Sobel has fundamentally changed the way in which young people are viewed in Senegal as well as French-speaking countries across West Africa – not as lazy and self-involved, but as changemakers working for the good of all.
The New Idea
Beginning in his home base, Senegal, Sobel has created a coalition of 30 youth-led organizations that have been officially recognized by the EU as their co-partner in negotiating fundamental improvements in opportunities for young people with the Senegalese government, including changes to the legal system, setting aside regulations and practices that have stifled young people’s voices, and mobilizing funds to turn youth-led initiatives into physical, living reality.
Before Sobel could raise the youth-led movement to a level where international organizations and national governments would recognize a coalition of youth-led organizations as a co-partner, he had to first reverse the negative stereotypes reflected in the media about young people, not just in Senegal but across French-speaking countries in the region facing the same challenges. The most visible and public-facing element of this movement is a weekly television show, Voix des Jeunes (Voices of Youth), launched in Senegal in 2016, and then replicated in other countries across the region. The segments of the show follow a team of young people tackling a social problem in their country and how they address it in real practical ways – encountering obstacles, having to re-calibrate and improve their efforts. The segments include social commentary, but the focus is on the teams and their efforts to resolve differences and come up with creative ways to work with the community.
Beginning in 2016, the Voix des Jeunes (Voices of Youth) format and approach was picked up by youth-serving organizations in other countries. They began to produce content that reflected young people’s entrepreneurial efforts on the ground. Examples include: Lejepad in Guinea, WenakLabs in Chad, Gail in Gambia, CIFDHA in Burkina Faso and, importantly, Voix des Jeunes (Voices of Youth) Diaspora in France.
By 2018, Sobel could see that his public efforts to reverse the stereotypes about young people had created a shift in public attitudes. To capitalize on this shift, his organization, Social Change Factory, conducted a survey entitled “Youth in their own words” on a population of 1,500 young people to better understand the needs of young people in Senegal. The next year, in 2019, Sobel launched a national mapping of youth-led initiatives in Senegal. Armed with the results from the mapping of the youth led organization, he organized the top 30 organizations of youth, media and key players in the ecosystem which provide support for young people and adolescents for structural change, into the “Consortium Jeunesse Senegal”.
Senegal’s demographic dynamics are repeated across the French-speaking subregion. Senegal’s population is 12.9 million with an average annual growth rate of 2.5% in the past 10 years. It is expected to reach nearly 20 million in 2030, according to UN projections. Its growth is marked by two main features: one, Senegal’s current large youth population, half of which is under the age of 18; and two, this population is growing up, resulting in a significant increase in the labor force.
The formal sector creates fewer than 30,000 jobs per year. The number of young workers entering the labor market annually (10% of the age 15-24 cohort) is currently estimated at 269,000 people and it’s expected to reach 376,000 in 2025 and 411,000 in 2030. The job market is dominated by unskilled labor, the majority of whom are young people; 28% of unemployed youth have only received primary schooling. This lack of education and skills creates a major challenge for policymakers in their youth inclusion strategies. It is not enough to transform the economy for a solution to the youth unemployment challenge. Thus, the fundamental question lies in the ability of the economy to absorb this labor supply. Otherwise, a mass of unemployed youth can lead to chronic political instability in a globalized world where young people have other external cues.
Many programs focused on promoting youth employment have been conducted in recent decades to improve employability, access to finance and access to information on the labor market. Unfortunately, these initiatives have not always produced the desired effect. In addition to that, the ambiguous multiplicity of institutions responsible for promoting, funding, and implementing youth employment projects and programs, along with the lack of procedural harmonization of these institutions, has created harmful malfunctions in the effectiveness of these interventions. Moreover, careless financial management has largely contributed to the precarious and unsustainable nature of the job creation programs for young people. As well as being under-represented at a decision-making level, young people are also hugely under-represented in the media. When they are shown, it is for entertainment value only and even then, young people are portrayed as the armed wing of political movements, ideological extremists or as totally disengaged and irresponsible. The media has a tremendous responsibility, not just to promote the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, but to also raise awareness of civic and social issues among young people. By focusing solely on entertainment, it does very little to raise awareness of the urgent issues facing youth that hinder the socio-economic progress of our country.
