The youth employment programme will be rolled out over two years to tackle the country’s unacceptably large unemployment rate. Picture: THE TIMES
The youth employment programme will be rolled out over two years to tackle the country’s unacceptably large unemployment rate. Picture: THE TIMES

What on earth does a peanut-butter sandwich have to do with youth unemployment? A lot, it turns out. Years ago, Nicola Galombik of Yellowwoods Ventures told me that in the test phase for a youth employment hub the firm had helped to design and sponsor, it found young interviewees were performing badly in applications for work. Their concentration levels were low because they were hungry. Harambee, the youth employment accelerator organisation, started giving the job applicants peanut-butter sandwiches and juice, and their performance improved measurably.

A visit to Harambee last year still counts as one of the best assignments I've ever been on. CEO Maryana Iskander invited a few of us to lunch with some of the graduates of the programme. The assembled young adults were about to start their first jobs after graduating from a set of courses meant to make them work-ready. Iskander asked the group to explain what having a job meant. For most of the graduates, their jobs meant freedom, not only for them but for their families, too. Half of the 10 graduates said they would be the only breadwinners in their families. Harambee's office, in a converted building in Johannesburg's mining district, was buzzing.

the solutions are often simpler than leaders think they are

The Harambee curriculum includes IT skills, time management, emotional intelligence, and simulated workplaces. Harambee managers found that in most of their youth members' homes, there was no culture of going to work because of South Africa's structural unemployment. Without such a culture, things that young workers with a culture of employment take for granted, such as punctuality, networking, confidence and problem-solving, are not natural assets.

Companies such as Hollard, Nando's and Pick n Pay, among the big corporates, as well as small and medium-sized enterprises, contract with Harambee as an employment agency. Harambee prepares young people for the world of work generally but also for specific enterprises. When I visited, a deal with Vodacom to run a pilot call-centre was being negotiated. Harambee has helped 50000 young people find their first jobs. It's a drop in the ocean of the six million young people who are not in training or employment, but it's a start and the model shows the value of innovation.

Lebo Nke of Harambee walks me into a small room packed with clothes. The other thing that Harambee managers such as Nke noticed was that their graduates often did not have appropriate working clothes. They started asking their networks of professional women and men to dig into their closets for items they could spare. Now Harambee is able to kit out its young graduates with clothes that work for their first jobs.

Another woman who is taking the problem of youth unemployment and turning it into a possible solution is Tashmia Ismail-Saville of YES, or the Youth Employment Service. This week she shared a stage with President Cyril Ramaphosa, who worked closely with her to find
a million paid internships over the next three years. Ismail-Saville started work as a waitress at the Hard Rock café and says it taught her invaluable skills such as dealing with difficult clients. She cites the fact that Absa CEO Maria Ramos began her working career as a shelf-packer to explain her motivation to start YES, in conjunction with Investec and other big companies. A first job can be a path to greater things.

What I've learnt from meeting the women I've written about here, who are tackling South Africa's youth unemployment problem, is that the solutions are often simpler than policymakers and leaders suggest they are. It can start with a peanut-butter sandwich.