As I seek to amplify Southern voices, I have partnered with CIVICUS, the world’s largest civil society platform, to reach out to its members and invite them to share how they are contributing to positive change. Among the many enthusiastic responses I have received so far, here is the amazing story of Kenneth (Ken) Ssenkubuge, a young Ugandan entrepreneur who has co-founded the online platform Hire the Youth. Its mission is to facilitate access to job opportunities, scholarships and fellowships for people aged 15-30 years with little or no work experience. Hire the Youth also helps young people cope with some of the challenges of finding a job, including how to manage the risk of depression. Based in Kampala, Ken is now working to establish partnerships with interested companies and organisations all over Africa.
Ken, tell me a bit about yourself. When and why did you decide to found Hire the Youth?
I was born and raised in Uganda, the youngest of eight siblings. I have seen each of my siblings graduate from college without having any practical skills, work experience or job leads. I have seen them stay at home, waiting for a job, and gradually fall into depression or poverty. By watching them, I have become aware of how depression creeps on you. As a way to cope, some of my siblings started using drugs, others eventually found a job abroad and emigrated to Turkey and Canada. I felt compelled to either drop out of school or do something about youth unemployment.
I started keeping a notebook to jot down ideas about how to skip this stage after graduation and help my friends. Every month I would write about the challenges people around me were facing with their mental health, the skills gap and, most importantly, their unemployment. Eventually, I realized I could create an online platform and also run ads on youth employment in the paper to reach rural communities. That’s how Hire the Youth started.
How did you actually turn your idea into action?
With help from a couple of friends who believed in my dream, in 2017 I put together a strategy to create a safe space where youths could have their voices heard, receive help during their job search and access resources and job openings that match their qualifications. It has been quite a journey so far, I have learned a lot about managing an initiative and the perks of having it youth-led. I hadn’t thought about the funding side of things, nor about the sustainability of the project. All of this I had to learn along the way.
Improving the mental health of unemployed youth is an essential part of Hire the Youth’s mission. What have you learned from prioritizing this issue? Do you have any specific recommendations and, if so, to whom?
Well, it sure wasn’t easy but having been in the shoes of my target audience, I quickly understood they are angry at the government and bitter about the unemployment situation in Uganda. They are going through a lot and need someone that knows exactly what they’re going through. I understood they needed a platform to discuss their mental health before putting jokes or life tips down their throat. First I gave them a place to learn practical skills that can lead to employment and then employment opportunities that fit their years of work or internship experience – usually [no more than] three years.
Even as we speak, most people in my community hesitate to discuss their mental health problems. Until this year, we would just share a few articles about depression but never address real-life situations. Then a few months ago we had several suicide cases in Kampala and I realized there is no real awareness of mental health, especially among youths. I decided to do something about it because youths are scared of psychiatrists and psychologists and don’t go see them – peer support works better. This is why young people who visit our website can now share their story of depression and how they have overcome it by writing to [email protected]. We also participated in Mental Health awareness week, a national initiative, in May and are planning to start youth support groups in August.
According to your website, your company pioneers ‘new ways to prepare, support and empower young people in Africa’. Can you give me one or two examples of how you do that?
We are the first, if not the only, youth-led company addressing mental health issues among young people and how they can keep in good mental shape for their careers. We put a lot of emphasis on this because we believe you can’t sustain a job or future without a proper state of mind. With a stronger state of mind, you can either land a new skill or get a new job or self-employ.
Second, we promote job opportunities for young people with the least or no work experience. To do this, we partner with companies that are ready to take a chance on fresh graduates willing to work in a changing environment. We help these youths to combine their work experience with skills they have learned off the platform.
Third, we share internship opportunities by partnering with companies like Seven Uganda, Outbox Hub, Campus Bee and the British Council. Usually, these internships last three months.
Over time, we have gathered a number of testimonials from young people who have managed to land a job through our platform.
What kind of approaches to youth employment work best in fragile contexts, for example in countries in conflict, as you seem to have experience in these settings too?
In fact, what we mean by fragile contexts is marginalised areas with the highest youth unemployment rate, such as Northern and Eastern Uganda. In my experience, youth employment follows broader social trends. Currently, the most demanded jobs are in digital marketing or any sector that involves the use of computers or mobile phones, as these jobs require easily accessible skills and are in a good pay range. Most of the ‘old school jobs’ target older people with lengthy work experience.
In fragile contexts, we usually intervene through local young community members and parliamentarians representing those regions. For example, in Northern and Eastern Uganda we have discussed partnerships with a youth organisation called CEED to focus on employment opportunities and education.
We have also done our best to contact international organisations like ILO and UNICEF but they haven’t replied yet. Maybe they get too many requests.
How do you measure your success?
There are a lot of data-mining companies in Uganda that sell people’s data [without their consent]. We consider it a breach of trust, so we don’t track their information or have a database. Instead, we have decided to open up communities on Whatsapp and Facebook, where people can join willingly. It is through these social media channels that we receive and share feedback.
We do use testimonials and success stories from our platform as a form of feedback. We also measure our retention rates using Google analytics. So far we have a 60:40 female to male success ratio. We have also learned that mental health issues affect men more than women. We ran an online survey to ask our target audience about this and respondents agreed it’s usually the men who have more issues with unemployment than women. This is probably because, in our culture, it is mostly the man who is expected to take care of the family. I am not going to run a campaign about this as I don’t want to leave out either group. I prefer to take a general approach.
Where else does Hire the Youth operate besides Uganda?
Hire the Youth initially started as a platform for young people in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, but gradually we got reviews and requests from distant regions in the country. It didn’t stop there. We started gaining traction in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda and beyond. Our platform has attracted interest from potential partners in DR Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, etc. who also want to address youth unemployment in their own country. We have participated in research studies run by Arizona State University, Mastercard Foundation and Kepler, among others.
These are all positive signs but also represent a challenge. We couldn’t handle the pace of growth, so we decided to take a slower approach. For now, outside Uganda we only share job vacancies, fellowship opportunities and international competitions, such as the Google Africa Certification Scholarship, the Andela Fellowship and the Short Story Day Africa Prize. Our biggest challenge is to secure partnerships in a new country, ideally with an international/UN organisation that can help us access potentially interested companies. Secondly, we would also need funding to run marketing and awareness campaigns. Third, we would need extra staff and volunteers to branch out in other countries.
Hire the Youth takes part in global initiatives, such as promoting awareness campaigns on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and International Youth Day. What do you think youth-led organizations or companies like yours can do to help improve youth employment policies at the international level?
I believe if we worked together for a common goal, we would be closer to solutions. It takes a lot of power and support to take on a global challenge like youth unemployment – surely no one initiative can do this alone. If we had a global platform where we could all discuss a common strategy, we could end these problems. We have recently reached out to the African Union and they gave us the green light to participate in Africa Youth Day [last year]. The 2018 theme was raising youth awareness against corruption in Africa. We see this collaboration as a test for a possible partnership at a later stage.
Is there anything else you would like to say to decision-makers in your country, Uganda, and globally?
I wish decision makers would for once listen to the young people being affected by their decisions. This is why I am working on a campaign called ‘Our Future, Our Say’, which is inspired by a similar campaign run in the UK after the Brexit referendum. We want to have a platform where youths can express their suggestions and ideas. According to our vision, communities would choose their youth representatives and meet with prospective employers every few months. Youth representatives would also meet with relevant Ministers to discuss solutions and policies that support youth employment. The strategy is to make young people’s voices heard in the policy-making process, both at national and international level.
Top picture credits: businesstech.co.za