Paige Elenson is equipping unemployed young people in Africa to develop as professionals and leaders to create economic opportunities by tapping into the multibillion dollar global wellness industry. By engaging young people in the development of the yoga market, Paige has created a model that incorporates self-discovery to unlock participants’ innate capacity to transform themselves and their environment.
The New Idea
Through Africa Yoga Project (AYP), Paige demonstrates how young people, deemed unemployable in the current job market, can be empowered to create employment for themselves and others. AYP trains young, disadvantaged Kenyans to become professional yoga teachers by actively developing the market for their skills, including identifying and creating new market opportunities. At the same time, the model cultivates a culture of inclusion and community service, and makes the health and wellness benefits of yoga, a practice previously a luxury for wealthy Africans, accessible to low- and middle-income communities.
AYP’s program is generating interest across the continent and internationally, setting the organization to expand to several countries over the next five years. Furthermore, the replicable model is already demonstrating the potential to increase job opportunities in other markets and industries. Organizations working on mental health in Kenya have approached Paige about adapting her model for their field.
Each year over 500,000 graduates leave school with degrees that have traditionally been considered a sure route to employment. Unfortunately, there are not enough jobs to absorb the number of graduates. Of Kenya’s population of 41 million only 11 million have jobs, and of these, only 2 million are employed in the formal sector with 9 million managing informal businesses. Young people make up 75 percent of Kenya’s unemployed with university graduates accounting for 40 percent of this group.
The huge and growing gap between the supply and demand for jobs has removed from job seekers the freedom to choose vocations best suited to their passions and abilities. This results in rampant underemployment and job dissatisfaction. The backdrop of this situation is an education system that fails to help students discover their passions and develop their talents, resulting in a young population unable to realize its full potential. Although access to economic opportunities is challenging for educated young people, it is even more difficult for those uneducated and poor; the majority of whom will never find formal employment and are destined to eke out a living as minimum wage workers, criminals, or micro-entrepreneurs in the informal sector.
Current approaches to address the problem of unemployment have had little success when one considers that the rate of unemployment has risen 12 to 40 percent over the last ten years. While much has been done to address Kenya’s unemployment crisis, including efforts such as curriculum reform, accelerator programs, business plan competitions, and enterprise development funds, and these well-meaning strategies have had some positive impact, they have failed to increase job creation relative to demand and they have failed to ensure success of startup businesses. 80 percent of startup businesses fail per annum, making it nearly impossible for young people to successfully create jobs for themselves, let alone others. Current solutions to the youth unemployment problem have not included strategies to break into new and growing markets in order to increase the number of jobs available. As an emerging economy, Kenya’s ability to unlock the potential in undeveloped local industries could shift millions of unemployed youth into formal employment.
As an experienced and world-renowned yoga instructor, Paige saw two sides of this burgeoning global industry. In the US alone, yoga is a $27 billion a year industry; more than half of Kenya’s GDP. Yoga is part of a growing global wellness trend that is bringing billions of dollars of products and services into homes and offices, as a way to prevent health problems, increase productivity, and general well-being. Across Europe and the US, the yoga industry employs millions of people including yoga teachers, publishers, caterers, studio builders, manufacturers of yoga props, and apparel. There is a yoga studio on every block and society has widely embraced yoga for its social and health benefits. On the contrary, yoga in Kenya (like most African countries) was close to non-existent. The practice was limited to an elite class with only five yoga teachers (all expatriates) and no studios in Nairobi when Paige began. Yoga was expensive and out of reach for most Kenyans.
Paige empowers young Kenyans to tap into this burgeoning global industry through a professional development model that combines self-discovery, community outreach, skills training, and market development, to put them in control of their own career opportunities, while also bringing wellness benefits to their communities.
To generate local talent poised to take advantage of this new market, Paige developed a unique and replicable training program underpinned by principles that redefine professional development in Kenya. AYP provides yoga teacher training free of charge to unemployed young people from slums in Nairobi. The selection of trainees is designed to find young people that desire to change their circumstances and are committed to staying with the program for at least three years. Each trainee is required to put in at least 200 hours of practice to become certified as a yoga instructor. AYP is the first registered 200-hour certified yoga-training program in Africa.
The program begins with an intense two-week in-house training which includes not only yoga skill development, but also personal discovery and professional training. Many people entering the program have difficult lives in an unsafe environment; some of them perpetrating violence and crime, with only 40 percent having a primary school education. The focus on self-discovery is critical to help them shift their mindset about what is possible for their lives and has a transformative effect. They also learn to become professionals and develop a specific skill set (teaching yoga) that they can use immediately to continue learning.
As the AYP-trained teachers are themselves transformed, they bring the opportunity for transformation to others. AYP’s training program is fully integrated with community outreach, shifting participants’ relationship to their environment. After the intensive two-week training, each student is required to free classes every week for at-risk groups, facilitating students to develop their professional skills while bringing health and wellness benefits to low-income communities. Each participant must identify and enroll the communities for the classes, enabling them to build additional skills as they contribute to the development of the yoga market. This outreach program, in addition to classes facilitated by the students at the AYP studio, contributes to each student’s 200-hour requirement, and is a powerful way to develop leadership skills among students to prepare for their launch as independent professionals.
