Young Africa Speaks

Embedding youth voice in the design and implementation of youth employment programmes

Photo: Make It Kenya / Stuart Price

Photo: Make It Kenya / Stuart Price

How can we put youth voices at the driving seat of programmes and policies for dignified work across Africa?

The ability to hold one-to-one conversations at scale with youth can transform the way in which employment interventions address the problem of dignified work for young people. This is particularly urgent in Africa, the world's youngest continent. Timely and relevant evidence of youth priorities and experiences should be placed at the centre of responsive, accountable and successful programmes and policies. This matters for two reasons:

First, the needs and experiences of young people vary across locations. 

Second,  youth unemployment is a complex, multifaceted issue. It is experienced differently by each young person as their situation ebbs and flows. Listening to the individual voices of young people would allow programmes to adapt to their needs as they change and evolve.

“Our ideas and opinions help broaden the perspectives of different projects we are involved in. It’s good to be involved and see for ourselves how our ideas shape the
outcome of projects.”
Young participant. Discussion on the value of youth engagement at the Thika training centre of the CAP-Youth Empowerment Institute.

Whereas there are many methods to address the former, the second is much more complicated. This is the story of how we, Africa’s Voices, a Nairobi-based organisation with a mission to enable individual and collective citizen voice to drive accountable service delivery, engaged young people in one-to-one conversations at scale to co-design interventions that support their journeys towards dignified work.

To do so, we partnered with the Mastercard Foundation.

Africa is the world’s youngest and fastest growing continent. By 2030, there will be 375 million African youth in the labour market, a number expected to rise to a billion within a few decades, rendering Africa’s workforce the largest in the world (Young Africa Works). Meanwhile, 3 in 5 of the continent’s total unemployed are below the age of 25 and, while 10 to 12 million youth enter the workforce annually, only 3.1 million jobs are created (African Development Bank).

Photo: Jennifer Huxta

Photo: Jennifer Huxta

The challenge?
To establish a meaningful channel for exchange between youth and programme teams through SMS.

In 2018, Africa’s Voices partnered with the Mastercard Foundation’s to design, deploy and evaluate a two-way channel for engaging youth through SMS. The channel was intended to provide vibrant interactive communication so that youth are informed, recognised and listened to, creating ownership in work-related programmes.

At the same time, the channel allowed Africa’s Voices to draw rich insights from the perspectives that the youth shared in order to support programme decision-makers in incorporating youth voice into their work-related interventions. 

However, the channel was not merely a tech solution; it was designed to value youth voice.

We tested a prototype of this channel through a pilot project that took us from a work-related event for young people in a Nairobi amphitheatre to 20 vocational training centres across 14 counties in Kenya.

What’s the problem with youth work-related programmes?

Work-related programmes often serve a dispersed and fragmented youth population. They are difficult to regularly engage, individually or collectively. This can result in a top-down logic for programming in which youth may feel projects are done to them rather than with or for them.

An illustration of the problem in the context of Mastercard Foundation's work programmes.

An illustration of the problem in the context of Mastercard Foundation's work programmes.

Typical antidotes to this include conventional research, and monitoring and evaluation to better understand the impact of projects. These research practices are time-consuming and potentially extractive: they might create a disempowering disconnect. Youth voices are filtered through intermediaries and youth themselves cannot see how their views shape project and programme decisions.

How can youth voices be more central to decision-making at every stage of a project lifecycle?
Africa’s Voices’ solution

By creating a channel for one-to-one conversations - at scale - our pilot enabled youth to share their ideas, requests, complaints and feedback with programme decision-makers.

An illustration of the solution Africa's Voices proposed to the Mastercard Foundation.

An illustration of the solution Africa's Voices proposed to the Mastercard Foundation.

Through these conversations, youth feel greater ownership and agency in the projects that seek to support them. Their opinions and experiences also provide a source of nuanced and timely insights to support more accountable, efficient and effective programming.

Photo: USAID

The pilot

The pilot was carried out in four stages, working with organisations in Kenya that are implementing youth employment projects in collaboration the Mastercard Foundation.

  1. Formative research: Included key informant interviews with Mastercard Foundation partner organisations CAP-YEI and SHOFCO and focus group discussions with young people in Nairobi. 
  2. Proxy project: A mini-project conducted in a low-risk controlled environment, structured to emulate a project lifecycle in order to understand the value of two-way SMS engagement for young people. 
  3. Road test: A demonstration of the solution to test the hypotheses from the proxy project and to drill down on a specific use case for the two-way channel. 
  4. Learnings and evaluation

Pilot phase 1

Voices from the Formative research

The formative research phase consisted of:
• Key informant interviews with programme staff at Mastercard Foundation partners CAP-YEI and SHOFCO
• Eight focus group discussions (FDGs) with male and female youth from informal settlements, in vocational training and in college.

The formative research supported our hypothesis that there is a need and demand for youth perspectives in programming both from the implementors' and the beneficiaries' point of view.

