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Youth Day of Service 2021: ‘We are targeting 1,000 projects, 100,000 beneficiaries across Africa’- Taiwo

Initiated by one of Nigeria’s foremost non-profit organisations, LEAP Africa, the Youth Day of Service (YDoS) is an annual week-long, pan-African youth-led social impact campaign that begins on August 12 every year which is also ‘International Youth Day’. In this interview, FEMI TAIWO, the executive director of LEAP Africa shares his bold ambitions for this year’s edition, among other things with BusinessDay’s deputy editor, LOLADE AKINMURELE.

Can you share some insight into what the Youth Day of Service is about and why LEAP Africa is championing it?

A: LEAP Africa is a youth-focused leadership development organisation and we’re all about inspiring young people to be the best version of themselves for the benefit of the society.

We have interventions in education, employment and life skills, social entrepreneurship, and the likes but ultimately, we want to equip young people with the necessary tools to be leaders that can solve problems. It is important to note that leadership for us is not about the position you occupy, rather it is about solving problems and adding value. It’s not all about the titles that you get but about the value you add in real-time everywhere you find yourself, whether it’s in your community or your organisation. For us, we’re all about young people and we have different programmatic interventions involving young people where we teach them to become social change makers. We help build their capacity, connect them to partners and provide resources- financial resources and other types of resources. We also enable youth leadership across every sector.

Why Youth Day of Service is important to us? We were looking for a way to celebrate everything that young people represent and rewrite the narrative because, for us, we believe that for Nigeria and indeed Africa, to realize their full potential, the youth will be at the forefront of solving problems. In Nigeria, we have a large concentration of youth, and that large number can be translated into impact.

The Youth Day of Service gives us an opportunity to celebrate young people. It elevates the significant message of young people as agents of social change, young people as leaders, public servers, value adders. Secondly, it does something very important for us in achieving the sustainable development goals. We are less than 10 years from 2030, the year that was set for the UN development goals. One thing the world leaders have agreed on is that if we will achieve those goals, we need all hands-on deck. And while the social sector and private sector are important, the youth are extremely important. If we can make them take ownership of these goals and localize these goals in their respective communities, we stand a better chance of achieving them. So that’s what the Youth Day of Service means for us.

The United Nations earmarked August 12 as a day to celebrate youth and the fact that young people are crucial to sustainable development goals. But you have taken a unique path to the celebration. What inspired this?

What you find is that people do conferences to showcase that young people are important, but we already know that. However, the next step is we want totake action. We want young people to go out in their numbers and demonstrate what the day represents. Let them go out and solve problems. Just like the statement you made about the US president, let it be the week where young people are saying, you know what, I’m going to champion this thing I have been talking about or join other people trying to solve the problem. It is about young people championing projects or volunteering for projects and the entire society and organised private sector enabling young people that week and beyond that week. It is not just about what is happening that week, it is about the spirit of volunteerism that is triggered and the spirit of patriotism that is reignited. That is why I like the set of questions you asked, they are important to the subject matter. When you say active citizenship, people just think it’s activism but that’s one extreme. We are trying to tell young people that it is not about carrying placards alone, it is also about impact.

Read also: Political travails: Who is afraid of the youth?

At LEAP Africa, we understand that there are different dimensions of being problem solvers and active citizens. You will find the agitators or the innovators, all these roles are important. Agitators are spotlighting the issue we need to pay attention to, the narrative that they are noisemakers on Twitter is wrong as they are part of the solution. The question now is how we move away from that to other parts of solving the problem. Beyond the class of agitators, there are innovative people despite all the constraints.

So, for us, the Youth Day of Service is letting youth know their voices are important. And to the public sector, we are saying engage young people more, if they don’t come to you, go to them, rebuild trust. The second message is that we have a lot of innovators, we have a program where we take 20 people, we recently extended it to 40 and in this program, we take one year to invest in them, coach them, support them with financial resources to expand and reach out to more people, there are many youth innovators across Nigeria and other youth-led organisations across Africa. Now it should be about how to support them by creating pools of resources for them to scale up.

The maiden edition of the Youth Day of Service was last year, in the midst of the pandemic, and I found that you were able to rally the youths to execute 81 projects. Tell me about that and how you pulled off the maiden edition, how that has formed your expectation for the upcoming edition.

Last year was a unique year like you know, but we resolved to start with the goal that we will go ahead with the Youth Day of Service. Around May, we decided to go on with the Youth Day of service since we were out of lockdown. We started with some implementing partners who channelled young people in their networks to register and carry out projects. We reached out to our network of social entrepreneurs who we have worked with across different states in Nigeria, we also channeled resources from our partners to them, and they were able to take on different initiatives in their communities.

