Monday, July 16, 2012

Half-way through, project assessment and catch-up (Week 7)

Having spent six out of my twelve weeks in Kumasi, I feel that I now need to dedicate some time to a deeper description of the excuse reason I am here for, the YES Project. Also we managed conveniently to finalize the first phase of the project last Friday.

The YES (A pretty clumsy abbreviation of Young EntrepreneurS) Project is a Global Community Development Program run by AIESEC in all its African Member Countries which has the most basic idea of through promoting entrepreneurship creating employment and bringing more life to the economy. Youth unemployment (ranging in Ghana from 11,5% in rural areas to 30,8% in Accra with the average standing at 25,6%) is obviously an issue that needs no introduction in development discussion. Given the highly towards the young biased demographic structure and a relatively limited job market as provided by both the private and the public sector, the thought of employing oneself seems like the obvious thing to foster in developing African countries. Here’s an edited version of the official brief overview of the project:

The YES (Young Entrepreneurs Seminar) Project strives to promote entrepreneurship amongst the African youth. Entrepreneurship is a vital tool in fighting unemployment, in this context especially youth unemployment. In addition, the benefits will spread more widely as new enterprises eventually grow to make an impact in the community.
AIESEC KNUST is through the YES project organizing an entrepreneurial seminar for selected vocational and technical institutions in Kumasi. The project in large and the seminar particularly will go a long way in inculcating entrepreneurial skills in the students and thereby help curb the unemployment situation in the country.
·         Organize a well-prepared seminar for the students of selected technical and vocational schools in the main auditorium of the Kumasi Technical Institute on July 13th.
·         The presentation will touch on the various aspects on entrepreneurship and start-ups, including the following topics:
o   The need to become an entrepreneur
o   Come out with a good business plan
o   Founding/funding your business
o   Legal aspects
o   Partnership in business
o   Sustaining your business
o   Marketing your products and business
o   Cooperate social responsibilities
o   Segmenting your market
o   Advertising your business
·         After each presentation, all students should have a more concrete picture after their graduation on future plans with an expanded network and deeper understanding of the local industry through partnerships.

The effort and drama that goes into the background work of just one such seminar could make a good book. It took six weeks of running around town to meet with school officials, company managers and potential speakers, trying to persuade people to take part in the seminar, cooperate in the project and support it. This all in addition to the fact that there were only three of us working on the project for a considerable part of the time (The ever-important beginning of the project.) and we were all thrown into a new city without any possibility of using a map as well as to a very different culture of time-keeping, personal interaction and so on…

It is easy to point out three things that most frustrates anyone with a western background working in Ghana. The first one is the African notion of time. You can book appointments and settle on time-schedules, but they will virtually never be realized. Like I’ve mentioned before, waiting is a considerable aspect of any activities here. Getting used to this has, however been easier than expected, probably because there simply is no choice if you want to get anything done. The second thing is keeping contacts after actually initiating them. Because of wider developmental problems, electronic communication is neither appreciated nor recommended. Having found out a phone number (a task to consider by its own) does not mean the call will reach the person you’re hoping to reach. When you do have the right number, you will get an answer about one time out if four, if the phone is even on. And if someone promises to call you back, they will most certainly not. This adds to the need of actually harassing people with numerous calls a day whenever you need any information about anything.

The third thing is indecision and uncertainty, which is well illustrated by an (just one) example. From the very beginning, we managed to establish contact with a professor at the National Vocational Training Institute, the main authority in technical education and therefore a vital backbone of our project. All along, Professor Jerome seemed very solid and determined to do the most of the lecturing at the seminar. He was one of the few to answer all calls and show considerable cooperation. For the first six weeks, that is. Two days before the seminar, he kindly informed us that he has to go to Accra and thus cannot be present at the seminar. In panic, we ran to the office of the Business School at KNUST, using a shotgun-shooting-tactic to find anyone with even basic understanding of entrepreneurship to replace Professor Jerome. This is how we found Mr. Jonathan Annan, who turned out to be a godsend as he agreed to work with us despite the extremely short notice. So we got him to replace Professor Jerome. All the time we had also been in contact with a local farmer to provide the inspirational part of the seminar, a young entrepreneur himself that the audience could easily relate to. The day before the event Professor Jerome contacted us again, this time to tell us that he is coming to the seminar anyway, and wants his part of the lecturing back! Reluctant to shut Mr. Annan down after the trouble he went through for us, we allowed Jerome to touch upon just some of the topics and placing him as the second speaker instead of the first, a surprisingly big deal in itself. He wasn’t too happy about it, but was forced to understand. So, in two days, we went from having one speaker to no speakers to one speaker to two speakers to finally three speakers (The last night before the seminar the farmer also agreed).

Mr. Jonathan Annan
In addition to being a lecturer at the West African Institute for supply Chain Leadership (WAISCL) at KNUST, Jonathan Annan is also the director and owner of a private, highly rated college (Proudly named Elite College) of about 3000 students as well as an enterprise dealing in stationary. All in all, he was in the end the perfect man to start our seminar by bridging the divide between formal considerations and the practices of business life. Our last speaker, Mr. Ekow Paul Awuah, is a young firecracker of a farmer producing and exporting dairy-products and different crops. He is a very intensive man that can go on about his businesses for days if given a chance. Honestly I did not understand a whole lot of what he was saying, but judged from an excited audience he did a good job in presenting entrepreneurship on the grass-roots level, starting from little or nothing.

What has added some excitement and public value to our work is a surprising media coverage that the project  has received. Robert managed to get us an interview at Focus FM, a radio station based at the KNUST Campus and obviously targeting the youth. Also there was a reported presence a journalist from the same station as of other representatives of the press in the seminar.

Despite all the hardships and stress, the seminar turned out to be a relative success with all the speakers and four out of five schools showing up, adding to an audience of 500. What was most encouraging is that we had students coming up to us after the seminar looking for the contact information of Mr. Annan, in order to contact him for more information and support. So maybe someone did catch the idea…

I have no illusions of the project instantly changing the lives of the attendants, though. First of all it is clear that education is a prerequisite before considering successful entrepreneurship. Although the level of education is in Ghana high in comparison within West Africa, the quality of that education and in this case of the technical education in particular will really be tested when the students try out their skills on the job market and in everyday business-life. I am still looking for ways to follow up on the results of the YES Project, to in the future know whether what we did has an impact at all.

A bigger issue, and one that unfortunately was not touched upon too much in the presentations, is funding. Talking to local university students, it seems that most of them are very frustrated with the economic situation. Ghana was not the country that was to be hit the hardest by the global economic turmoil, but still there’s no excess money (and has never been) lying around. Robert pointed out that whereas banks a few years back had door-to-door salesmen offering loans to student near graduations, it is today virtually impossible to land a substantial loan for start-ups. The speakers at the seminar presented sources of funding such as “personal savings” and “friends and family.” I doubt the widespread existence of those resources amongst youth in a secondary, crowded city in Africa. So however skilled the students are and however enthusiastic and full of ideas about entrepreneurship they are, there is a need for stronger institutional support for entrepreneurship in Ghana. Those forces are of course very much out of the influence of the YES Project, run as it is by a non-profit student organization. Frustrating.

Today is a day full of enthusiasm, the day to start drawing up the next phase of the project, whatever that is. Most probably, we will try to do some following up on our audience by organizing a workshop or a competition for the business ideas of young people. This would require the involvement of, in addition to already established partnerships, larger sponsors and financial institutions. Updates will follow! But first, up to the most pleasant task so far: Distributing Thank You- letters and presents to the most important actors in organizing the seminar.

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