Theresa Michael

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Nigeria
Fellow since 2014
This description of Theresa Michael's work was prepared when Theresa Michael was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.

Introduction

Theresa is positioning young people to take responsibility for their skills development, employment and economic empowerment and play a key role in empowering other youth with the opportunities to do the same.

The New Idea

Theresa is building a new vocational training model in Nigeria, one that is youth-driven, collaborative, and tailored to the passions and interests of those who participate.

Most vocational training programs are designed merely to transfer vocational knowledge and skills to individuals without any attention to empowering young people to creatively and collaboratively use those skills in a context where existing jobs are not plentiful. Theresa’s alternative model places youth at the center and in charge of their education and employment. Her organization, Model Mission Assistance in Africa (Momi Africa), organizes young people into cohorts around a particular vocation that interest the entire group. Group members work with the organization to design their curriculum, tailoring the training to their interests and geographical context. Before graduation, these students participate in an apprenticeship that hones their skills and knowledge in an applied setting. The cohorts are also provided with seed funding for a collective business venture and are tasked with establishing their venture and repaying the seed funding as a group within two years after graduating. They are then responsible for recruiting and mentoring another cohort of young people that next receives the seed funding. In this self-replicating model, youth are challenged to be socially responsible, financially literate leaders who work as a team to improve their livelihoods.

The Problem

Nigeria’s unemployment rate is spiraling upwards with the greatest impact on young people between the ages of 16 - 30. Official estimates put youth unemployment at 38 percent of the youth population. This presents significant challenges to the growth and development of the country.
Unemployment is higher in rural areas, regions where there are fewer graduates equipped with the qualifications needed to work. However, even graduates have few prospects of securing employment, with only 10 percent of each year’s graduating class absorbed into the labor market. Employers complain that most graduates lack the skills needed to perform even the simplest jobs.

The employment crisis is tied to the education and vocational training system in Nigeria, which is plagued by issues of access to education and the quality of the education received. Employers complain that graduating high school students lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. Among men aged 15 to 29, 28 percent are illiterate and 39 percent are semi-literate six years after graduation. The results for women are worse. With such poor results even with a high school diploma, it is no surprise that many students drop out before graduating.

In order to address the youth unemployment issue, government and nongovernment organizations established vocational training programs to absorb unemployed youth who have dropped out of the dysfunctional school system. However, such programs treat youth as a homogenous group. No criteria of gender, disability, and poverty disparities are applied. No talent or interest distinction is applied. Many of them provide the skills training without access to credit, and those that give access to credit do not build-in long-term sustainability measures, including youth ownership of the process

Theresa had come to the realization during previous skills development programs that although students were armed with skills, they depended on a third party for their employment. Thus, many of the newly skilled youth remained jobless after completion of the training. Theresa conducted an assessment study of vocational training programs in Nigeria to better understand what other gaps and blockages there might be in existing models. She learned that participants are not consulted or included in decisions that relate to their training and so vocational programs missed out on opportunities to provide students with skills and resources tailored to their needs and goals. Even when youth are appropriately skilled through current vocational training models, there are still too few jobs and opportunities available to them.

As a result, even these well-intentioned efforts fall flat against the swelling tide of unemployed youth. It is easy to understand why young Nigerians are increasingly frustrated, dissatisfied and idle, their ambitions dimming quickly each year.

The Strategy

In response to her findings, and believing that unless young people drive the vocational training process themselves, it will never be sustainable, Theresa created an alternative model that situates young people as the decision makers, not passive participants. She developed a cohort system, in which all young people in a given cohort are drawn together by a common interest in a vocation and a dream to succeed. In contrast to individual training, the cohort model integrates into vocational training team-building, collaborative ideas, shared responsibilities, and mutual learning and support, while tapping into social credibility and better leveraging financial resources.

Theresa has established strict guidelines for participants in order to ensure a cohesive group, driven by a common purpose. Currently, participants must be between the ages of 18 and 25, though she is working to expand this range to 15 to 30. They must share a common interest in a vocation and possess some talent in that area of interest. There must be gender parity in the cohort and all participants should fall within the poverty bracket so as to ensure a sense of equality and commitment in the group and so that they are providing services to those that need it most. Disabled youth are also encouraged to take part in the program and all participants must be socially responsible volunteers in their community. Theresa works with “informants” in the communities, including community leaders and current participants in her program, to identify potential participants. Applicants are tasked with finding friends who are interested and organizing their own cohort with a maximum of 30 people in each one to allow for easy administration of the group. Once the cohort is in place, Theresa sets about creating a space for them to drive their own education forward.

