By Shirah Foy, MSc Strategy Student at Aalto University
When Njideka Harry answers the phone, her voice is warm and smooth. As she begins to tell me about the foundation she started twelve years ago, her tone conveys both humility and confidence. Before long, it becomes clear that these qualities are a trademark; something embedded in the very fabric of her organization and passed on to the youth who come through the Youth for Technology Foundation's programs in six developing countries across Africa and Latin America.
Like many social entrepreneurs, Njideka's passion for the work of her organization was sparked by a personal challenge. As a freshman from Nigeria at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Njideka realized that the biggest adjustment she'd have to make in her new surroundings revolved around technology. Early in her first semester, when a professor gave the class a writing prompt, Njideka picked up her pen and paper - and then watched all the other students pick up their keyboards to type on laptops she didn't even know how to use.
Nevertheless, Njideka can be counted among the most well-educated in her home country, where an estimated 50 million of the Nigerian youth population are uneducated - and many more under-educated - due to a lack of teachers, technology, and other resources. Both of Njideka's parents were educators working at a university and there were computers on the campus, yet she had never had the opportunity to use one herself.
In 2000, after graduating with a degree in finance and economics, Njideka found herself employed at Microsoft, testimony to how far she had come since that first semester of college. Soon after, fueled by the difference technology had made in her own life and a personal mission to give back to her community, she launched the non-profit Youth for Technology Foundation.
The organization is a proponent of "reverse migration" - a movement to encourage youth to move back to or to stay in their rural communities - by making it meaningful for them to do so. Njideka emphasizes the importance of the energy, knowledge, skills, and capabilities of youth in the fight to reduce rural poverty.
Research shows that when a community lacks the infrastructure to support its agricultural and business activities, such as processing and storage facilities and sales and distribution channels, the brightest, most adaptable youth - and those most open to taking risks - often leave to seek opportunities in urban centers. Unfortunately, more often than not, many fall prey to vices such as stealing, trafficking and other criminal activity when adequate means of income fail to present themselves. YTF is effectively reversing this trend by harnessing the enthusiasm, ideas, and the propensity for risk of rural youth; providing personal and career development while introducing relevant technologies; and supporting them in continued relationships as students move into local agricultural and/or entrepreneurial careers.
YTF operates on the principle that "young people are co-creators of powerful solutions," explains Njideka. "Programs are centered around inspiring these youth to turn passion into action." The results are astounding. Almost all students stay involved with the organization in some way long after they have graduated, and a full 38% of YTF graduates go on to become entrepreneurs, starting local businesses that bring sustainable income into their rural communities.
Nigerian agricultural entrepreneur Sunny O. is a perfect example of YTF's tangible impact upon the lives of young people. It was while studying agricultural economics at a local university that Sunny heard about YTF. Bearing the responsibility of providing for his parents and four younger brothers, he was eager to learn and enrolled as a student in the YTF TechCommunities program at the Owerri Digital Village. When he graduated from the program in 2011, Sunny was hired by YTF to be a project coordinator for the Agric-P.O.W.E.R. Program.
In 2013, Sunny became an entrepreneur with his first venture Integrity Farms, specializing in the agriculture of honey bees, fish, snail, and grasscutter rodents. He says YTF equipped him with the life and entrepreneurial skills to confidently launch this business, especially when it came to the ability to conduct daily research on factors affecting agriculture and its development. In addition to management training, YTF also provided the knowledge, experience, and confidence required to secure the micro-loan which equipped Sunny to start Integrity Farms. In a move to propagate reverse migration and a cycle of sustainable livelihood for the community, Sunny envisions training and hiring local community members as his business grows.
As Sunny's business demonstrates, the unique emphasis of YTF is on appropriate technologies. Njideka clearly explained that this notion is based on the recognition of the following:
- Not all technology is relevant to every community;
- Every new training initiative should be grounded in specific needs of the community;
- New information and research should be filtered with solid judgment and creativity, and applied based on the sociocultural and environmental context.
Rural poverty in developing countries presents a vast challenge. Effectively encouraging youth to stay in or return to their communities allows for local issues to be meaningfully addressed by the individuals who know them best. But beyond simply identifying challenges, community leaders must be equipped with the knowledge, abilities, and resources to envision and implement creative solutions. As a grassroots provider of such training, one of YTF's biggest contributions is a replicable, sustainable model for transforming the lives of youth like Sunny and their communities.
Shirah Foy is a writer for Student Reporter. We are a journalism incubator and online media outlet, providing media coverage of events and featuring current topics in management and economics around the world.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, in recognition of the latter's Social Entrepreneurs Class of 2013. To see all the post in the series, click here.
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Feature Image: Njideka Harry, YTF Founder & CEO; Source: YTF.