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School project closer to helping young Kenyans overcome poverty

Next year, youth in Nairobi, Kenya are expected to receive job training and asset-saving skills that social work researchers say may be the lifeline these young people need to help lift themselves out of poverty. The youth, mainly 16- to 24-year-olds, are expected participants in a UNC School of Social Work collaborative project that aims to generate some level of economic stability within the community of Kibera, East Africa’s largest slum.

School Assistant Professor Gina Chowa is leading the joint venture with Carolina for Kibera (CFK), an international nonprofit affiliated with UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives. For years, CFK has overseen a youth sports program, medical clinic, reproductive health and women’s rights center, and waste management program. But last year, the nonprofit began working with Chowa—whose primary research focuses on building youth capital in developing countries—as part of a new initiative to strengthen the financial security of Kibera’s youth. The key to that effort, researchers say, is helping young people get the job training they need and to find employment.

“From the formative research we’ve done, the kids say this is really what they want,” Chowa said. “They really want some kind of employment, be it self- employment or formal employment.”

Currently, many families in Kibera struggle to live on as little as $1.25 a day and although many youth are eager to attend college, they cannot afford to do so.

However, Chowa and CFK staff members have been developing an intervention program that could alleviate these challenges by teaching job skills to Kibera’s youth, while also offering them financial education, including training to open a savings account and incentives for saving a portion of the money that they earn.

The intervention’s success will largely hinge on partnerships with organizations in Nairobi that are willing to offer job training, internships, and career counseling to Kibera’s youth, Chowa said.

This summer, the CFK project team launched marketing research to help identify potential partner organizations. The team includes other members of UNC, including Mat Despard, a social work clinical associate professor, Ph.D. student Rainier Masa, and MSW/Ph.D. continuum student Charity Sneed. David Ansong, a Ph.D. student at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, is also assisting on the project. Chowa received an $18,000 grant from the School’s Armfield-Reeves Innovation Fund to support the marketing research.

The team identified eight groups representing industries in information and communications technology, transportation, healthcare, natural resources, and financial services as potential partners. The CFK team met with the agencies in August and was pleased to learn that many are eager to collaborate on the job training and savings project. Despard said the groups also seemed to appreciate the need for creating “a career development pipeline for CFK youth.” Because employment and small business opportunities in Kibera are limited, such a pipeline is vital to helping youth work their way up from poverty, he added.

Chowa said she hopes to narrow the potential job training partners to five by the end of September. Agreements would then be drawn up to ensure that the selected organizations provide comparable training and experiences to all youth assigned to work with the various agencies. Most likely, a “mini pilot” will be launched first that will focus on job training and savings education for adolescent girls in Kibera, Chowa said.

Although encouraged that so many organizations have stepped forward to assist with the project, team members said they’ve also worked closely with youth to ensure that the intervention meets their specific needs.

“From the beginning, the youth in Kibera and CFK Kenya staff have been actively involved in developing a program that addresses the issues that the youth have defined themselves,” Masa said. “In other words, the project is both important and meaningful because it gives youth in Kibera a voice and a path toward a future that the youth have envisioned.”