Lamin in his shop. His dream has always been to help himself and other youth out of poverty © UNDP Sierra Leone/ Alpha Sesay

Breaking free from the handcuffs of poverty

“I have been a tailor for several years but tailoring hadn’t brought much benefit to me. I did not know how to control money, provide customer care and keep records.” Lamin-35 recalls where his small business enterprise named LamDeen was a year ago. He and his younger brother Suleiman-19 had only acquired basic tailoring skills but not how to translate their skills into a successful business venture.

Growing up in Station Road, a shantytown in Makeni, the biggest town in Bombali district of Northern Sierra Leone, the Koroma brothers were born and bred in a poverty. They made it their mission to break free from the handcuffs of poverty since they were little boys.

The long road to escaping poverty

As fate would have it, it was not going to be an easy road out of poverty for the boys, especially after having lost their father in the early years of their lives. “Life was difficult for us. We had no one to pay our school fees so I quit school.” Lamin painfully recounts his past. Their uncle who took care of Lamin was himself a tailor. It was from him that he gradually learned the art of tailoring whilst also going to school until he obtained some three years out of the six years of Secondary Education.

Two years down the line, “Things were hard for my uncle. I didn’t have lunch but whenever I went to the shop I got one or two thousand Leones,” says Lamin. That little money he made (which is equivalent to about USD20 cents today) was the crucial driving factor that lead him to work hard at his uncle's shop after school hours. The more time he spent in his uncle’s shop, the more money he made and skills he gained. “That was how I become a full-time apprentice earning Le10,000  (just a little over a dollar) a day. From these earnings, he was able to support himself and his younger brother to return to school, paying up to Le450,000 (about USD59) every year until they both completed secondary level of education.

Boys to men

Achieving that level of education was a landmark in their journey but the uphill challenge to economic success seemed to have risen higher. The boys had grown into men and needed to take care of more than just themselves. Lamin, being the eldest especially shouldered the heavier burden. He completely gave up his dreams to pursue further education to take care of his brother and other family responsibilities, just like his late father did as the head of the family. He resorted to becoming a full-time tailor on his own. “I rented an old sewing machine and a little veranda space for Le30,000 (about USD4) and started stitching and repairing used cloths for people.” But, sometimes he couldn’t afford to pay this rent on time as business was slow and every return was used up for family affairs.

The turning point

“It is all because of the National Youth Commission (NAYCOM) that I am where I am today”.

Lamin’s struggle to uplift himself from the chain of poverty is an all too common case in Sierra Leone, where almost 70 percent of the young people are either unemployed or underemployed according to the Sierra Leone Youth Report, 2012.

The youth unemployment trend prompted the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the National Youth Commission (NAYCOM) to pioneer a project in 2012 that trains youth like Lamin in business management skills and entrepreneurship. The Business Development Service (BDS) Centres supported by UNDP are run in partnership through non-governmental organizations in each of the four regions in Sierra Leone.

About 2,500 youth have so far accessed the BDS centers for business development and entrepreneurship skills. About 1,000 other youth who successfully completed the training and were awarded small grants, now own and run their businesses.

In Lamin's case, it was a radio jingle calling for youth interested in turning their business ideas or small businesses into successful ventures that made him apply. “I spent eight weeks learning how to set up and managed a small business,” Lamin happily recalls after having been selected into the training alongside the 30 other youth from his community. Upon completion, they pitched their business plans, were each awarded seed grants of Le4,000,000 (almost USD500), and then linked to business mentor.

From a job seeker to a job creator

With the grant, the Koroma brothers bought two new sewing machines and rented a larger shop space. Within six months, having put into practice the business techniques they had learned during the BDS training, Lamin and his brother were generating more income than before. They bought six additional machines, expanded their shop space and employed other youth. “Now, I have six boys who work with me as apprentices”. The six boys are all from the same community where the brothers grew up.

Customer care

Part of the training entailed customer care and relations which Lamin takes seriously to the extent that, Alpha Kamara, a prominent customer of his says “I prefer to come here because they don’t fail when they give me a deadline.”

The future in focus

The brothers plan to open a bank account in order to better manage their financial resources. A snippet of the Koroma brothers' story was shared on Twitter and well-wishers responded with great pieces of advice.

“Youth unemployment in Sierra Leone has been recognized as a potential trigger for social instability; the prolonged state of underdevelopment and economic stagnation. The root of the problem is set in numerous factors, including skills mismatch, a growing supply of labor unmet by collective demand, political instability and difficult economic environments,” Adeyemi Paul.

UNDP’s Youth Employment and Empowerment Programme (YEEP) creates a link between development and social cohesion by engaging a range of stakeholders to tackle youth unemployment as a key driver to sustainable development.

Exposure photo essay here. 

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