Her model consists of three parts: talent/skill development, financial literacy, and community service. Each cohort distinguishes itself by area of specialization. Once the group agrees on the vocation they are interested in—current cohorts include vegetable farming, information and communications technology (including specialties in photography and videography), auto repair, and fashion design (including specialties in sewing, modeling, mannequin production, patterns, and fashion editing)—the organization recruits experts to train them. Sometimes these trainers are volunteers, sometimes paid. Theresa recruits from university lecturers, and master artisans and professionals. Following the skills training, the youth are trained on financial literacy so that they are prepared to manage funding to start ventures. Finally, Theresa builds in social responsibility to help the young people understand that as entrepreneurs they must serve the community. As the third stage of their training, regardless of their chosen vocation, all the young people receive skills training in peace-building and advocacy and volunteer and take part in community development to help them understand their social responsibility as an entrepreneur. To open wider horizons to them, Theresa also connects participants to conferences looking for young participants and gets phones donated for them so they can connect to the world via social media. The full training is done within a maximum of four months. In cases where the training requires an apprenticeship, the youth work with the experts for the period of apprenticeship.

After the three pieces of training are complete, the cohort develops a simple business plan that Momi evaluates for feasibility and provides feedback on. At this point, seed funding is disbursed for the cohort to launch its venture. The business plan might entail one large venture across the full cohort, or several smaller or individual ventures, but either way, the funding is disbursed to and managed by the cohort as a whole. They open a bank account with a minimum of three signatories. Ten other members act as a check to those signatories. And another two are authorized to deposit money in the bank. Once the business plan and bank account are in place, the seed money, up to 250,000 nairas, is released to the cohort. They must start paying it back within six months to a year and return the full amount within two years.

The cohort is entirely self-managed. Momi sets up several parameters but then intervenes only if necessary. The cohort must operate democratically, with a majority vote to determine leadership, and a member can only be kicked out if there is an incidence of fraud. The cohort must hold regular meetings, take notes, and report back to Momi. The reports provide a mechanism for Theresa to see if a group needs to come back for more training in a particular area.

The cohort also plans for sustainability and ways that the participants can recruit more young people. Each cohort is responsible for recruiting and mentoring a new cohort at the end of two years, after which the original cohort is retired by the organization.

In this new model of vocational development, success is more than just getting young people into jobs. Theresa’s indicators include the number of initiatives and ventures created by the participants, the number of young people mentored by the cohorts, the number that takes up further adult education, the impact they have on the community, and ultimately whether the young people are able to make decisions for themselves and for society. She is proud that many of the participants have, on their own initiative, led efforts to clean up their communities, counsel young people, provide a financial literacy class to rickshaw drivers, and intervene in community disputes.

Momi Africa is working in multiple cities in the Niger Delta region with its intervention program, the Financial Literacy and Occupational Resource Cohorts (FLORC) Program for youths. FLORC has reached 4 cohorts of 180 youths in 4 Local Government Areas of Imo State. The FLORC model is self-replicating and designed for scaling. In the scale-up stage, FLORC is designed to use these original core cohorts to rapidly reach another 30 cohorts of 750 youths in Imo State. These cohorts will then go on to bring in another 7,500 youths in 250 cohorts in the Local Government Areas of the 5 target states of the Niger Delta namely, Imo, Rivers, Cross River, Abia, Delta and Bayelsa by 2015.

The Person

Theresa’s father had limited education but through his work in government was exposed to many ideas that he brought home with him. He would gather Theresa and her siblings and they’d debate issues of the day, such as girls going to school. It was through these debates that Theresa learned and sharpened her communication abilities, and because of her father, who overcame a humble upbringing, that she became interested in social issues. She continued with debate throughout her schooling. She joined the Red Cross during her university years, working with homeless communities, orphaned children and the ill. It was through this work that she gained exposure to the social and economic challenges that many children face.

Theresa became a journalist after university and frequently reported on women’s issues, which led her to work with a women’s human rights organization, where she advanced and thrived. But she increasingly found it insufficient to tell women they have rights—yes, they could go to court and get a divorce, but then what? After six years focused on civil and political rights, she realized that advocacy had to be matched with economic empowerment and started the first women’s peace organization in Nigeria, the Centre for Peace and Development, where peace was defined as the absence of all violence, physical and economic. She worked directly with vulnerable women, youth and those who were marginalized, giving them opportunity for self-expression and self-actualization.

In this capacity, Theresa worked with divorced women who were running single parent homes and she soon realized that it was critical to the prosperity of these women as well as their children that the children become independent. As a result, she set up a vocational training centre for young people in the Niger/ Delta region. It was during this time that she understood that traditional vocational models still required a third party to hire the students, thereby undermining the effectiveness of her work when students remained jobless. Once she understood the extent of the job shortage and its impact on these newly skilled youth, she changed her approach to one focused on self-empowerment. This was the beginning of her journey to creating the occupational resource cohorts program for young people.