Harambee: Solving Youth Unemployment through Partnerships

While in South Africa, I was grateful for the opportunity to meet with Maryana Iskander and Lebo Nke of Harambee, an accelerator tackling the country’s startling reality as it grapples with the world’s highest rate of youth unemployment.

Though youth employment rate is nearly double that of adult employment — with 52.3% of South African youth (aged 15-34) living without work, and, even if able to afford fees for higher education, graduates see dismal opportunities for employment. While the national unemployment rate fares better at around 27%, the stark differences between South Africa’s developed economy and underdeveloped labor force are apparent by just a quick glimpse outside Harambee’s walls. According to the International Labor Organization, South Africa ranks as the 9th worst country for employment in the world but is the lowest-ranked country with a mature and developed economy. To illustrate, over a five-year period, almost 1 million youth entered the labor market with the creation of zero net new jobs.

Harambee’s Youth Employment Accelerator tackles this through an innovative, partnership-driven model that has supported over 500,000 unemployed work-seekers to date. As a social enterprise, Harambee works with individual businesses, government agencies, local and international donors, industry sector associations, youth-serving organizations, assessment specialists, behavior-change experts and technology providers to close gaps in youth employment.

Going beyond the traditional workforce development training, Harambee uses algorithms and behavioral readiness programs to reduce hiring risk while sourcing high-potential young people. It provides oft-unaddressed needs like professional clothing, professional etiquette and even meals that can sometimes impede a youth’s ability to find or secure employment. The Harambee “banana” is a laughing matter in conversation now, but in reality, it’s those bananas that created a 30% increase in assessment completion among unemployed youth who wanted better for themselves but there poverty-stricken situations left them hungry.

But Harambee goes beyond supporting youth to also changing the tone employers use when sourcing and evaluating talent. Using a peer-based rating system and socio-behavioral science, Harambee helps employers better identify a young person’s capability and potential rather than focusing solely on educational merit or previous work experience. By acknowledging socio-economic factors, such as geo-location and transportation, Harambee also ensures proper matching for long-term job retention. With three floors of call-center trainees, assessment rooms, full-day training opportunities, and more, Harambee’s data scientists churn inputs daily for more accurate algorithmic outcomes. The result? Over 500,000 lives changed through access to opportunity.

Taneshia, Ruwayne, Siphesihle and other participants in Intervention 18, after sharing their stories on life before Harambee. The group will now begin a one-year apprenticeship at a major corporation but they each also have entrepreneurial ideas that they hope to develop once more financially stable and professionally apt.

Taneshia, Ruwayne, Siphesihle and other participants in Intervention 18, after sharing their stories on life before Harambee. The group will now begin a one-year apprenticeship at a major corporation but they each also have entrepreneurial ideas that they hope to develop once more financially stable and professionally apt.

Thanks to Lebo, I had the pleasure of meeting with 10 of Harambee’s top performers. This “Intervention Class” (as so appropriately named) was nearing the end of a six week training program. They would soon enter a year-long, paid apprenticeship position at a major corporation.

As each young person shared their story on life before Harambee, a theme of depression and defeat clouded the room. As they spoke openly and confidently on how numerous job-seeker scams drained their limited reserves, or, how each day brought only one decision around which blanket to bury under, or how their desired conversation on issues of philosophy or politics would be snuffed in the grim realities of a township like Soweto, they now carried a tone of motivation, of positivity, of a sense of self that gave purpose to their lives. They needed something to help justify their daily worth — something that could mold their potential into true opportunity. Something that could promise the economic achievement that was stripped from their families; and something that would refine the immense amount of potential into something productive. Something they could be proud of.

Almost everyone in the group had dreams of entrepreneurship — and some had already started to work towards these goals. Taneshia desired to take her volunteer experience in schools to build a daycare center for moms in need; Michael aimed to scale his already-successful chicken business to provide food more days per week, as well as operate with higher-grade equipment. Another youth sought to open an arcade game venue in his township.

I recognized my own privilege in sharing a message on entrepreneurship. Specifically, that the ability to chart your own path - and follow your dreams - is not the reality for most. And, even the decision to do so - and to commit to it - comes with a sense of privilege that many may not attain. These young people, more than they wanted to accomplish their dreams (of which they all had), they sought daily purpose. And a means to provide for themselves (and their families) in way that could prepare them to accomplish their dreams. They needed something to look forward to everyday. And Harambee gave them that motivation.

D Wilson