‘Gbenga Sesan is using information and communication technology to empower young people from underserved communities through entrepreneurial training programs that create new economic opportunities for them.
The New Idea
‘Gbenga is using information and communication technology (ICT) to increase the employability of young people that want to remain in the labor market and improve the probability of success for those who chose to become entrepreneurs. He is doing this by providing training in ICT skills and entrepreneurship, mentoring, and internship opportunities with established organizations—all while relying on idle or under-utilized resources within the community. Training is conducted for a small fee in neighborhood cyber cafes that would otherwise go out of business. Trainers are volunteers that have requisite skills and that mentor the trainees for up to six months after training. And companies that provide internship opportunities meet their own needs for skilled labor. ‘Gbenga is focusing his efforts in disadvantaged communities like Ajegunle, the biggest informal settlement in West Africa, where unemployment is particularly endemic and opportunities and role models are limited. Trainees are required to train five additional young people and reinvest 10 percent of their earnings back into Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), the organization that ‘Gbenga initially set up in 2000 as a virtual platform to connect ICT training and mentoring volunteers with underserved youths. PIN uses the money to develop the sustainability of existing projects and expand its Innovation Centers to other communities. These Innovation Centers will be act as permanent incubators owned and managed by the community to encourage and disseminate the programs ideals. ‘Gbenga foresees a future where Innovation Centers contribute to making Nigeria a destination for IT outsourcing and the growth of dot.org companies.
The population of Nigeria is presently estimated at 141 million and accounts for one quarter of West Africa’s people. The United Nations expects the population to grow to 289 million by 2050. Nigeria’s population pyramid shows a high proportion of the population under the age of 15 (44 percent) and a very low proportion above 65 years (3 percent). More than 60 percent of the population is below the age of 24 years. The median age is 18.7 years. About 800,000 university graduates enter the job market annually but fewer than 10 percent find jobs in the first five years after graduation.
Growth in the number of jobs in Nigeria has lagged behind the growth of the urban labor force. And the education system contributes further to the high unemployment rates by not graduating young workers with the needed skill sets. Under Nigeria’s Economic Empowerment Development Strategy the administration proposed the creation of seven million jobs between 2003 and 2007. There are no figures on the number of jobs actually created, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this target was far from being met.
The problem of unemployment is particularly acute in low income and under-served communities like urban slums and small semi-urban centers far from major economic centers like Lagos, Kano, and Port Harcourt. The lack of employment opportunities has led to an increase in criminal activities among young people including commercial sex work, cyber crime, armed banditry, and fraud. In addition, the lack of opportunities is increasing apathy and despondency among Nigerian youth and leading to a lack of engagement in community and social development.
Access to ICT has been growing but continues to lag behind global growth. Computer penetration has grown from about 500,000 in 2003 to 1.2 million in 2007; the number of independent users is even higher. Internet penetration has grown to approximately 5 million users today. More than 70 percent of Internet use is by corporations and institutions. Home use is estimated at 18 percent while cyber cafes represent 5 percent of total internet use. However, both home and cyber café Internet use is limited, with few users capitalizing on its potential as part of the business value chain. For the vast majority of young people who access Internet services regularly, they do so for recreation and cyber crime.
After winning the Cyber School Young Web Developers Contest, ‘Gbenga went on a national tour to give motivational talks to various groups of young people. His tour took him to Ajegunle, the biggest slum in Lagos, and home to over three million people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. While there he noticed a keen interest in ICT and a deep need for broader opportunities and new role models. Most of the young people he spoke to said they wanted to be pop stars or soccer players—glamorous occupations in which a few locals found fame and success and now serve to inspire countless others.
He conducted a base line survey with 242 respondents to confirm his initial perceptions. More than 40 percent were computer literate while fewer than 10 percent owned computers. Despite these figures almost all the respondents recognized that ICT could offer them significant opportunities to improve their economic situations, but few knew how. At that time (2001) ‘Gbenga had already started Paradigm Initiative Nigeria PIN, a virtual platform that connected ICT training volunteers with under served youth. After evaluating the survey results he decided to start ‘mycommunity.org’ to provide hands-on ICT training for young people. He started in Ajegunle with 13 PIN volunteers.
‘Gbenga selected his first set of 25 trainees using criteria that determined specifically how the trainee intended to use the skills they would acquire. ‘Gbenga sought young people who would be able to join their passion and desire to overcome their challenges. Some opted to receive specific training in graphic design, others in using spreadsheets for small business bookkeeping. There were a number of under-utilized cyber cafes in the neighborhood and he convinced the owners to lease their facilities to him for a small fee.
