I’m 35,000 feet above Greenland, and I’m thinking about Africa. Kenya, specifically. I spent six years growing up in Kenya in the 1970s and 80s, and so it is a place that remains clse to my heart, and it’s only been in the last ten years that I’ve realized how much those experiences have shaped my world view and my career. I’m extremely lucky to be able to do the work I do for SSG Advisors, and to be able to give back – even in little ways– to a place that shaped so much of who I am.
Kenya is a country of contrasts: huge population growth and large swaths of empty space; arid land that is hard to farm, and lush, green valleys full of growth. Industries in decline – tourism, sugar farming – and new, growth sectors like minerals and technology. It has booming cities – Nairobi and Mombasa — with their frenetic construction, impenetrable traffic jams and vibrant populations; small towns on the verge of collapse, and sparsely populated rural areas. The country is governed by a Constitution that virtually every Kenyan believes in, but they struggle with daily small-scale corruption and ongoing political scandals. As always, Kenya represents the hope and de
speration of Africa.
I just completed, with three colleagues, a Rapid Partnership Appraisal (RPA) on the Kenya Youth Employment Skills (KYES) program, which aims to connect unemployed and underemployed youth with job opportunities in nine counties over the next five years. The program is funded by USAID, and is being implemented by the Research Triangle Institute International (RTI), our partner on the project. This kind of program can help reshape Kenya, a country with more than 60% of the population under the age of 25. Unemployment, while high among all under-educated youth, is even more prevalent among young women, who often become young mothers, or aren’t allowed to work due to religious or cultural reasons. A program like KYES can give hope to young people who lack confidence and skills, and don’t feel like they are part of the growing middle class. People who feel they are stuck doing low-level jobs with few skills or opportunities to move up the economic ladder.
Under this backdrop is where SSG Advisors does its best work. We believe strongly that partnerships between the private sector, non-governmental organizations, community groups and donors represent a critical part of the path forward in any program. The only way to make development really, truly sustainable is to work with the businesses and organizations that were built locally and will be in their communities long after the five-year span of any program. The great news is that many other organizations are also understanding this, including our partner NGOs, the donors and development banks, and of course the businesses with whom we are engaging. Our Sustainable, Transparent, Effective Partnership (STEP) process simply gives everyone a framework from which to work.
In the past 15 days, we met with more than 50 businesses and organizations in five counties across Kenya – from rural farming areas to the bustling cities. We learned about why growing indigenous chickens can yield faster profits than boiler chickens. We learned how ingredients like tea, sugar and bixa are grown and harvested (employing thousands of people) in the start of a long value chain that stretches around the world. We spoke with women’s groups who are selling handicrafts on the Internet in Europe and the US, and met home-grown technology companies that are designing products for Africans by Africans. We heard how a new government regulator is striving to provide better building standards to manage the construction boom. We met local political leaders who are trying to change their communities from the ground up. These people see hope in the future of Kenya, and are deeply invested in it. When we surveyed them about how long they planned to be working in the country, the answer was invariably “for a lifetime.”
The work we did in Kenya over the last few weeks is really just the start of a process that will last for the entirety of the five-year program, and well beyond. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are actively working with the program team and the partners in every county to start the process of brokering the partnerships that will make KYES successful, and just as importantly, that will give youth the skills and the job opportunities they need to be successful.
At SSG, we don’t just talk about sustainability as a vague concept, or something to check a box in a work plan. It’s fundamental to the work we’ve done in more than 50 countries, and with countless businesses and organizations. It’s core to how we help organizations rethink new business models, allowing them to tap into new markets. By working together in deeply rooted local partnerships, we have some hope of changing the outcomes for millions of people around the world.