“Understanding youth and programme issues at scale is a challenge. Currently M&E staff go to training centres, observe practices and use a checklist to provide a field report, on a quarterly basis.”
CAP-YEI Monitoring and Evaluation Executive
"Projects you are involved in, and your ideas are taken into account, you have more zeal and passion to see them succeed hence you give your all to see these programs work."
Male, focus group participant, Kibera (Nairobi)
"Experiments at scaling off-the-shelf digital platforms like WhatsApp have proved difficult to manage. It is difficult to capture and respond to questions and concerns of youth participating in programmes." 
SHOFCO Sustainable Livelihoods Manager

Pilot phase 2

The proxy project | #MaYouthTujijenge 

For the second part of the pilot, Africa’s Voices worked with Kenyan organisation Spatial Collective, to co-create a youth employment-focused event in Nairobi - a proxy-project to test the SMS platform throughout a programme lifecycle. Young people across the city collaborated on the event’s development, using the SMS platform to provide feedback on the design of the event, its objectives and its outcomes.  

Young people were mobilised to use the channel through Spatial Collective's network and through radio shows on the popular Ghetto Radio whose presenters shared the following question on air: 

“Tell us your best idea that could help you and your friends achieve your employment goals! We will share the best ideas with Nairobi on Ghetto Radio.”

1700 youth were engaged (700 offline and 1000 on the radio) of whom 388 opted to join the proxy project and help shape the event. 

Chosen by the participants, the event was called #MaYouthTujijenge (Sheng for "Youth let’s ‘build’ ourselves") and featured experts and role models selected based on the preferences the participants expressed through the channel: youth leaders from Nairobi’s slums, representatives from the Kenya Commercial Bank, business skills specialists and entrepreneurship gurus. 

What did young people think of the proxy project event?

“I feel like sending SMS messages was the best way to communicate with us (the youth) because we were receiving messages daily that updated us and you were also getting feedback from us....”
Male, Post-proxy project focus group discussions
“The challenges are that I feel inferior in job interviews because I cannot speak English well. To start my own business I would need to take a loan which is difficult. But at the event I heard about different ways to start a business with my peers, which I will try.”
Female, 28 years, Langata. Response to an endline SMS question

Photo: Aga Khan Foundation

Photo: Aga Khan Foundation

Pilot phase 3

The Road Test

The learning from the proxy project laid the basis for a “road test” of the solution - a live larger-scale deployment of the platform. Africa’s Voices collaborated with a Mastercard Foundation partner, CAP-Youth Empowerment Institute (CAP-YEI), which provides technical and vocational training to out-of-school, out-of- work youth aged 18–25 in Kenya.

The road test in numbers

The road test in numbers

CAP-YEI was interested in exploring how open-ended SMS engagement with students could allow them to inform programme decision-making and better meet the needs and requests of their students. 

The road-test focused on using the platform for rapid feedback on course satisfaction and ideas for improvement.

The Road Test - how it worked

First, students responded via SMS to two open-ended questions

  • What is the most useful thing you have learned during the training course? Tell us why it is useful
  • If you could change one thing about the programme, what would it be?

1500 open-ended responses were quickly interpreted and categorised in 2-3 days

Then, relevant findings were identified and disaggregated by gender, training centre and training course. For example,

  • Aside from vocational skills, students valued the entrepreneurial, communication and interpersonal skills they had gained from the CAP-YEI course.
  • 18% of respondents overall complained about the lack of learning material/equipment. This was raised by 35% of respondents in Naivasha.

Impactful findings were enabled through unfiltered voices. For example,

“We would like more machines because we sew in groups and it's difficult to understand, sockets are spoiled and need to be changed to avoid time wastage.”
Female, 19 years, Mikindani, Industrial Garment Manufacturing

When relevant action was taken, students were informed via SMS:

"Thank you for sharing your ideas with us on your CAP-YEI training. We heard from you and your classmates that you would have liked more practical lessons and learning materials. CAP-YEI are ensuring that course trainers will have sufficient training materials for practical lessons so that future CAP-YEI students can benefit from your feedback, thank you."
"The project came at a critical time in CAP-YEI project implementation—it provided very useful insights ... in program redesign, improvement, correction, and re-emphasis of program elements."
CAP-YEI, Monitoring and Evaluation

Where we go from here

Africa’s Voices has developed a capability that elevates youth voice at the heart of employability programmes. Existing systems fall short of creating ownership in decision-making by including the views, preferences and needs of young people in their design and implementation.

In many African countries, dignified work for young people has become a top political priority. With youth making up the majority of the continent’s population, their voices cannot be ignored.

The pilot demonstrated that SMS engagement can encourage and demonstrate ownership and agency among youth, by giving recognition to their voice. Capitalising on the lessons we have learnt in the process, we now seek to apply this more widely in order to enable youth voices everywhere to be represented in decision-making.

To find out more, contact

Africa's Voices is a non-profit organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya and Cambridge, UK. Our mission is to enable individual and collective citizen voice to drive accountable and effective governance and service delivery in Africa.

To find out more, visit:

Connect with us: @africas_voices