The training curricula included two weeks of focused ICT training, two weeks on entrepreneurial training, and a two-week community/social orientation that re-engaged the young participants in community issues. After the six week training the beneficiaries were monitored and mentored by the volunteer trainers for a further six to twenty-four months.
Beneficiaries at the time of their enrollment signed a commitment to train five others in their newly acquired skills, reinvest 20 percent of their earnings into growing their enterprise, and a further 10 percent to help sustain mycommunity.org. The first set of 25 trainees went on to train 106 others. The alumni then developed a virtual platform, myajegunle.org, where they built a support network and planned strategies that could have a positive impact on their communities. After their training, beneficiaries are placed with companies for internships to further enhance their workplace skills and improve their employability. Many remain involved with the program as volunteer trainers. And as role models they use positive peer pressure to create social change in their communities. Of the initial 25 beneficiaries, eight are currently interning, two have gone on to complete their tertiary education, and nine had their internships extended and are being considered for permanent employment.
To date 75 beneficiaries have received training and ‘Gbenga proposes training 25 each quarter. He is also building a network of companies to increase internship placements. Currently the British Deputy High Commission in Lagos, Lornamead Africa, Virgin Atlantic Nigeria Airways, Arik Airways, Afrinvest West Africa, London Metropolitan University (Nigeria Office), DHL International Nigeria, and Standard Chattered Bank are all accepting interns from this program. Standard Chattered bank is also proposing awarding undergraduate scholarships where appropriate. Many host companies have hosted events to recruit similar companies to join the network. Staffs from these companies have also begun volunteering as trainers and mentors. Lornamead is proposing to use the trainees as commissioned salespeople within their communities.
‘Gbenga has involved the community in the program as much as possible, with parents of beneficiaries also recruited as advocates. Plans are underway to build the Ajegunle Innovation Center as a permanent location for training with the program alumni as staff. ‘Gbenga already has requests from six other communities to replicate his model and four have registered their virtual platforms—abraka.org, itokun.org, igbaraoke.org, festac77.org. He also has begun preliminary discussions with groups in Kano state in northern Nigeria, in addition to Ghana and Kenya. Mycommunity.org will become the central portal for all these dot.orgs. Finally, ‘Gbenga is perfecting a model that will ensure the portal’s sustainability as it continues to reach more clients in more places.
The British High Commission has offered their support for eventual expansion in northern Nigeria. ‘Gbenga intends to replicate by extracting the core principles of his program and empowering local organizations to implement them. He sees his future role as helping with baseline studies, training, and consulting on curricula development. Local implementers will become partners and standards will be maintained through regular monitoring and evaluation. ‘Gbenga spoke to 300 young people about his project in the Niger Delta, where he remembers being asked how a laptop can guarantee a better income than a gun. He has also spoken in Burkina Faso and Senegal and there have been discussions of developing a French language program for francophone countries. ‘Gbenga sees a future where his model is replicated regionally and globally without his personal involvement, and where Nigeria becomes a prime destination for IT outsourcing, and most importantly, a country where bright, educated youth can find good work.
‘Gbenga describes his childhood growing up in Akure, a semi-urban town of moderate size in southwest Nigeria, as modest. His parents worked hard to give their children the advantages of an education. When ‘Gbenga was in middle school he saw his first computer in the school’s computer lab, but was told he could not touch it. At that moment he not only promised himself that he would learn how to use a computer, but he also vowed to himself that he would work hard to make sure that all children would be able to. At first his father was unconvinced that computer skills would improve ‘Gbenga’s career prospects and resisted the idea of sending his son to computer school. But ‘Gbenga persisted. Today his father requires all his children to learn computer skills as part of their preparation for careers and life.
‘Gbenga started as a motivational speaker, telling other young people about the power and potential of ICT and computers to improve their lives. His first project, PIN, was the product of his deep desire to ensure that all young students could access computers. PIN was a virtual platform he developed as a way to bring together training volunteers with young people that wanted to learn or improve their ICT and computer skills. He has spoken extensively around Africa, was Nigeria’s first Information Technology Youth Ambassador (2001 to 2003), and Vice Chair of the UN African Technical Advisory Committee (2004 to 2006). He has also published and co-authored a number of books and articles on ICT, youth and social entrepreneurship. His first project was a web design workshop he organized in 2000, not long after he first acquired his own skills. Additionally, he is a member and co-founder of a number of other organizations that also promote the use of ICT for development among youth.