Paying it forward: Encouraging young entrepreneurs in Nigeria
“We’ve been given [this] opportunity so that we can give opportunities to other people on the continent,” said Temitayo Etomi, reflecting on her 2014 Mandela Washington Fellowship experience. “As we build our networks, we must remember that we’re only a piece in the solution puzzle.”
The puzzle Etomi has in mind is Nigeria’s soaring youth unemployment rate. Her method: take the entrepreneurial skills and business knowledge she received in the Fellowship and replicate the experience for aspiring Nigerian entrepreneurs.
To help Nigeria’s youth gain employable skills, Etomi adapted the model of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, a US Department of State-funded program implemented by IREX, to create the Young Business Leaders of Nigeria (YBLN) in Lagos. The organization mobilizes networks of young entrepreneurs ages 18–35 to help solve Nigeria’s unemployment crisis, while equipping them with skills through six-week trainings in business and entrepreneurship.
Over 3,000 young entrepreneurs across Nigeria applied for the inaugural program’s 20 spots. Etomi particularly encouraged applications from Nigeria’s northern regions, where motivated young entrepreneurs can have a greater impact on the area’s high unemployment rates.
Following the example of the Fellowship’s Academic Institutes, Etomi integrated community service components, site visits, and leadership and academic sessions throughout the program. Having studied at Clark Atlanta University for her Academic Institute during the Fellowship, Etomi counted on her “Clark Atlanta Family” for advice. When she sent them news of her project, they “immediately sent academic materials, lesson plans, budget ideas, and presentations,” Etomi said. They also served as a sounding board for her throughout the project and offered their experience as guidance.
Each young person has to take what is learned and use it for the benefit of [the] community. We need to be leaders for the people we work for.
To immerse participants in the business and entrepreneurship world, Etomi also needed the support of local businesses in Nigeria. “We thought it would be a difficult task to get people to buy into our vision, but once we started knocking on doors I was surprised [by] what kind of passion they showed—even just to share their knowledge [with the group],” Etomi said. “It was empowering. It shows how willing Nigerians are to help solve their own problems.”
Businesses not only were willing to open their doors to talk to the YBLN participants but also showed a willingness to invest. Etomi worked with investors who contributed $20,000 to distribute as small grants in the course of the program’s pitch competitions. The grants will support innovative, community-driven enterprises, such as one participant’s onion powder production company in northern Nigeria.
The YBLN pilot program concluded in late November 2015, but its work to reduce Nigeria’s unemployment has just begun. Etomi created a major new requirement for YBLN participants: by December 2016, they need to employ a minimum of five people. Participants will receive seed funding in increments as they grow their businesses and add employees. Etomi’s goal is to create an ecosystem of support, one person at a time, so participants can use YBLN’s growing network to share knowledge and reduce unemployment.
As participants return to their communities across Nigeria, Etomi hopes to double or triple the number of YBLN programs run annually to create a multiplier effect. She encourages future Fellows to consider how they can best transform their experience into their life’s work.
“Most importantly, [we] have to find ways to apply knowledge to our part of the world,” Etomi said. “Each young person has to take what is learned and use it for the benefit of [the] community. We need to be leaders for the people we work for.”
The Mandela Washington Fellowship is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. For more information on President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), please visit mandelawashingtonfellowship.state.gov