South Africa's entrepreneurs tackle youth unemployment crisis

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Media captionSome surprising initiatives are springing up to address South Africa's huge youth unemployment problem, as Lerato Mbele reports

South Africa has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, and while the government tries its own solutions, entrepreneurs are coming up with new ideas to tackle the problem.

On a sweltering summer morning, a group of around 50 men pace the streets of a Johannesburg suburb canvassing for jobs.

They hold up placards marketing themselves as plumbers, painters and builders. This has become a common sight in a country where unemployment stands at 25%. The majority are under the age of 35, often with few or only basic skills.

Rudzani Richard is a 29-year-old plumber. Dressed in a beanie, jeans and trainers, he looks like most of the trendy city youth.

He waits outside a popular hardware shop, hoping to be picked up by customers who need extra hands.

Rudzani says he's been coming to the same spot almost every day for the past three years and earns between $15-$20 (£9-£12) for a day's work. "I get one day a week or two days a week, so I'm suffering," he says.

Ticking time bomb

South Africa has more than 10 million jobless people and half of them are between the ages of 15 and 24.

The main union federation, Cosatu, has warned that if not speedily and adequately addressed, youth unemployment in the country could be "a ticking time bomb".

Unemployment in South Africa has been made worse by an education system described by many as "in turmoil". The government has created a Human Resource Development Strategy that, until 2030, will focus on improving basic education.

In the meantime, organisations and entrepreneurs are coming up with new approaches to help young people find work.


While studying in South Africa, Kenyan Shikoh Gitau spent a number of months doing research in Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, and was surprised by her discovery.

"These women who I was working with, I taught them how to use the internet on their very basic Nokia phones," she says. "The first thing they searched for was 'jobs in Cape Town'. That was more than inspiration for me."

Shikoh then set about creating an application called Ummeli, which helps the unemployed find work.

By answering 12 questions on a mobile phone it generates a CV that can be sent to potential employers.

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Media captionShikoh Gitau talks about her app that is helping millions of people find work in South Africa

One user is Herman Mamabolo, who lives in a township in Gauteng and is using the app to look for work.

"Since I've submitted my CV I've got calls from employers, and they are looking for a person like a forklift driver, so I'm now able to have that hope that I'll be working in future, maybe in two weeks' time."

Shikoh has since been snapped up by Google and works for the company in Nairobi, where she is developing another version of the app for the Kenyan job market.

"I'd thought 100, maybe at most 1,000 people, but when I hear that almost 300,000 people are using the platform when you hear that over 20% of the people using your platform are actually getting jobs and they are satisfied, when you read some of those comments - they're saying, 'God bless you, we love you, thank you for coming up with this idea, it has changed my life' - I could live happily ever after with those comments."

Beating the Catch-22

While applications like Ummeli help match those out of work to vacancies, other organisations are adopting a different approach to make younger people more employable over the longer term.

Resolution Circle was established a year ago by a group of industry experts who aim to give practical training to apprentice engineers.

Prof Willem Clarke, the organisation's founder, says the aim is to: "Employ these guys and give them a year's experience by employing them, but also provide industry a service, so it's not a government-funded thing that just provides handouts. It's really creating value."

The building contains a research laboratory and a workshop where mechanical engineering student Otlotleng Lentotwane is busy training. He completed his theoretical courses in 2011, but since then he's struggled to find the entry-level work.

In order to complete the course in South Africa, apprentice engineers must do one year of practical work in industry in addition to their theoretical studies. The Catch-22 here is that without work experience, few can find the entry-level engineering job they need.

Without the practical experience, Otlotleng's been unable to graduate, but now hopes he'll be able to do so in September 2014. "I know I will get a job, even if it's not tomorrow, but I know that I will get a job eventually."

According to Adcorp, a South African labour research organisation, there are 600,000 graduates who are unable to find jobs.

Resolution Circle is not only trying to empower potential engineers, it is also responding to a wider national concern.

"We sit with raw materials, but we export it," says Prof Clarke. "We don't manufacture, we don't design, everything is imported.

"We're targeting ourselves to say, 'Look, let's take and design and build and create and manufacture so that most of the wealth stays in the country.'"

There are many reasons why young people find themselves jobless in South Africa. However, as Rudzani and Otlotleng show, it's also about the choices an individual makes to either fend for themselves or get equipped with better skills.