What do a hairdresser, a baker and a welder have in common?
The answer, in Sierra Leone at least, is Youth Power.
For the uninitiated, December is a crucial month in the Restless Development calendar. This is when the agency’s leadership – including some of our trustees – meet for Directors Conference, the forum for big organisational decision-making and strategy development for the year ahead.
It’s also an opportunity for global directors, like me, to meet with the incredible young leaders who shape and drive our vision.
Take Lamin Bangura. In 2013, Lamin’s livelihood depended on basic subsistence gardening activities like planting peppers, which barely provided him with an income of $10 a week. He heard about Restless Development’s Business Development Service on the radio and decided to enrol. The programme was set up in 2012 to respond to the challenges young Sierra Leoneans face when it comes to making a living; the focus is on the nuts and bolts of how you run a sustainable and profitable business and supports young people to understand everything from book-keeping to marketing. For Lamin, this training was what he needed to kickstart his vision for a successful bakery business.
At the end of the course, Lamin entered the programme’s mini Business Plan Competition and was one of the 11 businesses to be awarded a grant. In 2014, he opened his bakery for the first time.
It has been tough. When the business first opened, he lost everything in a storm that soaked his premises. The second time, his oven wasn’t retaining heat and he had to start again. Then the outbreak of Ebola brought business to a halt.
When we meet Lamin, waving from the doorway of his hilltop bakery, he’s having the briefest of breathers during a very busy day in which he’ll go on to produce over a thousand loaves. Four other young men are inside, levering freshly baked bread from the oven for the afternoon’s sales. As we talk, he’s quickly in his element, eager to explain how he built the oven himself after studying how other bakeries worked.
Lamin now supports his entire family and when we speak, his sights are set on buying a delivery van to secure business even further afield. In two years’ time, his aim is to have built another bakery and some sales outlets so that he can employ and train other young people. We ask him what it’s like to be the youngest baker in Waterloo. He’s unfazed, adamant that it’s his skills that matter, not his age. I’m struck by his determination.
Miles away in Old Wharf, a so-called urban slum, we meet a group of young women who are rapidly changing the fortunes of their community.
Unemployment is high in Old Wharf; the main source of income is from fishing, but it’s a highly risky occupation and as we talk to local people, we hear about family members and friends who have lost their lives in the water. The challenges are many, not least for women, who are also likely to face domestic violence and sexual harassment.
Busy preparing for the lunchtime rush at her restaurant, we meet Mabinty. Mabinty is a member of the REFLECT savings circle set up by young Restless Development volunteers in the community. Judging by the volume of ingredients being chopped, pounded and stirred in our midst, business is booming. The conversation turns to her children, all of whom are in school thanks to profits covering their educational expenses; she’s evidently particularly proud of her two eldest, who are taking their exams.
We get on to her vision for the business – what does she want it to look like in two years’ time? She gestures at the young woman preparing potato leaves in the shade; she’ll take over the running of the business to free Mabinty up to look for opportunities to expand the business, by importing more produce to sell.
Over the course of our visit, we meet several more young people like Lamin and community members like Mabinty, all of whom have found a way to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges. Their stories are completely different, but are united by a very similar principle; everyone we speak to says that their ambition is to create opportunities for other young people to succeed.
This is how you change the world. Not by running one-off programmes that teach crafts or farming techniques or by flying in expats to tell people about sexual health. And it’s about far more than just creating jobs, although in Sierra Leone this is incredibly important. Young Sierra Leoneans are not only driving their local economies and opening doors for their peers in the form of employment and training, they are transforming their communities in other ways. They are leading the way in tackling gender-based violence, finding ways to make sure children are going to school and getting involved in local governance. This is what deeply-rooted, community-led, long-term change looks like.
In Sierra Leone, the future is exciting. And it’s Youth Power-shaped.
Rosanne Palmer-White is the UK Hub Director at Restless Development, and visited Sierra Leone in December 2017 for the annual conference.