Through La Conscience Organization, Kodjo is nurturing an entire generation of West African youth who think for themselves and create value for society by positioning young people as leaders of development in their communities.
In a society where the education system is failing young people who are often marginalized by society or used by political parties, Kodjo is helping young people break out of a dependency mindset and changing how the rest of society views them. By enabling youth-led community development, he provides a new model of what education can and should look like. He has catalyzed a movement of young people who are taking charge of their own futures, changing themselves, their communities, and their country. His leadership development program equips young people with the mindset and skills to drive change in three areas: 1) peace, 2) human rights and democracy, and 3) community and national development. Kodjo is on a mission to change the mindsets of both young people as well as the communities that raise them. He creates the opportunity for communities to invest in the leadership development of their own young people. Communities cover costs for some of their young people to travel to Kodjo’s “Carrefour des Jeunes” youth center for the program. The young people return to their communities and collaborate with community leaders to create and implement community development plans. As part of this effort, they help solve conflicts, create new production initiatives, set their own political priorities with young people of different parties rather than let the parties set priorities for them, create legal clinics to help citizens access justice, and more.
Kodjo also provides a space for ongoing inspiration, learning, and exchange among young people from across Togo, and increasingly with other countries. Leaders of change in their own communities, the young people then collaborate with each other to drive national policy changes that improve opportunities for young people. Kodjo and the young people he works with have already achieved significant policy changes, from free education to a national volunteer agency to mandatory civic formation and student elections in schools. They’ve also collectively created direct impact on national problems, such as reducing the prevalence of child trafficking.
Togo is one of the world’s poorest countries with a population of nearly 8 million people, 70% of which live in rural areas. Like most West African countries, over half of the population is under 25 (about 60%). According to the World Bank, 55% of the population in 2015 was living below the poverty line. Poverty is most pronounced in rural areas, where 69% of households lived below the poverty line in 2015. Togo has adopted free preschool and primary school education but it is still inaccessible to a majority of students. Tuition fees are still required and parents have to pay between 6 and 20 US Dollars per child for uniforms and school supplies. This is such a big amount for families that can hardly afford their daily needs. Over 20% of Togolese children are not schooled, only 55% of children go to primary school, compared to 90% of more affluent families and with the highest repetition rate and dropouts in sub-Saharan Africa. The situation mainly reveals the inadequacy between training and jobs, causing the number of unemployed young graduates to increase. Vocational training is very expensive and many theoretical subjects are largely ignored as they do not help with employment opportunities. The combined unemployment and underemployment rates are estimated at 33.6%.
Lack of access to the education system has serious impact on the children’s lives. They are forced to work instead of going to school and are subject to exploitation and trafficking or take to delinquency. According to Plan International, nearly 1 child out of 8 is sent to work far from their home and family. Another consequence of poverty is the number of children in conflict with the law. They mainly come from under-privileged urban areas. Generally, they are between 13 and 18 and are estimated at about 350 in 2001 among whom 80% are boys. They are in prison for minor offences. They meet big criminals there who will exert a negative influence on them. They end up committing a second offence. There is no way out for those young people since the State does not have adequate resources available to tackle the issues they are facing.
Despite the fact that there is no work, there is a lot to be done and young people can contribute in their own way to the development of their communities. But they are not aware of these opportunities, nor of their rights and duties as a citizen. Exploiting their vulnerability and ignorance, political parties recruit them, in many cases paying them to organize acts of vandalism.
To change the path for young people and their societies, Kodjo is catalyzing a youth movement that creates transformation at several levels, beginning with individual young people themselves and their communities and radiating out to youth-led local and national impact. Kodjo works with young people to develop their leadership capacities, works with communities to invest in that development and collaborate with their young people to drive positive change, and provides a platform for young people to influence national policy that affects them, particularly on education and vocational opportunities.
With the goal of ensuring young people are not spectators of their own future, Kodjo’s organization La Conscience provides leadership training that is tied to opportunities for young people to help meet community needs in mains areas such as peace, de democracy and human rights, and community and national development. In the first area, young people learn conflict resolution and how to make choices for themselves, not just doing what political parties tell them to do, which often involves violent protest. In the second, they learn how to achieve justice for themselves and others through civic formation training. La Conscience works with young people to convene their peers to develop their own priorities before the political parties come trying to recruit them, to organize youth-led elections at school, to volunteer in the community. They also learn about human rights and how to demystify justice for others, helping people access justice through the creation of mobile legal clinics, for example. In the third area, they learn to identify the assets in their community and work with community entities to create strategies for development.
At the same time, Kodjo works with communities to ensure that the initiatives of young people are integrated with community needs. La Conscience meets with people in the community to understand what the communities want and need. While young people are working there, evaluations and adjustments are conducted periodically until the expected results are achieved. A supervisor from La Conscience regularly meets with the villagers to get their feedback on the young person and the project in order to make it as effective as possible.
