How YouthConnekt is impacting young Rwandan innovators

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Some of the youths who attended the fifth YouthConnekt look at locally made shoes at an expo last year. File.

Rwanda is set to host the inaugural continental YouthConnekt Africa Summit that’s expected to draw more than 2,500 delegates from across the continent to discuss the future of Africa’s youth.

This is the first ever continental edition of the YouthConnekt initiative, and the idea is to bring together different youths to showcase the potential of Africa’s youth and the available opportunities.

The initiative has been running in the country for the last five years, mostly recognising the role of the youth in leadership and entrepreneurship, but also giving a platform to young people to deliberate on what the future holds.

The initiative was launched in 2012 by the Government of Rwanda in collaboration with One UN Rwanda.

According to the Youth and ICT Minister, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the concept was developed as solution to youth problems.

“We had the first YouthConnekt Convention back in 2012 when we gathered over 3,000 youth from across the country, and in 2013 we started building partnerships to make the programme bigger. The whole idea was out of the belief that this was the solution to issues that young people were facing,” he told The New Times.

Nsengimana also said that, during the last five years, the programme has given a platform to young people to participate in leadership and business related conversations, which he believes are important in changing and shaping their mindset.

“YouthConnekt has opened doors for young people to participate in most of the national dialogues especially those that strengthen peace building and reconciliation. I believe it is important for young people to participate in dialogues because they can be inspired and motivated to act,” he noted.

Today, YouthConnekt has grown to constitute YouthConnekt Convention, YouthConnekt Dialogue and YouthConnekt Awards, all of which have a focus on economic empowerment.

The minister said the initiative combines elements of skills development, entrepreneurship, access to finance, and awareness on issues related to youth development.

This is demonstrated through the impact that the initiative has made over the years. For instance, through its different components, the programme has reached over 4 million youth who have been directly involved in both decision-making and economic empowerment.

“The businesses we have supported have generated around 4,000 off-farm jobs, and these are numbers we track individually in all districts. We award them, we encourage them and they grow,” he said.

Stephen Rodrigues, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) country director, said supporting such youth initiatives helps them realise their potential and contribute to the country’s development.

“It is not just about investing in young people, but also creating space for their ideas, their innovations, their creativity and energy. A young person who is educated, skilled, healthy, self-confident, engaged and who has positive values and attitudes can be a tremendous asset to the development of their community and their country,” he opined.

He added that having been associated with the programme means that they understand the impact that such initiatives can have on transforming the lives of young people in many ways.

“YouthConnekt helps to open doors for young people in many ways. It helps young people find or create their own jobs, start new businesses, find apprenticeships, and participate in policy discussions,” he explained.

This week’s summit is expected to also attract the world’s leading entrepreneurs including Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, one of the world’s leading entrepreneurs, the founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group. Renowned American singer Akon, born Aliaume Damala Badara Thiam, an impact investor and co- Founder of Akon lighting Africa, is also among the speakers at the summit.

Africa’s leading billionaires, Tony Elumelu, Aliko Dangote, and Strive Masiyiwa, among others, will also attend.

This, according to the minister, presents enormous opportunities for youth participants with proven ideas to network and purse partnerships, but it also an excitement for young people to see how they can turn challenges they face into opportunities.

How it has empowered youth

Jean-Bosco Nzeyimana is one of the beneficiaries of the programme. In 2014, he won a YouthConnekt Award by Young Entrepreneurs. A few months later, he was among the top 10 Young Achievers organised by Imbuto Foundation.

Nzeyimana was two years later part of a five-member panel that included the former US president Barack Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of the social networking site, Facebook.

“It is through the YouthConnect initiative that I opened my mind and formed new networks. I think the whole idea of the initiative contributes to changing the perception that the young people have towards entrepreneurship and business. I have been connected to a wide range of other entrepreneurs through this platform,” he said.

Nzeyimana is the founder of Habona Limited, a company that produces affordable and eco-friendly biogas fuel from environmental waste. His company is based in Nyamagabe District.

Basically, the programme helps youth like Nzeyimana to realise their potential and help raise awareness on issues related to youth development.

Musanze-based science teacher and budding entrepreneur, Cephas Nshimyumuremyi, is another beneficiary who speaks much about the role that the programme has played.

“I must say the whole programme has helped me improve significantly. The confidence I gained throughout the journey, the experience, and the exposure is what every upcoming entrepreneur needs,” he says.

Nshimyumuremyi adds that the initiative didn’t just help him to secure financial support but also critical skills and exposure to the media and potential clients.

“Through the programme, we acquire skills and knowledge about running business. The marketing and sales skills, management, crafting business models and proposals, and how to attract customers,” he said.

He was among the YouthConnekt champions in 2013. He scooped Rwf3 million, which helped him to expand his then five-month business. Nshimyumuremyi runs Uburanga Products Ltd producing anti-bacterial products, including herbal soaps and jellies. Last year, he was also part of the winners of Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme.

These are some of the stories that represent a big picture of how the programme has been benefitting the youth. The programme continues to offer training, and connect entrepreneurs to financial institutions.

Scaling up the initiative

Based on the success and impact of YouthConnekt on Rwandan youth, 14 African countries expressed their interest to adopt and implement the YouthConnekt programme following a regional workshop that Rwanda hosted in September 2015.

Three countries (Uganda, Liberia & Republic of Congo) have already launched their own YouthConnekt chapters and others are planning to follow.

YouthConnekt Africa aims at creating 10 million jobs and 1 million youth leaders by 2020.

Officials say that they want to leave the conference with not just commitment, but with a clear plan that will be implemented.

“The conference is only a means to an end. We want to see new partnerships, new funding, new programmes, and new opportunities created for young people,” Rodrigues said.

This week’s YouthConnekt Africa Summit is being organised in collaboration with UNDP and UNCTAD, and will be held from July 19 – 21 under the theme, “From Potential to Success.”

The highlight will be the launch of the ‘YouthConnekt Africa Hub’ and the ‘YouthConnekt Africa Empowerment Fund’.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw