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U.S. Program Helps Africans Learn Entrepreneurial Skills


Over the past couple months, we have been looking at youth unemployment. Here in the United States we have heard from college grads working odd jobs because they just haven't been able to find full-time work in their fields of study. Now it's the same for many young people in European countries, but in Africa it is a different experience. Not finding a job can be just one of many challenges.

Roughly 70 percent of young people in Africa live on less than $2 a day. And financial desperation and a sense of hopelessness have led to increased violence and, in some countries, a temptation to join militant groups. One U.S.-funded program called the Mandela Washington Fellowship is aimed at developing young leaders in Africa. And this summer, 25 fellows spent time at the University of Notre Dame looking for ways to help themselves and their home countries.

In much of Africa, there is little industrialization - fewer companies. And so it's not just about fewer available jobs. There are just fewer jobs. And that makes entrepreneurship - doing something to make money on your own - a much more important option.

MILDRED APENYO: Our trajectory is not going to become, like, super industrialized fast. It's not going to follow what has happened, say, in the U.S. We are jumping certain steps and innovating. People are heavily bootstrapping back home. Things are going to definitely be different about, you know, the way Africa develops.

GREENE: That's the voice of Mildred Apenyo. She's a young entrepreneur from Uganda. She and another fellow in the Notre Dame program, Enitan Kuku form Lagos, Nigeria, came into our studios to talk about their experiences starting their own businesses back home.

Enitan's country, Nigeria, has a population of about 170 million people. And right now, nearly a quarter of them are unemployed. Enitan said she sees many people with the potential for self-employment on the streets of Lagos.

ENITAN KUKU: On Third Mainland Bridge, driving in the rain, I see people offering to sell me gala - like, sausage rolls - on the street of Lagos. It's raining. The bridge is like 30 minutes long by driving. So by walking - and you see these guys walking from the edge of the bridge to the other in the rain - in the sun. Sometimes I feel like crying because I say, how do these guys survive every day? There is hunger in people to actually earn a living. They don't have a job. So we just have to structure the old business model around entrepreneurship to say that is the next future for Africa.

GREENE: Now, these two women who came to our studios admit that their cases are not typical. They feel fortunate to have more resources than many people, but they hope that their experiences starting businesses can set an example for everyone. Enitan in Nigeria works for a multinational company by day. When she's off, she is running her own organization helping young artisans turn their skills and income.

KUKU: I have a picture in my mind. His name is Dili (ph). He wakes up every day, goes to the farm with his parents. He's very skilled at making decorative arts and crafts. I've never seen anybody as good as this guy before. And I got the opportunity of going to the community one day, and I met him. I was like, oh, guy, this is so cool. A lot of people will pay huge money to sell this. And he said I've never sold it before in my life. And I'm like, really? This is so cool. Like, I'm going to make a business model around this.

And I spoke with a couple of my friends, and I said guys, we can actually give back to the society through this. Let's open up a platform where we actually move a product from the rural communities into the city. And we started with Dili's community, and now I am working with over six communities, which is really, really something I'm proud.

GREENE: That's the business that Enitan started, and she says Dili has gone from making less than $30 a month to making $600 a month.

Now, Mildred Apenyo in Uganda is tackling a different problem altogether. She has opened a fitness center that teaches women self-defense skills.

APENYO: The biggest issue for me was how can I give women the tools to help them be a little less vulnerable to molestation - to rape. I don't think that many women are looking at being black belts, but what they can have is a fighting chance - just a couple of skills to have another belt if something ever happens.

GREENE: Mildred told us that at first, she herself lacked the know-how to build a sustainable business.

APENYO: I know what questions to ask, and I'm not ashamed of asking. This other shame of not knowing things - I thought, like, if I asked questions, people would look at me and say, so why are you beginning a business when you know so little?

GREENE: And this is one of her goals when she returns home to Uganda. She wants to help other young women overcome the shame and the feeling of certainty if they want to start their own business.

Now, Enitan is returning home to Nigeria with hope that is tempered by the reality that her country has been going through a lot. Fears of an Ebola outbreak and the horrifying abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls by an extremist group.

KUKU: I love my country so much. And I know we have challenges. I know we have problems. But I see the opportunities in that country, and it is my responsibility to give back. If you see an opportunity, you have to go after it. What happens after that? If it doesn't work out, fine. If it works out, fine, but try. Make an attempt and try. If you try, whatever happens, it will be story for you to tell at the end of the day, whether good or bad.

GREENE: And those are the stories of Enitan Kuku from Nigeria and Mildred Apenyo from Uganda. Both young women are entrepreneurs. They have been in the United States on a fellowship program and came by our studios to talk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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