at the centre of the work at the summit. We saw some very demonstrable examples of how young people are already taking action.

We heard from a young entrepreneur who began the Africa Rabbit Centre when she was 14 years old, and we learned yesterday that each female rabbit can generate revenue of US$1,000 a year, which was a remarkable statistic.

We saw an example of financial services mediated by technology and data – again, started by a young entrepreneur, a woman who grew up on her farm. She called herself a farm girl! Today, she is what we would call an agricultural entrepreneur backed by data and technology.

So, I think that’s the first thing. We are showing that there are models out there, which are innovative, fasting moving and at the same time very much part of the agricultural sector. So, it’s presenting an alternative new vision of what’s possible.

Secondly, I think we are getting to the real issues around access to finance. What are some of the constraints for the financial institutions? What are some of the constraints for young people?

And yet at the same time, what are some of the solutions to overcome those constraints – whether it’s about providing financial education, group models of creating group finance, ways to send finance through mobile technology – that’s one of the big issues.

We have heard about the role the private sector can play in terms of responding and creating market demand.

I just came from one of the sessions by an organisation called Harambee, which is right here in South Africa, a very unique model which is all about understanding where the demand in the economy is.

They showed an in-depth analysis of how they could map 680,000 jobs in South Africa across the agricultural sector and the vast majority of those jobs are for students or young people who don’t even need a basic degree. So, what it reveals to us is that there’s opportunity – opportunity that we may not see now, but it’s here.

UWN: What is the role of higher education in building skills in agriculture in particular? Is there a need for significant expansion of agricultural training, or other ways in which higher education can support skills development in this area?

Roy: I think higher education has a very powerful role to play on several levels.

The future of the agricultural sector is all about science, technology and education. There’s no better way to propel that type of growth than through knowledge, which is created in higher education institutions. So they have a role to educate and prepare future entrepreneurs who are coming through the education system, whether at the undergraduate or masters levels.

Second, so much of what’s going to happen in the agricultural sector has to do with operating within a knowledge-based global economy.

So we need universities to become even more productive in terms of generating research – which could be around different seed technologies, better planting methods, ways of analysing soil, and understanding impact as well as mitigation for climate change. There are a myriad ways in which higher education can contribute to that kind of knowledge.

Third is something that isn’t paid sufficient attention. Many universities are starting up incubators – ways to create new technologies. Some of those technologies could be commercialised and contribute towards industrial growth.

If we examine closely, there are probably many, many ways higher education can contribute.

And to your second question the answer is yes.

There needs to be a greater level of investment, in terms of both technical and scientific training, as well as practical applied experiences for young people so that what they are learning can be put into a workplace environment.

That workplace environment is not just an office or formal employment; it could also be on a farm, a manufacturing facility or in a service industry, but all these things could tie back very closely to jobs along the agricultural value chain.

UWN: What contribution will MasterCard scholarships make in Africa?

Roy: The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program is our most significant programme to date. It is a US$500 million initiative focused on educating young people across Africa at the secondary level and at the university level. It is more than just a scholarship.

It certainly provides for fees, room and board, everything that a child or a young person needs to be a student and to be in a learning environment – from books to personal supplies. Most importantly, it also provides for mentoring, career counselling, opportunities for internships to do volunteer work, to really focus on the whole development of a young person.

One of the most important aspects of this programme is in expectations and values, which we promote early on, even in the selection of the young person. We encourage young people to think about their lives as an instrument of change.

We ask them to start thinking now – how are you going to give back to society? If you have a marvellous opportunity to learn, to develop yourself and apply your knowledge, how would you make the world a better place? How would you improve and give back to your community?

Whether you choose to become a doctor, a lawyer, an agronomist or a teacher, think about your leadership role. Will you be a role model for other students in your community? Will you find ways to lead in your profession and make a contribution?

UWN: Which African universities are you partnering with?

Roy: In South Africa there are two well-regarded universities: the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria. We are also working with the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, to prepare young people for university.

In Uganda there’s Makerere University. In Ghana there are Ashesi University [the first African university to partner with the foundation in 2012] and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

I should also mention that we are working both in Ethiopia and Rwanda with the Forum for African Women Educationalists, which is helping us to run our secondary education programme.

In Ghana we are working with the Campaign for Female Education, to also educate young people at the secondary and higher education level. The vast majority of the students will be female who are coming through this scholars programme.

UWN: What role do you see for higher education in training future leaders, including in the field of agriculture?

Roy: First of all, I think that the universities we are working with, such as Makerere University and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, have strong agricultural expertise.

I should mention that outside the continent of Africa we are working with EARTH University in Costa Rica, which is very well known for its programmes in sustainable development, and we have a very strong group of African students who are studying there.

Your question about how we prepare leaders, and leaders in the agricultural sector – the answer is actually very straightforward. One is they are going to have a marvellous experience in terms of high quality education.

Part of a high quality education is also providing students with entrepreneurship opportunities – the opportunity to create projects and run businesses. All these young people will have internships in the field, some in their home countries, some in other countries in Africa, which will add to their knowledge base and to their experience.

But a core component throughout their education is opportunities to develop leadership skills. Those could be small or bigger opportunities. Sometimes through leadership positions in clubs or student organisations on campus, and other times there will be opportunities for them to present at conferences – to present their ideas at international venues.

These are all opportunities to grow and develop critical skills such as presentation skills, critical thinking and working in teams. This is the foundation for future leadership.

UWN: What are your key take-aways from the summit in relation to tertiary education?

Roy: One major take-away across the board is that I am leaving this conference inspired by the young people who are showing us the way. Many of them are products of higher education.

They are demonstrating to us their ability not only to recognise problems and challenges in society – in this case constraints in agriculture – but they are also applying the knowledge that they have already acquired to create solutions. That’s why I am leaving inspired.

The other big promising aspect we have heard from many people at this conference is the role higher education has to play, not only to produce the leaders of the future but also to come up and innovate and contribute [to finding] solutions of the future.

The last thing I would add is that one of the reasons we are so privileged to be able to work on a vast continent like this one, is for its diversity. Secondly, what I continue to see everywhere I go is more than hope.

It is a real opportunity for us to learn as a foundation. For us to learn from the young people we are meeting, from the innovators, from the entrepreneurs, from leaders in higher education across this continent.

This is a continent rich in ideas, rich in people who are capable and are already acting on their ideas, sometimes with very limited resources. They are the true innovators because they show us what can be done.

I continue to be optimistic about what we can achieve if we work in partnership with African organisations and African leaders.