Elizabeth Elango Bintliff is the CEO of Junior Achievement (JA) Africa. She is a development professional with 17 years of experience working in developing countries and emerging economies. Formerly the vice-president of Africa Programs at Heifer International, she managed a multi-million dollar portfolio in 12 sub-Saharan African countries, including the Gates Foundation-funded East Africa Dairy Development Project.
For those not familiar with the work of JA, Junior Achievement Worldwide is the largest global NGO dedicated to addressing fundamental social and economic challenges of young people by educating and empowering them to transform their future and own their economic success. Through the delivery of cutting-edge, experiential learning in financial literacy, work readiness, and entrepreneurship, they effectively broaden the canvas of possibility for young people and enrich their ability to both engage in their own economic development and contribute to the strength of their families, communities, and economies. With more than 100 member countries, the JA Worldwide network is powered by over 450,000 volunteers and mentors from all sectors of society, reaching more than 10 million young people around the world every year.
The demographic of Africa’s youth is defined up to the age of 35 years old and for JA Africa, this is essentially the youth demographic they serve. The youth are taught skills that enables them to be work ready and educates them on financial literacy. Due to the big gap between what people learn in school and what they need to keep a job, the role of Junior Achievement has never been more important and vital in filling that gap and being that bridge for young people.
Africa has a youth bulge and has become the continent with the largest youth population, this demographic are particularly a major force in the economic stability of the continent. If they are being adequately catered for, they stand a chance at shifting the continent towards a remarkable growth and if not they stand to be the biggest nemesis yet. What this particularly means is that the African youth population must be employed, educated, and be well placed in the economy as productive citizens.
To accomplish this feat, Elizabeth described that JA is able to focus on this population through different flagship programs, one of which is called “It’s TYME”, which takes what the organization does to outside of the classroom by bringing in young people in marginalized community that have no form of business training to help them. The picture of African youth in marginalized communities cannot be blinded with previous assimilated information given to us by exploitative charity organizations who do not tell the whole picture but only put a picture of a young child on their flyer begging for food in a slum. You should first debunk your mind from that image first, in other to fully appreciate these exciting stories you are about to learn of as we go further. Indeed every society has marginalized communities, but what is failed to be presented and effectively communicated is the whole story of each individual but rather we are fed with meaningless statistics.
Focusing on each young individual as a person with great potential for success and remarkable achievement is what makes JA the most accomplished in the global field of youth development.
Imagine a CEO like Elizabeth who does not just sit in her office delegating and giving orders but rather exhibits leadership by going into the fields of various Junior Achievement centers located in over fourteen African nations to meet connecting with their students. Each individual young person under Junior Achievement Africa is a story worth telling and together they amount to be the forces that is shaping and leading Africa.
ZIMBABWE: “We sat in a little warehouse, soap on the floor and everywhere was like painted with green-she was drying the soap on the floors because she didn’t have the proper equipment. We just sat there and had this beautiful conversation for over an hour where she just talked to me about her life story and I got chills.”
The energy and passion was so powerful in Elizabeth’s voice as she described this Triumph story of a Zimbabwean woman she met in one of her field trips to the centers. The young woman is a graduate of biochemistry who initially wanted to be a doctor. She graduated and found couple of jobs but nothing that particularly drew a fulfilling interest. One thing that finally caught her attention was the problem she observed in her community where a lot of the soaps in the market didn’t cater to very poor people who had hard water. Most of the soaps were for soft water- wealthier people or those who had higher income level. The soaps didn’t lather well and she saw it as a market opportunity to make low cost soap that poor people can afford, they can use to bath and wash clothes very well.
With a lot of tweaking and with her chemistry background she knew what she was doing mostly, but lacked the business acumen to grow or scale which is how she got in contact with JA Zimbabwe, joining the It’s TYME program and that became transformative for her especially in learning how to register her business, employ seasonal employees, pay them in cost per unit for profit and all other business skills. Elizabeth said that through this support of JA, this young woman was able to make real impact of creating employment for people, solving an economic problem in her community with the kind of efficient and adaptable soap product she created, and also becoming capable to provide for herself and her family. “This is why I do my job”, Elizabeth exclaimed in a tone of excitement!
There are tons of stories of success and achievement that has emerged from the thousands of individuals that have been impacted through JA. Elizabeth said that in the youth workforce climate, young people are still being trained for jobs they can’t conceive and this becomes a challenge. Entrepreneurship plays a big role in the youth workforce which is part of the training JA gives its students but it’s not the key but just one of the many keys to youth achievement she says. Giving them the soft skills they need to be creative and the ability to recognize and optimize those opportunities is part of how JA serves the youth. As a practical note, the government in these countries stand as much of a determining factor in how much growth young people stand to achieve. The youth are affected by the policies, how easy is it to register a business for instance? The government has to create the environment for business to flourish. As a good example, In Rwanda, Elizabeth mentioned that you can register a business in one day which is not bad at all. The role of governments in creating the environment that supports the young person is one of the most crucial factors to the success of young people in the workforce. Another challenge that seems to be in the way of young people doing exploits or maximizing their potential, Elizabeth said is the generational knowledge and awareness gap that exists; the influence of parents and how their mentality has to change. The pathway of employment in Africa is changed significantly - our parents came out of school and immediately had a job, she said. The truth about education she noted is that we are training kids for jobs we can’t conceive. Parents, she said have a mentality of you get a certain skill or certificate and you get a job, but that is not the absolute case she adds. Pointing out that parents come from a very different world and their mentality needs to change. It is the difference between rotary phones and smart phones or the difference between typewriters and social media, it is miles apart, she frantically stated. Parents have a huge influence in what we do in our lives as youth and even adults, they are still advising their children to pursue what they see to be secure employment like how they were, “get a job, retire and get pension”- but we are in a much different world. It is not that entrepreneurship isn’t attractive to young people, it is that we don’t necessarily have the support or the understanding of the parent generation and this poses as a great challenge for young people in structural things they have to overcome. Country to country circumstances vary. In some countries, government jobs is the most attractive because they are the more secure but that is shifting because there are more opportunities today. In countries like Gabon JA has a tremendous amount of government support. The president was a big supporter of our student entrepreneurship regional competition and a big supporter of entrepreneurship Elizabeth said. The president was really pushing the ideas of entrepreneur. There’s also a country like Mauritius- that recently mandated an entrepreneurship training to be brought into the formal curriculum for young students. Countries understand that it is an agenda that is critical to economic development in Africa but how to go about it is something not necessarily mature yet, thankfully that is an expertise JA brings into these systems as an organization.
THE IMPRESSIVE AFRICA BUSINESS CLIMATE:
Elizabeth said that this current climate in Africa contributes to giving hope for young people. In terms of opportunities at a micro level, this generation of youth who are about to enter into the workforce or still in school inspite of the challenges of not having parental support - see a different future for themselves because of the exposure to information and the internet she said. Business people and millionaires are celebrity these days in equal measures. Aliko Dangote is a rockstar, Tony Elumelu, Mo Ibrahim are some of the most achieved business moguls of the continent which young people recognize not because they are music rock stars but for their business acumen even the Samuel Eto’os of the world in soccer is equally admired for his skill on the field and as a business person; it is building a certain attraction for entrepreneurship for young people and that is a very positive thing. The other thing that is really great about Africa today are the available resources that promote entrepreneurship in Africa.
Through competitions, funding opportunities and social entrepreneurship, angel investors are putting money, effort and attention on entrepreneurship leading to the creation of opportunities for young Africans to look at this as a micro option for their future. A strong example is the It’s TYME program mentioned earlier, it is funded by Barclays bank which is a company that is interested in investment in youth financial literacy and entrepreneurship and has been a partner for JA for a long time. What is also shifting is that the private sector is really adopting this agenda- Increasing coherence between the goals of the private sector in terms of promoting entrepreneurship and the policy environment is still slow but is shifting so you have banks that are creating programs or products for young entrepreneurs like Barclays Bank, fidelity bank, Rogers capital and a lot of banks and insurance companies are our partners. Elizabeth explained that she thinks the interest and positive climate speaks to the fact that youth focus is a big part of Corporate social responsibility(CSR) but not solely that, just investment generally in Africa in areas of entrepreneurship and financial literacy are on the risk. Junior Achievement captures this climate to serve their youth population by not only working with private sectors but also working with work readiness programs, engaging in job shadows, innovation camps, career campings and much more.
