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Project aims to help poor youth in Kenya

Six months ago, UNC’s School of Social Work partnered with the nonprofit Carolina for Kibera (CFK) to help some of Kenya’s poorest youth lift themselves out of poverty. Following a weeklong visit to Kibera last month, Gina Chowa, who is leading the joint venture, said she expects the project to kick off its pilot program by August of next year and then move forward with a full intervention program by 2013.

“That will give us some time to raise funds and to talk to foundations to see if they’re interested in helping us,” said Chowa, an assistant social work professor.

Chowa and CFK staff are developing an intervention program that aims to strengthen the long-term financial security of Kibera’s youth by offering them job training skills, while also teaching them how to save a portion of the money that they earn. Currently, many families in Kibera—east Africa’s largest slum—struggle to live on as little as $1.25 a day.

Though the details of the project are still being finalized, Chowa said she expects that all of CFK’s youth will receive financial education, including training on how to open a savings account. Such skills would be offered as part of the youth’s overall experience with the nonprofit, which already oversees a sports program, medical clinic, reproductive health and women’s rights center, and waste management program.

However, the job training portion of the project will specifically target 16- to 24-year-olds, including those eager to attend college but unable to currently afford it. The hope, Chowa said, is to develop an intervention that would teach these young people valuable job skills, find them employment, and possibly assist them with a plan to pay for their college tuition or engage them in other gainful activities that are geared toward helping the youth achieve economic stability as they transition into adulthood.

During the trip last month, Chowa, along with School Dean Jack M. Richman, met with business leaders in Nairobi who have been offering similar opportunities to youth in need since 2001. Digital Divide Data (DDD), is a social enterprise that teaches data mining, data entry and digitization skills to disadvantaged youth and then hires them to work with the company’s corporate, institutional, and nonprofit clients. The business also pays for the youths’ college tuition. Chowa likes the business model and thinks the CFK project can learn a lot from how the company operates.

Richman agreed.

“This agency has found a wonderful balance between teaching these young people a marketable skill and producing a quality sustainable product at a competitive price that businesses around the globe can access via the Internet,” he added. “I think Gina will use this as a model but improve on it by combining the additional academically based benefits of an evidence-based intervention. She will use data and research to assure positive outcomes.”

But Chowa said they’re also interested in partnering with other companies in Nairobi and will begin to conduct market research in January. UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School recently joined the partnership and will assist with this research.

“We’re really looking for businesses that require light touch skills, so that we don’t have to spend a year training the youth,” she said. Some of the potential companies they’ve considered working with are cell phone businesses, hotels, and car dealerships.

By the time the market research begins, School officials also intend to have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) finalized with Kenyatta University, which is also assisting with the project. The MOU will enable the two institutions to work together on other research and training opportunities in the future as well as offer faculty and student exchanges.

Over the next several months, Chowa and CFK partners will focus even more on what it will take to create a successful program and to successfully persuade Kibera’s youth that their futures are worth saving for.

“We want to motivate them to think about, ‘OK, if I save, what am I saving for?” Chowa explained. “If I have skills, what can I do? We want to motivate them to think about life outside Kibera – life outside of what they have already.”