Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/JEREMY GLYN
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/JEREMY GLYN

When Olamide Ayeni-Babajide discovered an expensive ornament she bought on a trip abroad was made of old corn husk, it opened her eyes to the potential of Nigeria’s own waste problem.

In 2016 she founded Pearl Recycling, which remodels solid waste such as old tyres into furniture in Lagos, Africa’s most populous city with 21-million people and home to one of the world’s largest garbage sites.

The social enterprise — a business that aims to do good — is also looking to tackle Nigeria’s youth unemployment problem, training hundreds of young locals to recycle disused materials, with most them going on to set up their own waste ventures.

“Nigeria is a good place for social entrepreneurs because there are diverse problems to be solved,” said Ayeni-Babajide.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation’s second global poll on the best country to be a social entrepreneur found the three African nations among the world’s 45 biggest economies surveyed —  Nigeria, Egypt and SA — failed to make the top 20.

But Nigeria came sixth when about 900 social enterprise experts were asked where young people are playing a key role in the growing sector. Egypt came fourth and SA 34th in the youth ranking in the poll, supported by Deutsche Bank.

In Nigeria, a young country where the median age is about 18, young people are rising to find business solutions to challenges ranging from poverty to environmental and cultural issues — from illiteracy to pollution — neglected by the government.

Facing a youth unemployment crisis, with more than half of 15- to 35-year-olds out of work or not in full-time jobs, a new generation of social entrepreneurs wants to create opportunities and economic prosperity themselves.

Passion and energy 

Femi Taiwo, executive director of Leap Africa, said encouragement from faith-based organisations, motivational speakers, an array of local and international programmes and competitions for young leaders has helped pave the way.

“These initiatives and many more put a spotlight on young people making a change, and inspired many more to jump on the bandwagon,” said Taiwo, whose Lagos-based youth leadership non-profit provides free training for social innovators.

But with this zeal for social entrepreneurship comes risks.

“The enthusiasm, the energy, the drive of young people is incomparable,” said Atinuke Lebile, 31, founder of Ibadan-based social enterprise Cato Foods.

“However, young people often lack experience and the patience to learn,” said Lebile, whose biotechnology business aims to reduce malnutrition and poverty by creating fortified food products, such as custard enriched with vitamins A and C.

In addition to young people, women are increasingly well represented in leadership positions in social enterprises in Nigeria, which jumped to joint ninth place on this issue from 40th in the inaugural global poll in 2016.

Ayeni-Babajide, 36, who worked as an engineer in a male-dominated sector for almost a decade before founding Pearl Recycling, finds Nigerians are gradually getting used to women in leadership positions.

“Women now know their rights and power they possess,” she said, but added that women still found it hard to access funds.

“The majority of laid-down rules are favouring men, especially access to capital. Women need access to funds and an enabling environment devoid of gender profiling to thrive.”

Like Nigeria, in Egypt there has also been a concerted push to support young social entrepreneurs, especially since the country’s 2011 uprising, said Iman Bibars of Ashoka Arab World, a non-profit organisation that supports social entrepreneurs.

Egypt, like Nigeria, has a large youth population, with 34% of people under the age of 14 compared to 44% in Nigeria, according to World Bank data from 2018.

“After the Arab Spring there was a lot of interest in the youth, there were a lot of programmes by the government and international donors and CSR [corporate social responsibility] in trying to figure out how to support young people,” she said.

In 2019, Ashoka Arab World launched a Young Changemakers scheme with the British Council and social enterprise Red Ochre to help support females aged 16-20 from rural Egypt develop social enterprise ideas.

Egypt rose to 22nd place from 29th three years ago when asked if women were well represented in social enterprises. SA was in 23rd place, also up from 29th.

“The reason why young people are excited is it gives them an opportunity to be leaders, it gives them an opportunity to be of help to others and recognition, and this is something that young people did not have before,” said Bibars.

“Since there are so many social problems in the country and poverty, there is a lot of space for them to innovate.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation