Nigeria’s economic climate continues to challenge all citizens. The cost of living is more expensive so is the cost of operating the simplest of businesses. The demographic that are likely to suffer the most are the youth. Realistically, even before the economic downturn unemployment has always been shamefully high, averaging at over 50% for the past five years. Furthermore the state of our secondary and tertiary institutions are not internationally competitive. Nigeria continues to struggle to empower and up skill young people with the necessary qualifications to survive. If we think our current economic situation is difficult then the future is likely to be worse. The future does look bleak but individuals such as Misan Rewane and her non-governmental organisation – West Africa Vocational Education (WAVE) may have an impactful solution. WAVE focuses on training young people with relevant skills to improve their chances of meaningfully joining the workforce. The rationale behind this organisation is irrefutable. Yet the challenge of solving youth unemployment may be too large for one organisation. Though the future may be predicted it is still yet to happen. WAVE could be the foundation and model on how to truly empower young people. Founder and Chief Executive Officer Misan Rewane shares her story and WAVE’s plans for the future

What gave you the idea for WAVE?
The idea for WAVE came from brainstorming with fellow Harvard Business School (HBS) classmates who were also from West Africa and were familiar with the youth and unemployment problems in the region. We met at the end of our first year in HBS when someone suggested I speak to them. They were interested in development in Africa so I chased them up and we had our first meeting in the Harvard Innovation Lab. We spoke for hours about what a solution could look like a one-time meeting became monthly then weekly meetings. We received funding from HBS to do some on-the-ground research to test the viability of the idea. We applied for the HBS New Venture competition and won the runner-up prize, which gave us the seed funding to implement the idea.

WAVE was second runner up in the fiercely competitive HBS new venture competition in 2014. What do you think set you apart from the others?
The fact that we had done some on-the-ground work to test the viability of our model. We had meetings with major hoteliers and retailers in Nigeria. We understood their Human Resource needs and how the WAVE model would be able to solve them. As part of our research we ran several one-day training sessions for unemployed youth to test whether there was a demand for soft skills training.

Before this research phase we had several questions: Were soft skills needed? Would people be willing to pay for soft skills training? Would employers be willing to hire for attitude and train for skill? Luckily we were able to answer these questions.
Our test phase made our business plan seem more viable. Our team also set us apart as we were very familiar with the context of the problem. We are all West Africans with extensive experience and a passion to solve this problem. Given that we are the counterfactual to the unemployed young person. We have been given opportunities that have transformed our trajectories relative to the millions of unemployed youth in West Africa who haven’t had such opportunities.

From my understanding WAVE’s focus is youth empowerment, up skilling young people to increase their chances of socio-economic mobility. There are a handful of NGO’s that have youth empowerment as their focus whether it is through leadership training, scholarships etc. However without sufficient government intervention can youth empowerment NGO’s or WAVE make any significant impact?

I think we can, but it would very likely take as much as ten times the resources as it would have if we had some support from government. So yes, government intervention is very vital in supporting existing NGO’s to scale impact. For example, at WAVE we want to train 25,000 young people across West Africa and facilitate placement for 75% of them into entry-level jobs by 2019. If we were to achieve this feat without support from the government, one way to do it would be to develop our model into a franchise that is fairly simple to set up. This can be run with minimal training, for anyone across the region who cares about the rising unemployment problem and wants to do something to solve it in a sustainable and profitable way. While WAVE then serves to regulate and make sure that quality is consistent across board. This would take a lot of resources in terms of funds, people, time and energy. Conversely, with government intervention, we can tackle the problem more directly, from the root. Many years ago a secondary education prepared you enough to get a job and start a life as soon as you were done. Going to the higher institution back then wasn’t common; sadly, in this era neither a secondary education nor a University education prepares you enough for the 21st century world of work. Think about the kind of impact, at very little cost, we could have if the government implemented a policy that makes the WAVE model a required part of completing secondary school, we would have far more people ready for work right out of secondary school and the impact could be millions at a time!

This would be an alternative to a million people writing JAMB and trying to go to a university that isn’t very likely to make your chances at employment any better. As a matter of fact only about 30% of those who take the exam have a shot at getting into any higher institution. So why not adopt a model that gets these people into jobs at least for a year and until the next JAMB comes around and they can try again. The bottom line is, with government support NGO’s can definitely do a lot more, and faster too, as most of our problems are not shrinking in size, but growing everyday with our teeming population.

Setting up any venture in Nigeria is a challenge, what have been the challenges for WAVE so far?
Last year, we had the capacity to train 600 youth in our academy, yet we struggled to operate at 50% of our capacity. We could not find young people who were willing to take the first step of starting at the bottom with an entry-level job (and pay) that’s not an “office job”. Most people feel they deserve to earn more when they don’t have the commensurate experience or haven’t even demonstrated what value they can bring to the table. What we tell our trainees is that their first year on the job will simply be about learning while adding value – it will not be about making enough money to save for anything. Not many young people are willing to make that sacrifice and take the first step, they would rather “sit and wait” for the “right opportunity”. That being said, of the 3,000 eligible applicants we had last year, less than 600 of them fit the profile. We were looking for a demonstrated willingness to learn and self-motivation.

I did some research on WAVE and there is an 80% success rate with the students, they are able to find jobs in the hospitality industry and that is great. What happens to the other 20%?
Yes 80% of our alumni go on to get employment in the hospitality and retail sectors. 70 to 75% through our own network of employer partners and another 5 to 10% with employers outside our network. Another 5-10% go back to some form of education, part-time employment or self-employment. We are looking forward to running an independent evaluation of our impact this year. This will examine what the employment, income and career trajectory has been for the close to 500 young people who have graduated from the program since 2013.

What have been the success stories?
There are alumni who have risen to become supervisors and managers and now call WAVE when they need staff. Alumni that now work fulltime on team WAVE in a variety of functions (e.g. admissions, training, support services). There are also alumni who call us about their new jobs where they are earning five times what they initially earned when they first graduated from WAVE. There are alumni who sponsor unemployed youth in their communities to attend WAVE. All these alumni are paying it forward one way or another by being great WAVE Ambassadors, WAVING the flag and riding the WAVE to the future. As you can see, there’s no shortage of WAVE puns.

In your initial assessment of Nigeria’s economy retail and hospitality are two sectors that will create jobs and therefore you train the students for these sectors. Has this changed in light of the current economic environment?
Great question! Everything’s up in the air with the economic uncertainty in the country but the 170 million people in Nigeria must still eat 1-3 times a day and buy even the basic commodities. So we stand firm on our strategy and positioning our students for the retail & hospitality sector. Additionally, because our focus is on work-readiness skills that are relevant in any workplace and therefore our 170-plus employer partners span media, financial services, health & wellness and logistics industries.

• For more information on WAVE visit www.waveacademies.org