It is 5p.m at Michael’s Island in the middle of Lake Ruhondo. As daylight wanes amid a biting cold, the mountains that envelop the lake merge into shadows that blend the entire setting into a picture- perfect scenery. One family lives on this small island. Sylvester Nduwayezu, 26, his wife and two children are the only inhabitants here. The islanders benefit from proceeds from community tourism, which is promoted by Beyond the Gorillas Experience, a local tour company which started operations in 2010. The business has been boosted by Youth Connekt, a joint initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Ministry of Youth and Culture, and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). Its chief executive, Theodore Nzabonimpa, won a Youth Connekt innovation award five years after he founded the company. In addition to funding, he says that he managed to network with other entrepreneurs, acquired skills and mentorship from business experts. Upon obtaining the funding from UNDP, Nzabonimpa expanded his scope of tourist offerings from 12 to 43 activities, including hiking, birdwatching and fishing. He also hired more employees, his team growing from six to 21 workers. He also offered placements to over 180 interns. However, like other businesses, Beyond the Gorillas Experience suffered heavy losses when Covid-19 arrived. Thankfully for the firm, UNDP intervened. “Their support has helped offset some of the lost revenue,” said Nzabonimpa. Beyond serving people in and around the lake through jobs and other opportunities from tourism, Beyond Gorillas Experience is giving back to the community. One of the ways they have done this is by setting up a nursery school in the area. 26-year-old Oscar Nizeyimana, an entrepreneur in bamboo production, is another beneficiary of Youth Connekt. A Youth Connekt laureate, Nizeyimana set up Mon Bamboo, a Rubavu-based social enterprise that manufactures household furniture from bamboo. They also train young people interested in the business. 1,300 young entrepreneurs “We started out as a small company, but now we are at the level of training others and once our trainees have completed their internship here, the most outstanding ones head to China for advanced training,” he told The New Times. Nzabonimpa and Nizeyimana are among 1,300 young entrepreneurs who have benefited from UNDP’s Youth Connekt initiative. Initiated in 2019, the project seeks to develop and harness the potential of Rwanda’s largest demographic group – the youths, who make up around 70 per cent of the population. The programme mainly focuses on three areas, including increasing access to decent jobs, empowering the youths to fully engage in policymaking and civil activities, and increasing the number of youth using health services and adopting healthy lifestyle practices. So far, the project has trained more than 1,300 young entrepreneurs, created 23,000 jobs, and engaged over four million people in hands-on skills. Several entrepreneurs have also been awarded grants to start businesses. Maxwell Gomera, the Country Representative of UNDP, noted the need for African governments and communities to tap into the spirit of innovation and creativity of particularly young people. “Unemployment and the need for job creation is what inspired us to create a platform which offered young people an opportunity to come together and share ideas and learn from each other,” he noted. The platform also allowed for young people to initiate businesses and bring in investors who can offer financing for youth-run businesses. Gomera says the project has been so successful it even extended its services to other countries like Ghana, making it the largest business platform in Africa. “If we don’t deal with challenges caused by the growing numbers of unemployed young people, we are going to face a very big political challenge as a result,” he said. The same views were echoed by Rosemary Mbabazi, the Rwandan Minister for Youth and Culture. Commitment to continued partnership Beyond enhancing business and employment opportunities, the initiative has bought leaders and young people together, allowing them to discuss issues. “Young people coming in for discussions with their leaders, an inter-generational dialogue, was a very essential component of the programme and it has helped bridge the people-leadership gap,” she observed. Vulnerable youth like those with teenage pregnancy, and those with disabilities were also facilitated, she noted. Youth Connekt was a bridge platform that connected unconnected dots, she added. The Government of Korea is one of the programme’s strategic partners, through KOICA, its main international cooperation agency. It injected some $8 million into the four-year project. The Korean envoy to Rwanda, Jin-weon CHAE, said his country supported the project because they believe that Rwanda’s youth are a major driver for economic development. “As Rwanda continues on its journey to sustainable development, its young generations will continue to be an important driving force for that to happen,” he said. “This is why the Republic of Korea is committed to this partnership.” Similarly, CHON Gyong Shik, the Country Director for KOICA Office, also stressed that Rwandan youth are an important factor in national sustainable socioeconomic development. “We are committed to continuing our partnership with Rwanda to contribute to the development of the youth as an emerging and powerful force in different sectors,” he observed. Reports indicate that 60 per cent of Africa’s population is under the age of 25, which is both an opportunity and a big challenge for African governments and communities. Over 11 million young Africans enter the labour market every year, yet the African economy can only sustain 3.5 million in the job market. To leverage its young population and talents, Africa needs to harness innovation, experts say, adding the continent needs to turn its youth into job and wealth creators. Beyond the Gorillas Expereince established a nursery school as a way of giving back to the community it operates in. Oscar Nziyemanas MON BAMBOO trains young people how to mak various products out of bamboo. Young girls and teen mother were supported for their social and economic empowerment. Youth Connekt promotes technology and innovate among students through TVET Youth Challenge Competition.