By Kayode Ogunbunmi
In the period leading up to the recent African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Accra, Ghana, Reeta Roy, President and CEO of the Mastercard Foundation had spent a whopping 15 weeks traversing the African continent meeting people at the grass tops and the grass roots. The day before our interview at the charming Kempinsky Hotel in Accra, she was at Tamale meeting young women and community leaders. ‘’We are going to where the people are,’’ she simply said.
Indeed there are people everywhere. But Roy, energetic and passionate, is not just meeting anyone. As she toured Africa, her energies are directed at understanding the motivations and challenges facing the young people on the continent and how to help shape this into a force that will positively transform the future of the continent. So, why the focus on the youth rather than work with the more established groups that are already making a mark on the society?
‘’It is impossible not to focus on the youth,’ she said. ‘’This is mostly because they are a majority of the people living on the continent. Africa is a young continent. More important, however, it is clear that the young are going to be the world’s workforce and when you look at it, it is easy to understand this is an historic moment for the continent. These people are going to have less dependents and so, their earnings can go back to feed the economy. We made the decision that this is a huge opportunity and the output is going to transformational.’’
She said her travels and meeting with young people across the continent had reinforced her belief that the youth is indeed ready to take the steps necessary to succeed.
‘’I have been blown by their talent, creativity and enthusiasm. Often, what they need is someone to work with them. They need mentoring, coaching on life skills and such things and the question that we have to put to them is, how do we help you on your journey?’’
The Mastercard Foundation has spent millions of dollars providing the African youth with education and skills to make her useful to the society. Its scholarship programme is one of the biggest of its kind and hundreds of students from Africa have benefited from this over the years. It was designed to provide classroom and practical lessons to beneficiaries.
‘’The scholarship provides people with practical skills, mentorship and internship and the ability to practice what you learn,’’ Roy said. ‘’Our graduates were already giving back to the community before they come to us and that is what we see before we choose to work with them. A lot of them are now working in the private and public sectors and some of them have identified opportunities and are seeking for ways to resolve them. That is what we equip them to do and it involves a lot of hard work up front.’’
Reeta definitely is not afraid of hard work and new directions. Recently, she led the Foundation to adopt a new strategy to engage with the youth on the continent. This resulted in the recently launched Young Africa Works strategy that would drive its work over the next 10 years. The strategy, based on the knowledge that securing employment is a sure way out of poverty, evolved as a result of long meetings with youth leaders and think thanks over the last nine years. The new strategy seeks to enable 30 millions young people, of whom 70 per cent are women, to access sustainable work. To actualize this, the Foundation has made an initial $200million five-year commitment.
‘’We are practical and result-oriented,’’ she said. ‘’ So, our work is to equip the young to transit into the workforce and help them to pursue their dreams.’’
The new strategy will be executed partly by supporting educational institutions to make them more relevant to the society. It also addresses identified gaps and places where the system is weak or broken. It will also help generate the right kind of data that decision makers are going to need.
She said: ‘’The AfCFTA is going to lead to competitiveness on the continent. So, we must have skilled young people conversant in tech and business management. This is about making countries work. Agriculture is a huge growth sector for the continent. But there is a mismatch between needs and providers. So, we help with that match-up by attracting and skilling these young people and connecting them.
‘’We have to understand that young people are not stupid. They are smart and won’t go into a sector if they don’t see opportunities there. ‘’
The Foundation recently got the go-ahead to start operations in west Africa. Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal are the focal countries for this work. The Ghana leg was launched on August 30th.
Roy said: ‘’We are looking at rice in Nigeria and in others, we are looking at women entrepreneurs. This is not about working with individuals, but partnerships to achieve a common goal. What matters is that the works of our partners align with our values and strategies. We meet them where they are are, look at their pathways to the top and find how to help them along the way. In the west, for instance, there are platforms to link workers with employment. We will be supporting such efforts in Africa and we already met with some leaders in the area.’’
During a recent trip to Nigeria, Roy and her team met with the Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu and his aides, as well as private sector youth groups. She expressed her happiness with the reception and is enthusiastic about starting the Foundation’s work in Nigeria.
From its experience in Kenya, the Foundation discovered that access to Finance is a major impediment to youth start ups. So, it will guarantee credit that banks will provide to young businesses. The education it provides will then train them to be ready for the markets.
‘It has to be integrated,’’ she said. ‘’We don’t fund government directly, although we might fund public universities. However, we always want all stakeholders to get together and agree on the project to make it work. Our partners are the ones driving things. I see them as fast boats that can move fast to deliver on targets. What is amazing is that after our meetings, people specialize and share tasks. We create space for people to plan and work together.’’
It is an exciting new journey for the Mastercard Foundation. But it is also clear- eyed about the need to keep the strategy on course and measure its impact.
”We track our investments closely,’’ she said. ”We have a set of theories about how Young Africa Works will succeed. Our indicators include the number of young people transiting into work; rate of financial inclusion and time for the youth to get settled into a vocation.
”We have excellent financial controls and we disburse finance. We fund to projects and our partners are accountable and those who need help in doing this are assisted to improve their accounting. We are about solving identified problems.’