We had 81 projects in about 23 states across Nigeria and we were able to get over 1,200 volunteers to do this. Wehad some outside Africa. That’s what happened in 2020. We had health awareness programs, vocational programs, distribution of relief materials, painting of old school buildings, and a lot more and it was driven by young people. We are not LEAP Nigeria, we are LEAP Africa, hence, we are making it a Pan-African campaign this year, just like we have always wanted. Our vision this year is to have a minimum of 1000 projects.

From 81 last year to 1000 this year, that’s a big leap. Why are you confident that you can pull that off?

I know we can do more than that. We have done some background work and leveraging on the momentum of last year, we believe it would be easy to build on that. The goal this year is a minimum of 1000 projects and 100,000 beneficiaries through executed projects. We are targeting 5000 volunteers across 20 African countries. Right now, we have project champions in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Ghana. We have also secured partnerships with organisations that will help push the news to youth, some of which are the African Union Youth Division, Youth Hub Africa, Mastercard Foundation, Global Shapers, Paradigm initiative, Nigeria Youth SDGs Network and so many others. If you go on the website, ( several other activities are leading to the day. As we are carrying out these programs, we are also building capacity in youth to be able to do projects. For instance, how to raise funds and how to use social media. Beyond building capacity, we also want to raise youth awareness about the SDGs and how they can participate beyond that day.

That’s quite ambitious and I’m inspired by the work you do. Congratulations. Let me ask you this, you know there’s been a series of youth agitation in the last few months, with the ENDSARS protest as well as the June 12 protest, young people who feel like they’re being outmuscled under the current administration. As a Youth Leadership and Development Organisation, how are you ensuring that your programmes are also proffering solutions to some of these issues that we face in the country?

One way we proffer solutions is that we are raising an army of innovators. We run a series of programs and even though we are solving direct problems for these young people, one major thing we are doing is reigniting the spirit of patriotism in young people. We want them to see themselves as active citizens and individuals that can solve challenges in their country. One of our contributions is that we are raising leaders on one hand. In terms of direct impact based on recent issues like the peaceful ENDSARS protest and the June 12 protest, we have partners in the civil society space. We have a ‘Youth Leadership Programme’ called YLP and last year, we launched the online version. The Youth Leadership Programme targets University students above the age of 18. Typically, the focus of that project is leadership and sustainable development. Due to all that transpired last year, we had to go back to the drawing board, revise the programme and we are working with some civil society partners that you probably know and are at the forefront of some active citizenship efforts.

We are re-launching the programme because we see that there’s a knowledge gap in terms of how young people can ethically engage more.We’ve expanded the Youth Leadership Programme to still have the leadership pillar, to have the sustainable development goals but now we are bringing the very critical and third pillar, active citizenship. We want to fill the knowledge gap. About youthful energy, the first law of thermodynamics is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. So, the question is how do you harness it? For us, youthful energy is good if well harnessed. We want to help harness it through mentorship and knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with demonstrations, it is part of democracy but beyond that, how can young people organise better, how can we protect ourselves, how can young people engage government better starting from holding them accountable. As we are entering 2023, they should know their rights and responsibilities as active citizens. Value leadership is a big deal for LEAP Africa, So, we believe that with a good blend of our value-based leadership training together with sustainable development practices, we would create a balance and help to harness this youthful energy.

Great. As a direct follow-up question to your focus on empowering youths, unemployment is a big problem in Nigeria. At 33%, Nigeria has the second-highest unemployment rate globally, after Namibia, this is very worrying. And then when you drill into that data you see that youth unemployment is the most rampant. So, I think, also at the root of allthese agitations we’re seeing are some socio-economic issues, unemployment and poverty are on the rise. What role do you think organisations like yours and the private sector can play in helping address the issue of youth unemployment in Nigeria?

Let me dissect it this way, you just talked about the size of the challenge but there are other interfaces. One thing is sure, this is a very serious problem and there are different layers to youth unemployment. I am privy to some efforts that are currently being made by partners in Nigeria and strategies that are even yet to come alive. For instance, the Mastercard Foundation’s effort towards unemployment is a big strategy, a very ambitious strategy. There are a lot of efforts going on in civil society. Amongst ourselves, we are discussing how we can collaborate more and how we can reach more numbers. However, the third sector has its challenges especially issues around funding, these are very big issues, and we are figuring it out. On the other side, there is the private sector, we are figuring out how we can engage them more. There are different sides to unemployment, on one hand, it is a skill mismatch. On the demand side also, we don’t have enough jobs. We know we cannot create as many jobs as we need, so self-employment and entrepreneurship will have to play a major role. However, the question is how can we enable them and what are the industries that can enable them? For instance, we know that agriculture is one of those big areas that can enable them and the creative sector. That is why social media is important because the creative sector is engaging a lot of young people now. The digital and technology sector is another big one. That is why the private sector, civil societies and the likes need to work together.