The challenge for governments is to find ways to provide all these essential components at an affordable cost. Ultimately, the empowerment of the youth through specific support mechanisms is inevitable if effective solutions to youth unemployment are found. According to Sobel, given the multifaceted nature of the problem, several things should be considered if the issue of youth unemployment, having youth in charge as well as involving them in decision making are to be resolved. First and foremost, youth policies targeted at reducing unemployment and increasing job opportunities require a holistic approach.
Following the success of Voix des Jeunes, in 2018, Sobel initiated a survey titled “Youth in their own words” based on a population of 1,500 young people which allowed him to have a better understanding of the youth needs in Senegal. The following year, Sobel launched a national mapping of youth-led initiatives in Senegal. Compiling all the data he gathered and armed with the results from the “Youth in their own words” study, he organized the top 30 organizations of youth, media, and key players in the ecosystem which provide support for young people and adolescents for structural change. The selected youth organizations were based on numerous criteria such as the innovative approach in programmatic delivering, the scope of intervention and area of covering across the country, and most importantly, their will to collaborate, co-create, and share resources. He convened those key players and after sharing the vision and ambition, this led to the creation of Consortium Jeunesse Senegal, positioned as the main key player around youth issues in Senegal.
The Consortium Jeunesse Senegal immediately began to play a major role in the drafting and adoption of the Senegal Startup Act. In December 2019, it was adopted by the President’s Council of Ministers for approval by the National Assembly. The Startup Act aims to positively impact the national economy in line with the Digital Senegal 2025 Strategy. Among the numerous measures one especially stands out: three years of corporate tax exemptions (IMF) and contributions related to the flat-rate contribution payable by employers (CFCE) from the date of creation of the company. This tax boost allows start-ups in Senegal to be more competitive and invest in innovation.
After this success, showing the leadership of the Consortium as a powerful tool to advocate for the youth ecosystem in Senegal, Sobel recognized the need for a holistic approach to tackle youth challenges. He engaged in conversations with multilateral organizations and the Senegalese government to advocate and create awareness of the scope of the challenge. He positioned the Consortium Jeunesse Senegal as the main key player interlocutor between the Senegalese government and multilateral donors like the European Union (EU) by offering expertise, network, and influence in the design and implementation of all youth interventions in Senegal. As result, in 2021, the EU delegation in Senegal signed a 2M € agreement with Consortium Jeunesse Senegal for adequate training, access to information, and capital to the youth in Senegal.
On a systemic level, more recently, in June 2022, capitalizing on their experiences, he worked with the EU delegation to propose milestones for the Senegalese government to adopt to tackle Senegalese youth challenges. The milestones come with an EU budget of 70 M € to support meeting the milestones. Of the total of 5 milestones, the three initially proposed by the Consortium Jeunesse Senegal have been agreed to by the Government of Senegal: 1) Delegate public services to youth led organization, 2) Association reform and 3) Allocation of government funds for civil society organizations to reduce reliance on international donors. To date the agreement is under processing and in order to benefit from the EU budget, the government must prove the achievement of each of the agreement milestones, including the ones proposed by the Consortium Jeunesse Senegal.
Sobel launched Objectif Bac, a support program that mobilized youth volunteers to help students with the academic and psychological preparation for the BAC exam, when he was 17 years old. Objectif works in areas where the failure rate is over 80% per year. The first year, he mobilized 20 young volunteers, and they were able to accompany 150 students in scholarly distress. Among the students supported, 28% obtained their baccalaureate and were able to pursue higher education. The following year the program was replicated in two municipalities and gradually the project was appropriated by student associations in the universities of Senegal and has to date accompanied more than 15,000 scholars in distress across eight regions of Senegal. It has been duplicated in Mali and Ivory Coast for three years by a young former beneficiary of the program as well as a former volunteer from Social Change Factory more recently.
In 2014, at the age of 23, Sobel was the youngest Senegalese participant in the first edition of the YALI program launched by President Barack Obama. As a result of being involved in the program and based on his commitment and vision, Sobel has since had the honor of being quoted as an example twice by President Obama. In 2016, Sobel received the Jambar Tech award for "Best Social Entrepreneur" of the year in Senegal for his program Voix des Jeunes (Voices of Youth), which has generated a total of fifteen million viewers across the sub-region.
In 2018, Sobel was appointed to the Board of Directors of Generation Unlimited, a global partnership initiated by the United Nations that brings together a number of state, non-governmental, and multinational authorities, all committed to the empowerment of young people around the world. Sobel was the only African leader under the age of 30 to serve on the committee.