15 January 2013

Africa: Why Entrepreneur Mentorship May Be the Answer to Youth Unemployment Problem

Photo: Stuart Price/UN
A market vendor in Southern Somalia.


Global unemployment trends have headlined news coverage as of late. In particular, I follow youth unemployment trends, because they forecast the career trajectory of our future generations and the overall health and stability of the global economy.

The UN's International Labour Organisation reports that approximately 74.5 million or 12.6 percnet of young people around the world are unemployed. For Africa, that translates into about 14.2 million youths.

I grew up in the UK, Rwanda and Uganda, which afforded me divergent opportunities as a young boy. I started my first business at the age of 15, and in as many years I have grown the Mara Group to employ 7,000 people across 26 countries.

I am humbled by my seeming success thus far and often question why my story and entrepreneurial path are not commonplace. In fact, all young people must have an opportunity to start and grow profitable businesses. Entrepreneurship was the key that opened so many doors for me, but I did not reach this stage on my own.

I believe that entrepreneur mentorship and comprehensive support services are essential to providing productive and sustainable employment for Africa's youth, women and emerging business leaders, because small and medium sized enterprises (SME) drive economies and significantly contributing to national GDPs and tax revenue bases for African countries.

When I reflect on my own entrepreneurial success, I realise that my mentors have been instrumental in enabling me to bridge the gap between business start-up and continual growth. Specifically in Africa, where most have to work at an early age just to support their siblings and sustain the family livelihood, I ask myself how the youth can harness uninhibited idealism to create successful business ventures.

That was the impetus for establishing the Mara Foundation, the non-profit social enterprise of the Mara Group, which solely focuses on developing emerging entrepreneurs in Africa. Our mission is to provide comprehensive support services including mentorship, funding, incubation centre workspace and business training to African entrepreneurs.

We believe that these support services will transform entrepreneurs' business ideas into profitable and thriving business entities that will , in turn, create employment and contribute to the local and national economies. Ensuring that the next generation of African entrepreneurs is fully equipped to lead enterprises and grow prosperous businesses will help mitigate the chronic African youth unemployment problem.

The Mara Foundation is addressing the issue of entrepreneur development directly, and the youth unemployment concern indirectly with our flagship mentorship programme, our incubation centres called Mara Launchpad and our venture capital programme called the Mara Launch Fund. These three vehicles are providing wraparound support for budding entrepreneurs who have a dearth of options for business guidance.

Our Launchpads provide infrastructure for SMEs and 'solopreneurs', who otherwise would not be able to afford professional office space. Launchpads are the epicenter of the Mara Foundation's business training and networking events. Currently, we have Launchpads in Kampala and Dar es Salaam.

The Mara Launch Fund is a series of individually operated, country-specific venture capital funds devised to assist high risk, high reward business models. Currently, there are Launch Funds in Uganda and Tanzania, which are investing in innovative and high growth enterprises. In 2013, we are launching Mara Women, which will solely focus on supporting women entrepreneurs.

We also just expanded our mentorship programme to include an online portal. In the past year, we can attest that we have made an impact to at least 100,000 African and global entrepreneurs who are interested in on demand mentorship and business advice.

We do, however, recognise that our impact needs to be greater to reach the millions of young people who are without guidance and hope because of unemployment. We believe that just as other continents, like Asia, have reinvented themselves through an industrial revolution, Africa is primed and ready for its own innovative revolution driven by young and women entrepreneurs.

Surely at 15, I was at an impressionable age when I started my first business. For many years as an entrepreneur, I encountered numerous people who offered poor advice and misguided me. I want to stem the tide for the new generation of entrepreneurs. I want them to replicate my success of employing thousands of people, but in half the amount of time and on a higher scale. The stakes are high for Africa.

The Mara Foundation understands how critical our efforts are to reversing systemic youth unemployment. We believe it begins with mentorship and comprehensive support services that will provide productive and sustainable employment for African youth, women and emerging business leaders.

Ashish J. Thakkar is founder of the Mara Group, which comprises numerous holding companies that operate in 26 countries.

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