A perilous journey across the Sahara and Mediterranean is no longer seen as the only route to a brighter future for 120 young Gambians who recently completed courses for hairdressing and other useful vocational skills.
The courses are run by Gaye Njorro Hair Plus, a vocational training centre set up by Fatou Saine Gaye, a graduate of UNCTAD’s Empretec entrepreneurship programme.
Facing a staggering 38% unemployment rate, young Gambians increasingly risk their lives trying to reach Europe’s job market, making the Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest country, second only to Nigeria for migrants arriving on Italy’s shores, according to the International Organization for Migration.
But Fatou’s training centre is giving more and more Gambians reason to stay.
“There is real opportunity here for young people if they pick up the right skills and are able to change their mindset to become job creators instead of job seekers,” Fatou says.
“The recent graduates, many of whom were living on the street or had returned from a failed attempt to migrate to Europe, are now well equipped to succeed,” she says.
Some 1,200 young men and women have completed courses since Fatou’s training centre opened in 2009. She says that more than 80% of graduates have found stable work or started a successful business.
Fatou’s own journey took her first to Europe, where she studied finance for 10 years in the United Kingdom before returning home to a job in a bank in Banjul, capital of the Gambia.
But in 2007, tired of the long commutes and hours away from her family, Fatou decided to quit and pursue her dream of opening a hair salon.
“While I sat in traffic jams on my way home I kept thinking back to my time in the UK, and how I got more joy from styling hair than studying finance,” she says. “It was just a hobby but I was really good, and I knew there was strong demand for hairdressers in Banjul.”
Her hair salon, Gaye Njorro Hair Plus, opened its doors to immediate success in 2007. But what started as a business venture became a social endeavor two years later, after Fatou grew tired of seeing so many young girls on the street, vulnerable and at risk.
“I knew that if I taught them hairdressing and beautician skills they could turn their lives around,” she says.
One of the first girls Fatou took under her wing was Nina.
“I’ll never forget her,” Fatou says. “Nina had no education, no hope, and was roaming on the street. Now she works in one of the country’s best hotels and has recently opened her own salon.”
Some two dozen young girls graduated the first year, receiving their certificates in hairdressing, beauty cosmetology and massage therapy during a celebration at the training centre, now renamed Gaye Njorro Hair Plus Foundation for Youth Empowerment.
Ten years on, in February this year, Fatou handed out 120 certificates at an elaborate ceremony at one of Banjul’s finest hotels.
Over the years, the training centre has expanded, opening an annex centre in the North Bank region — the country’s poorest — and adding new courses for carpenters, caterers, electricians, masons and plumbers, likey to be of interest to young men.
She credits the Empretec programme, which she completed in 2014, with giving her the necessary skills and confidence to grow her business further.
“Empretec gave me the skills I needed to do the market research and identify the best opportunities,” she says. “More importantly, it gave me the confidence and mindset of an entrepreneur. Where I used to see challenges and problems, I now see opportunities.”
“Following the Empretec course, the new strategies I put in place, such as opening a restaurant to allow students in the catering programme to practice their skills, have helped increase revenue by 79% and make the training centre more sustainable,” she adds.
Fatou says Empretec also improved her networking and communications skills, helping her build partnerships with important institutions, such as the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Employment.
Her training centre is now fully licensed and accredited by the country’s national training authority, the National Accreditation and Quality Assurance Authority.
In July 2016, UNCTAD selected Fatou as a finalist for the Empretec Women in Business Award, which since 2008 has acknowledged exceptional businesswomen in developing and transition economies. She won the award for social entrepreneurship.
“UNCTAD believes strongly in the power of social entrepreneurship to improve social cohesion and create inclusive economic growth,” says Fiorina Mugione, Chief of UNCTAD’s Entrepreneurship Section. “That’s why we actively promote social entrepreneurship through the Empretec programme.”
“By creating businesses that address social and environmental challenges while creating jobs, social entrepreneurship will play an important role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” Ms. Mugione adds.
Asked about the future, Fatou says her goal is to build a training centre in Farafenni, in the North Bank region.
“We opened an annex in Farafenni in 2011, but the region needs a much bigger training centre, so that every young man or woman has the opportunity to learn a marketable skill,” Fatou says. “This includes single mothers, who are often the most vulnerable, which is why the project includes a daycare centre,” she adds.
UNCTAD’s Empretec programme, designed in 1988 using research by Harvard psychology professor David McClelland, is active in 39 developing countries. To date it has trained over 370,000 entrepreneurs like Fatou.
Source: UN Conference on Trade and Development