Paige has also developed several creative ways of financing this work while adding to the participants’ professional development. A mentorship program pairs students with carefully selected, experienced yoga professionals from around the world, who provide weekly advice and guidance throughout the program. Mentors pay a monthly fee to cover student stipends while they focus on their outreach work for three years. Recognizing that not everyone will make a full-time living as a yoga professional and that AYP is a path to professional opportunities in other fields as well, AYP also matches participants with mentors in other areas as interest arises. For instance, if an AYP teacher expresses an interest in being a hairdresser or opening a beauty salon, AYP will try to find a mentor for him/her in that field as well.
Similarly, an ambassador program engages expert foreign visitors to coach students during community outreach and the business of yoga; covering specialty topics such as marketing and communication or financial management. AYP teachers are also working with ambassadors from global yoga product companies on the development of yoga props from locally sourced materials. Visitors of the ambassador program pay a fee which contributes to AYP’s sustainability.
When AYP began in 2009, there were only five yoga teachers in Nairobi, and all were expatriates earning a lot of money from a very small niche market. There are now over 200 local AYP-trained teachers providing both private and group classes. Yoga classes are affordable for Kenya’s middle-class and accessible to low-income communities through AYP’s outreach program. AYP-trained teachers also provide their services to over 18 hotels, and some are sought after internationally, in countries such as Russia and Italy to conduct yoga retreats. Others from the AYP program have started yoga-related businesses, making yoga apparel, yoga mats and blocks, and healthy food. An AYP survey following students in the program shows that the average AYP teacher is able to support five people from yoga instruction.
The AYP survey also showed significant benefits to health and well-being. 94 percent of AYP teacher’s reported a positive impact on their health, including reduced stress and illness. 97 percent reported an increase in emotional well-being, from an increased ability to control anger and frustration and a greater sense of happiness, tolerance, and confidence.
Through the outreach work integrated into AYP’s professional development program, each week 150 students provide 350 free classes to over 6,000 people in hospitals, prisons, schools, and homes. They learn about yoga and physically experience its benefits. In addition, Paige runs a free community yoga class at AYP’s yoga studio every Saturday, which attracts over 250 people a week to experience yoga for the first time. Paige anticipates that in five years, 100,000 middle- and upper-class East Africans will be enrolled in affordable, weekly preventive healthcare classes with AYP-trained teachers, and 50,000 slum residents will use free outreach services for trauma relief and self-efficacy.
Paige has partnered with Boston College and the University of Buffalo to research the efficacy of AYP’s programs and will soon work with a strategy consulting firm to ensure AYP is delivering optimal socioeconomic impact. Paige is also works with others to lead the development of a natural health bill that would regulate the wellness industry and ensure the maximum benefit to Kenyans. AYP dissipates common stereotypes that connect yoga to religion, but is positions it as a valuable wellness and preventative health practice.
AYP is attracting students from across Africa, including South Africa, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Freetown, and Rwanda. In these countries, AYP is having impact on vulnerable communities through its outreach program and preparing a new generation of local yoga practitioners to drive the growth of the yoga and wellness industry in their respective countries; incentivized by clear economic and social gains. AYP plans to expand its work into five countries over the next five years. AYP’s professional development model has been so successful it has attracted attention from other institutions that are looking to adapt it to the mental health field, which suffers from an acute deficiency of professionals.
Paige was born to an entrepreneurial family in New York, US. She watched and learned as her “hippie” parents went from selling t-shirts at Grateful Dead concerts to building one of the largest sports apparel companies in the country. As a child, she travelled with her parents to their factories around the world. After an uninspiring couple of years in high school in New York, Paige convinced her parents to let her go to a private school she found in Israel. When she returned to New York for her senior year, she
enrolled in City As School, an innovative, experiential learning school where students combine classwork with outside internships and direct their own learning.
During a trip to Mexico while at university, Paige attended a yoga retreat with renowned instructor Baron Baptiste while her friends partied. At the end of the break, Paige felt alive and rejuvenated. She began studying to be a yoga teacher. While doing some pro bono consulting for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Paige convinced an urban school with limited space to take up yoga as an alternative to traditional physical education programs, as it could be done in existing classrooms without costly investments. A five-school trial was completed with great success, and now LAUSD has partnered with Yoga Ed and delivers yoga teacher training at LA’s accelerated schools.
Finishing university, Paige became a full-time yoga instructor and teacher. Working with Baron Baptiste, she travelled to Japan and Hong Kong to train yoga teachers. During a family vacation in Kenya, Paige met a group of young acrobats in a safari park. She did a couple of yoga poses with them, and they were so intrigued that they repeatedly wrote letters to her, asking her to return to Kenya to teach them. When Paige initially returned to Kenya in 2007 to teach yoga to the young acrobats from Kibera, she planned to be there for three weeks but stayed for three months. As the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya ensued, Paige saw how yoga bridged the gap between tribal groups that were previously in fierce conflict. What was supposed to be a one-time training grew into repeated trainings, and she founded Amani Circus, an arts and culture program for the internally displaced people camps around Kenya. Paige regularly returned to Kenya until she moved permanently in 2009.
While Paige was making trips to Kenya to provide yoga training to residents of Kibera, she was invited by staff at the United Nations in Nairobi to offer paid classes at their facility. The disparity between the two worlds quickly became apparent. On the one hand, she was working with young people in Kibera to spread the benefits of yoga to slum residents who barely had enough to eat, while on the other hand, she was earning thousands of dollars conducting short yoga classes at the UN. She realized she could train the young people to give the classes at the UN and earn the money for themselves. She convinced Baron Baptiste to work with her to create a yoga training program and targeted unemployed youth living in Kibera.