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By Misan Rewane
VENTURES AFRICA – My entrepreneurship adventure in Lagos has been one wild journey. My team and I have worked hard to grow a scalable and financially sustainable vocational education model to screen and train unemployed West African youths based on their innate strengths and to place them in entry-level jobs in high-growth industries. Choosing to follow the people and the jobs, we set up shop in Lagos, Nigeria and focused on the hospitality and retail industries. We eventually plan to expand to other West African countries and other sectors.
So what did a handful of West African Harvard students with MBAs and degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education know about hospitality and retail? Not much to be honest but we knew that there are over 43 million “unemployable” youths in West Africa – people just like us who never had access to the opportunities we were given. Their reality is chronic unemployment, disillusioned poverty and a loss of dignity that leads to growing levels of frustration across the continent. We also knew that hospitality and retail jobs are on the rise across the continent and yet the service industry across West Africa lags behind in both standards and people development. Having spent a significant part of our lives in both West Africa and “the West”, my colleagues and I knew what global service standards should be and yet we all found that we settle for less when it comes to customer service at home, resigning ourselves to the “This Is Africa” (TIA) excuse.
This is how we came up with our business, West Africa Vocational Education (WAVE). With seed funding awarded by Harvard Business School’s New Venture Competition, we launched a pilot training programme in August of 2013 where we tested the major assumptions behind our business model – our value proposition (accessibility, affordability, quality, relevance and convenience) and willingness- to-pay among the unemployed and their potential employers after training. We are now in the midst of our second training cycle with early success stories from our trainees, many of whom have been placed in entry-level jobs in hotels, restaurants and retail stores.
It has been an interesting journey thus far with a number of surprises, three of which I will list below.
A Tale of Two Lagoses
Though no stranger to the realities of the opportunity divide in Nigeria and across Africa, I have been struck by the breadth of the economic spectrum in a place like Lagos. Some of our trainees request to pay the $60 training fee in instalments because they cannot afford that amount in one go. This is an amount that I can spend on one networking dinner – at a restaurant with sub-standard service to boot! Working to train a new generation of service providers has made me demand more value for money spent on services in the city. It is quite emotionally rewarding to now be able to justify my rants about appalling service because I can at least say that I am part of the solution.
Location, Location, Location
The importance of location in a place like Lagos, where transportation systems are still a long way from supporting the teeming masses, cannot be overestimated. Location affects everything from our rental costs to the real cost our trainees pay to attend our programme. Even though we set our sticker price for training at a significant but affordable $60 training fee, transportation costs can inflate the price of attendance by up to 80 percent, depending on the specifics of a trainee’s commute. It even affects which trainees get called for interviews upon completion of the course, as potential employers are reluctant to hire people who live “too far away” to avoid future gripes about commuting challenges.
The Inadequate Education System
I am no stranger to the adverse impact of Nigeria’s broken educational system but now that I am in the driver’s seat of an institution with a mission to remould, reverse and change mindsets, I realise just how deep in trouble we are. Our institutions churn out young people who have not been taught to think. Their training in basic grammar and literacy is substandard, while their problem-solving skills are almost non-existent. Certainly, no one has taught them how to take initiative.
The implications for me as an entrepreneur are huge. This affects our vocational model as it means our training must focus 80 percent on “how to think” and 20 percent on “how to do”. It affects our business development and it impacts recruiting – we have to walk the WAVE talk and “hire for attitude, train for skill”. I have hired people based primarily on their interest, willingness to learn and basic grammar skills, and trained them in everything else on the job only. I have seen first-hand that there are millions of young people willing and ready to learn who just need access to affordable training and internship models that leverage their innate strengths and interests and take into account the needs of employers.
The path I have chosen is a battle at times but stories like Mary Ibe’s give me strength. Ibe was one of our trainees who, within one month of starting a post- WAVE training job as a trainee chef in the mid-sized hotel where we placed her, was promoted to Food and Beverage Lead in charge of a staff of 10. Over 100 hours of training helped to develop Ibe’s problem-solving, critical-thinking, communication, customer service and teamwork skills.
There are over 43 million people like her in Nigeria and I intend to find them, train them and place them in jobs that can transform their income and livelihoods. With faith, the support of family and friends, a fantastic team and of course, funding, we will get there!