ON TECHNOLOGY IN AFRICA:
Presence of technology is critical and it is a challenge in Africa Elizabeth says. Having access to internet is great but there is variability between countries. Again using Rwanda as an example, the leadership is very key regarding technology, President kagame is considered the digital president, he is big on technology. One thing about the tech that comes to Africa which Elizabeth says she finds to be a great thing is the adaptiveness of the technology that exists in Africa. There are some things she says that you will never find anywhere else but in Africa because it is functional for the environment- the fact that you look around and Nokia or Microsoft and other top tech companies have huge presence in Africa is really telling of the progress here- there is no internet cafes in corners like it used to be ten years ago due to the reason being that smartphones have replaced everything. Everyone gets their info from smartphones and cell phone companies have made data access much more affordable for the masses, you can even buy on the street. Technology is something Africa is working around as we have done with many things
Elizabeth commented, saying that More and more schools now have computer labs. JA she said, has fostered relationships with cell phone companies that equip schools with computer labs. There are also things like Raspberry pi, a great technology that allows students to access content offline. Facebook has this program where they make certain content available for people with low bandwidth so people can access on their phone. JA believes technology is critical and we have the vision to make our programs more accessible - democratic in that way Elizabeth said.
JA E-MENTORSHIP PROGRAM :
The JA platform is hugely depended on volunteer professionals who go to the fields to teach people on business, but Elizabeth says because that is not always possible due to traffic or convenience, the E-mentorship program allows for a more flexible way of learning. Like CEO of Ecobank being available to chat with the young people for X amount of the day - Elizabeth says being able to use technology to access people and resources the students otherwise wouldn’t have had access to are the things JA sees to be game changers and as another factor that contributes to the youth making progress.
INDICATORS OF CHANGE AND EXCITEMENT IN AFRICA:
The energy of 200 young people during a STEM career challenge was Elizabeth’s first experience when she joined JA. She spoke about her first experience of JA as CEO when she came to Ghana. The young attendees came up with monumental ideas of what could be which was really exciting. They are making real change right now, they are looking at what is happening in other countries, access to information and they have growing ability to identify opportunities and take those opportunities and run with them which is exciting. Our young people she said know how to optimize the opportunity and resources around them. The indicator of change in Africa she says is how the narrative is changing. This is no longer the brain drain generation but brain reclaim generation. People are coming back to Africa with better ideas of what to do. Entrepreneurship allows to optimize opportunities in spite of the limitations around. You can create entrepreneurial ways around real challenges. Africa is now a place that young people are being innovative and creative, taking risks and brewing ideas. This generation JA is grooming are going to be the game changers for Africa. The difference in narrative with the parents and youth, is that they were trained on not how to make things but how things are made. Today, young people are taught how to make, fix and how to teach things. JA is raising a generation of leaders who represent the Africa that is changing from where it is power or position but really about empathy and service for everything that is needed for the development of Africa.
JA ON PHILANTHROPY IN AFRICA:
For histories, the act of giving has been a critical part of the African culture. In our conversation on this subject, Elizabeth paints a strong picture about how philanthropy should really be viewed when it comes to Africa. She says international development aid is dwarfed by remissions, funds within communities has a different look, feel and is transacted differently. Africa philanthropy does not have the same reputation that western philanthropy does, we still look at it as something that must come from outside Africa. One of the things JA does she said is a financial literacy program that teaches school age children the concept of earning, saving, spending and donating. It teaches kids how to give, she believes that giving is an essential part of financial health. Although, Africa philanthropy is getting more attention but the attention is being paid to mostly top philanthropists while indeed everyday philanthropists are mobilizing and giving millions of dollars. The church for example is one of the largest giving institution in Africa Elizabeth said and when you think of aid coming, African philanthropy does not have the same visibility as international philanthropy, because we don’t post pictures of hungered children does not mean that there is no culture of philanthropy. The challenge is how to be able to harness the giving and philanthropy of everyday africans and direct. As Africans we have a very unique and very different perspective of what the challenges or needs and solutions of Africa is, philanthropy coming from outside is very prescriptive without a full understanding of what the problem is which is why a lot of projects has not essentially worked. JA takes pride in teaching the students how to cultivate the heart for philanthropy and the spirit of giving not just monetarily but also through volunteering of time because they are all essential aspects of financial health.
JA IN NEXT FIVE YEARS:
At JA we believe in the potential of young people Elizabeth says. It is beyond a tagline. The challenge is how we turn our programs to be at a place where it is about young people taking the ideas and ethos and running with it.
Our programs are informing policy change Eliazabeth said as we were concluding, central to that is the ability listen to the youth and be relevant at every evolving stage of their career. Let the youth tell us what they need and for us to be adaptive to respond to the needs. In a changing world responsiveness is a big challenge. JA values youth and helping them get out of difficult situation into the next level. At this point in JA, it is about turning the programs into movements, taking the ideas and ethos of JA to reach a critical mass, equipping the youth now and not waiting for the future and bridging the gap between what they learn in school and how they apply it.