Kodjo started this work as a volunteer program for young people to develop valuable skills while volunteering in communities. In 2015, the national government then adopted the idea, creating a National Volunteer Agency to place young graduates as paid volunteers in Togo's economic development activities in support of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). La Conscience continues to assist the national program with the selection of young people and communities, but Kodjo also wanted to reach a broader population of young people than just university graduates. Realizing that many young people were leaving their own villages in search of opportunity, Kodjo decided to provide the opportunity for communities to invest in the leadership development of their own young people. Now, after La Conscience meets with a community, the community leaders identify the young people who are most committed to the development of their village. The community then pays some of the costs to send them to La Conscience’s youth center for two weeks for the leadership training. The young people return to their village and establish a community development plan with the villagers, under the supervision of a coach who is a member of Kodjo’s staff and who also follows up with the community to evaluate the success.
Young people are driving real change in their communities as a result of the program. They have helped communities start new agricultural initiatives as well as new schools that the government then appropriates. Microfinance is now available to young people. And they are helping resolve community conflicts. For example, in the north of the country, young people involved in the program were able to settle a farmer and rancher dispute triggered by political leaders. The young people worked with the community to search for peaceful solutions to the problem of cows grazing in the village, ultimately resolving the problem by creating a corridor for the cows to get to the grazing area without going through the village. Through the mobile legal clinics, young people are also helping people who otherwise wouldn’t have sought justice for rights violations to do so. They provide assistance to poor communities who often do not have the means but especially are simply afraid of the judicial system. They have been able to help resolve many delicate cases in the villages, such as expropriation of land by powerful people and rape.
Kodjo also facilitates the development of a broad citizen movement of young people who meet on a monthly basis at the youth center to develop a common vision and program and exchange without distinction of political affiliation. Kodjo originally started his work by organizing young people to address the issue of child trafficking through the formation of vigilance committees in communities, vocational training for rescued youth, and policy work to ensure children are in school rather than on the street. Even before a 2008 decision by the government to abolish school fees nationally, Kodjo achieved this change in the villages that were at risk for child trafficking so that no child was kept out of school due to the cost. The La Conscience community of young people has gone on to achieve other major policy victories, including the creation of the National Volunteer Agency, mandatory school elections nationally based on a model started by the La Conscience community, mandatory civic formation in schools nationally based on La Conscience’s training manual, and a requirement that 20% of all public contracts are awarded to young people. La Conscience was also commissioned by the state to organize in April 2018 a one-week meeting with more than 3,000 young people and the government to discuss issues that challenge the future of the country's youth.
The center has become a reference space for young people as a space for exchange and dialogue and has welcomed over 2,000 young people since its opening in 2013. It is nearly financially self-sustaining thanks to the payments made by communities for each young person they send to be trained, as well as agricultural production done at the center and rental of the center’s rooms to other organizations.
To date, nearly 4,000 young people from 1400 of Togo’s 3600 villages have been engaged in La Conscience’s programs. 255 villages have a community development plan. Basic schooling for all children up to the age of 15 is one of the three priority areas of these communities, and the enrollment and retention rate of children in primary school increased from 59% to 82% compared to the average rate of 47.4% in rural areas. The number of women with access to loans from microfinance institutions has increased from 38% to 73%. By 2023, Kodjo aims to equip all the Togolese communities with operational and functional structures of community development with a specific development plan, led by young people.
Kodjo started life as a child on the street and grew up in an orphanage. By the time he was in college, he got actively involved in the fight against sexual harassment of young school girls. He and his friends put pressure on the government to reactivate a law that punishes sexual harassment on young girls at school. This lead to the establishment of a series of committees by Kodjo and his friend called “Sos Fille à L’école” (SOS Girls at School). He then started a newspaper called La Conscience, which served as a platform for young people to speak freely about anything that acts as a barrier to their development. It also allowed them to think and contribute to the construction of the society of which they’re a part. The newspaper was awarded a distinctive Prize by the “Presse et Democratie en Afrique” (Press and Democracy in Africa) in Switzerland. In 2001, it was one of the four nominees for the Reebok Prize for Human Rights in Boston, USA.
La Conscience then began to evolve into much more than a newspaper. Kodjo kept in touch with several of his friends he had met and lived with while he was on the streets. He realized that many of them had been in prison several times. In 2009, he tried to help some people who had just been released from prison, but he couldn’t prevent them from committing a second offense. Discussions with them showed him that prison is a danger for young delinquents who often grow into criminals. He requested and was allowed by the Minister of Justice to meet some of them in prison. The conclusions led him to create a special program to train teenage delinquents in agriculture in order to help them integrate into society and become stakeholders in its development.
Another major challenge Kodjo identified in relation to street children was the high prevalence of child trafficking. He began working with other young people on this issue, organizing themselves to cut off the entry points for trafficking. They worked on making schooling free so that all children could go, set up vigilance teams in communities, and provided vocational training for rescued youth. As he continued to engage young people in addressing problems like these, his work evolved into the current strategy that is enabling youth-led change on a number of fronts across Togo and beyond.