Tackling Youth Unemployment in Sierra Leone: Umaru's Story

 umaru making shoes
Stricken with polio at age 10, Umaru now supports his family as a shoemaker (UNDP/T. Trenchard)

Youth unemployment was a major cause of the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone and remains a serious threat to the peace that is enjoyed in the country today. An estimated 800,000 youths between the ages of 15 and 35 are actively searching for employment. Some of these youths lack skills and education, but it is even more difficult for those with disabilities and only a basic education to compete for the limited jobs that are available.

Umaru, more popularly known as K-Man in his community, was a youth facing a bleak future. When he was 10 years old, Umaru was stricken by polio, an acute viral infectious disease that is widespread among children in Sierra Leone and leads to infantile paralysis.

Highlights

  • With UNDP's support, the lives of 10,299 young have been transformed through increased incomes and improved food security
  • The income of the youth involved increased on average by 197%
  • Through the assistance, 5,000 young people started their own businesses

Umaru, moved from his small hometown to Makeni, the biggest city in northern Sierra Leone, where he survived by begging on the streets. Umaru had attended school for only nine years. In Makeni, his fellow disabled peers advised him that begging was the only way for disabled people to make a living. Fortunately, Umaru was selected for training provided through UNDP’s youth employment programme. He was placed as an apprentice in a workshop where he learned how to make shoes. “I had decided that I did not want to be a beggar, I want to do something more fruitful and dignified with my life. The training was good,” a smiling Umaru explained. “I was supplied with basic materials like adhesives, leather, nails, a hammer, and I was also given a weekly allowance to look after myself while in training.”

Since he participated in the training, Umaru has achieved a great deal. He finished his apprenticeship and started his own small business, which enables him to earn his living without begging. “I have a family now, and a child. I am responsible for feeding them and educating my child. On average, I earn about US$ 7 a day. On a good day, I earn even more. Now I am happy and proud,” he said. “My life has changed,” he continued, holding up one of his customers’ shoes. “I charge US$ 1.20 USD to repair it, and these sandals I made, I charged US$ 8 US for each. My life has changed, I run my own workshop and I am even training other disabled and polio victims. Hopefully, I will get more support to expand my workshop into a factory that will produce more and train more young disabled people.”

UNDP has been working with various local partners – including CAUSE Sierra Leone, a youth-focused agency in Makeni – to support the country and address the issue of youth employment and empowerment.

The UNDP-managed US$ 2.1 million Youth Employment and Empowerment Programme is funded through the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund and the Governments of Ireland and Norway. It is designed to strengthen national policy, strategy and coordination for youth employment as well as sustain the establishment of basic support services for youth, including mentoring for micro and small enterprises and the establishment of career advisory services in the country’s universities.

In partnership with the newly established National Youth Commission and the Ministry of Youth Employment and Sports,  5,000 young people have started their own businesses as a result of the support. A recent independent study of the Programme shows that the support that Umaru received has transformed the lives of 10,299 young people overall. The study also found an average increase in the income of the youth of more than 197 percent. Communities also reported improvement in their food security and ability to afford further education.

Back in Makeni, for Umaru, the impact of the project is not just that he now has a regular and significant income, but that his social status as a dignified member of society has been restored. “The most important thing is that now I have hope for the future,” he said.