Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

Youth Economic Empowerment with ICT

Let us start by agreeing that technology has great promise in increasing the economic empowerment of youth in the developing world. We all believe it. But what is that promise in reality? Which technologies hold greater promise? What innovations work? That was the issue we discussed at the Technology Salon on Youth Economic Empowerment with ICT with Fiona Macaulay and Linda Raftree)

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Youth and ICT

First, let us define youth as young people ages 15-24, which is the UN definition, but in certain countries we can expand that age range to 15-35. Why? An example is Sierra Leone, where those 25-35 were denied opportunity during the civil war and therefore are only now reaching the status afforded to youth much younger in other countries.

And let us recognize that youth are already finding economic opportunity with ICTs. Linda Raftree did an informal survey among some colleagues working in Africa and found that:

youth economic opportunity
Making money from movies in Nigeria

“In Egypt, colleagues said that youth are repairing cell phones, serving as DJs at wedding parties, setting up photocopy shops and internet cafes, selling phone calls and airtime, running shops that provide children and young people with the opportunity to play games, and using computers to make flyers and posters for certain producers and products in the communities. They also provide satellite connections for poor families to access national and international TV channels – this service is not legal but generates good income for young people.

In Kenya you’ll find youth managing Mobile Phone Kiosks popularly known as ‘Simu Ya jamii’ (community phones). These double up as phone charging points. Pirated music is big business for some youth and phone unlocking services are increasing. One colleague noted that youth are not really creating applications, but in some of our programs, they are involved in piloting new applications, and thus influencing their development. In Zambia, you don’t see much of this type of activity in rural areas, according to a colleague there. But there are village telcos being operated by youth groups and some village groups are setting up banks of solar chargers to support solar lighting. (Cool result: When they set them up at a schools, encouraging women to come each day to charge their lights, they found that school attendance increased).

In Burkina Faso it’s common to see youth selling telephone scratch cards, renting out their phones, offering video services to film at private events, charging up phones for a price. In Senegal, some take phones from one area to another to charge them up for a fee. All over Africa you see video pirating and movie houses, video game houses, video downloading to mobile phones, music on flash drives and flash drives that plug into radios in cars and in collective transportation vans and busses.”

So how can we increase their economic and social gain in these activities and new ones?

Financial Literacy

One way is to increase the overall financial literacy of youth – their ability to understand the value of money, the profitability of different ways to earn it, and the logic necessary to manage it. Work by the Population Council even suggests that financial literacy should start as young as 8-12, when ideas around money and math are first formulated. In fact, financial literacy was seen as a basic building block for any level of economic empowerment for youth.

ICT can of course make it easier to reach youth to inform them about financial literacy. Radio, TV, even Facebook are all educational mediums by which youth can learn the value of earning and saving financial assets.

youth economic opportunity
Souktel services in the Middle East

Entrepreneurship vs. Employment

Once we start talking about gainful employment, there is often an overriding focus on entrepreneurship, or the starting of microenterprises. This should not be taken as a view that most youth are entrepreneurs by choice, but that often employment opportunities are so rare that they must become micro entrepreneurs by necessity.

And here, basic education on career development and employment choices can help inform youth on the realities of the labour market and help them form realistic job expectations, which can lead to better choices in education and job search activities for the jobs that do exist.

Direct employment efforts like SoukTel‘s JobMatch, which connects job-seekers with employers who are looking for staff using SMS, level the playing field of access to jobs that many youth face when they are not in the active workforce.

Micro Tasking

For those outside the formal sector – the majority of economic activity in most developing world countries – there are increasingly technology-driven opportunities. One is micro tasking, or small jobs that can be done by anyone with basic skills. Sites like CrowdFlower, CloudCrowd, and Amazon Mechanical Turk allow youth to perform simple online tasks for payment. SamaSource is similar but specifically focuses on engaging workers from the developing world.

A key aspect of micro tasking is the ability to build an entire value chain, which youth can use to climb out of poverty. Digital Divide Data has been using the data entry and digital preservation needs of publishers and libraries to empower youth in Southeast Asia with competitive wages, subsidized formal secondary and university educations, and achieve incomes with other employers that are four times the average income in Cambodia and Laos.

In a sign that there is real money to be made in the microtasking industry, TxtEagle just raised 8.5 million in start-up funding for their mobile phone based system.

youth economic opportunity
Baobab Health deskilled healthcare in Malawi


An interesting phenomenon, which could offer opportunity to youth, is the ongoing deskilling of complex jobs, where technology allows lesser-skilled workers to fill roles of skilled professionals when the latter are not available. Deskilling in the health sector is a great example.
By reducing the barriers to starting in a field, deskilling, like micro tasking, can be an important first-step for youth to gain entry into employment and build job skills that can be applicable in higher-order jobs that would otherwise require large investments in formal education.

Technology’s Many Roles

Overall, we found that youth are already using ICT for economic empowerment and we can help by using technology to increase opportunity for them in finding gainful employment and entrepreneurship. There are three roles that Information and communication technologies can play:

  1. An informer of job opportunities that may or many not have ICT, such as basic literacy and job ads
  2. A means for direct employment, such as Internet cafes and digital music sales
  3. A medium by which youth gain employment, such as micro tasking and deskilling

In all of these roles, technology is helping rearrange the social norms around youth and their employability, and in some cases, adding weight to the social standing of youth. At least in computer and cell phone operation and repair, youth are seen worldwide as the best experts.

And in international development, youth and technology are both sexy, and adding a logical, well-researched intervention into your next RFP response (a “mYouth” initiative!) could help empower you and the youth of today.

Wondering how? Then sign up to be invited to future Technology Salons – so you can participate in discussions like this first-hand.

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