I can see that you are downplaying the role of the government because we have waited for them for so long and nothing seems to be happening.

The truth of the matter is, the third sector is pulling their weight, the private sector can pull their weight more but one entity that needs to do significantly more is the government. Government must re-evaluate their roles. From my perspective, government must play the role of an orchestrator more. The focus needs to be on how they can make sure that they are not the bottlenecks, and they are not frustrating innovators. Whether innovators from the private sector or third sector. Part of that orchestration is partnering with the third sector and the private sector more. Secondly, I would advise that government steps back from implementing some ideas.

For instance, it is very rare to find government giving money to the third sector in Nigeria, whereas in countries like the U.S. it is a norm. What they do is, they find civil society organisations and private organisations providing solutions to public problems and they put out a bill and say, if they can enable several entrepreneurs and their income level can grow by a certain amount, they will support financially. There are different models like that around the world. The Nigerian government needs to think about how they can bring their resources and partner them with the resources available. They also need to think about how to incentivise the private sector to act more. For one, they have tried to do that with infrastructure, there are some types of tax incentives for companies constructing roads. The government can do that for sectors that can be catalytic in solving the problem of unemployment. The government introduced new tax laws in January, which is about increasing the tax size, but I did not hear anything about how they can incentivize those who are giving back to society and solving problems. Those are some of the things they can do. If they do that, they can attract even more Diaspora remittances. If we are interested in solving problems, these are the conversations that should be going on to achieve the sustainable development goals.

Let me disaggregate all the sectors for you, the private sector has profit as their motive, so you cannot solely depend on them to drive social economic gains, but the private sector is efficient because capitalism and private ownership drive efficiency. So, we can leverage them for efficiency. Hence, the private sector can bring resources and efficiency.

The third sector is focused on impact but there are constraints with resources. We also need to have conversations on how to get the private sector and the government to channel more resources to the third sector. But the public sector is constrained, and they are known for their inefficiencies around the world, it is not peculiar to Nigeria.

Secondly, we know government does not have the money to solve these problems, but the question is how the government can enable more hands to participate and to make sure that we can get more value for the resources we have and also aid the third sector to be able to solve these problems like unemployment. We will need a tri-sector partnership.

I see the point you are making about more collaboration between the government, private sector and the Non- profit Organisations or the third sector.

I also see what you are trying to do is to ensure that you’re able to encourage the youth to think about what they can do for their country. Well, in Nigeria, the reverse of what John F Kennedy talked about many years ago about not asking what America can do for you but asking what you can do for America is the case. The youth are asking what Nigeria can do for me. And it’s a legitimate question because the trust deficit is widening every day. How do you convince them otherwise?

That’s a fundamental question and we have been talking about patriotism.The truth is patriotism is cultivated and modelled. That’s a strong message to political leadership. Society will produce according to the kind of leaders that are being projected. That is by default. However, on the other hand is you and I, as media people, the organized private sector and civil society, we can do better in projecting patriotism in all sectors. We can project them with our music, with our movies, with the kind of things you are doing now at BusinessDay. This is because young people engage more with social media, and they respond more to what they learn and what they hear. We must be wary of a single story, just the way the political leaders have a single view of young people, they think they want to do EndSARS and scatter everywhere but that’s not the case, young people are actively solving problems, they want things to get better.

Let me ask my final question but it would be more focused on LEAP Africa. Would you mind sharing your journey thus far and what excites you the most about what the future holds for LEAP Africa?

LEAP Africa will be 20 next year. We have done a lot in the last 20 years; we have a group of young ethical leaders across different sectors both in Nigeria and across Africa. We are in the process of re-evaluation;however, I can tell you some of the big things to think about. We want to be bolder, so you can expect more interventions from LEAP Africa. You can expect us to invest in the youth development ecosystem more. That is why Youth Day of Service is important to us. For instance, we are launching the LEAP institute next year and that institute will do many things. Think of Lagos Business School but with a development centre.

I always ask this question, why is it that the third world countries have stunted third sector organisations? What are the signs of a stunted third sector organisation? Most of the funds driving the third sector in those nations are from outside the country. We need to find how we can unleash the potential of the private sector and also unleash the potential of the tri-sector partnership. A strong third sector organisation meeting a strong private organisation and a committed, transparent, and trustworthy public sector will drive sustainable development at a very fast pace. There are more things in the works as we approach our 20th anniversary which means we will be funding a lot of youth-led innovation. Our work will be based on 5cs. First is Capacity, building capacity in the ecosystem. The second is Connections, connecting more organizations. The next is Capital, rallying more resources for people that are on the ground. The fourth is Confidence building and the last is Competition. When there is competition in an ecosystem, innovation happens. Those are the 5cs that will influence our work in the coming years.

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