Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Zambia's young people want to work

My article on joblessness among young Zambians, which was commissioned for the Guardian development journalism competition 2011.

Dickson Kakoma has been sober for 10 months – ever since the night he almost lost his family, and his life. “I went drinking with a friend. He was driving us home when we started arguing. I grabbed the wheel and we crashed,” the 26-year-old says, shaking his head ruefully. “When I finally got back home, I wanted to burn my house down. Next morning my wife left me.”

That day Kakoma vowed to give up Tujilijili, a highly potent, locally brewed spirit sold for as little as 600 Kwacha (about 8p) for 60ml. In time, his wife and two children returned to their thatched home in rural Muka Lashi, about 30km from Kabwe in central Zambia. But the main reason this articulate man drank six days a week remains unchanged: like so many young Zambians, Kakoma does not have regular, salaried employment.

Forced to leave school prematurely when his parents divorced, Kakoma cultivates okra, kale and watermelon on a narrow, arid strip of land near his home. Farming earns the household barely £260 a year – and occupies just four or five hours of his day. “We used to have a local football league and that helped because it gave us something to do,” he says. But in February the league disbanded due to lack of funds.

Zambia is often held up as a southern African success story. After three decades of stagnation, the economy has grown by an annual average of 6% for the past five years, thanks largely to rising global prices for the country’s main export, copper. Per capita GDP has risen steadily since 2000. But the headline figures mask another reality. According to official statistics, 88% of 18-to 35-year-olds have no reliable source of income. In rural areas, four out of five depend on subsistence agriculture.

Kabwe, a once-prosperous town of 300,000 people about 130km north of the capital, Lusaka, is Zambia in microcosm. The country’s first mine opened here in 1906. Railways, milling, textiles, and impressive mansions on spacious, tree-lined avenues soon followed. But when Zambia’s industries, nationalised after independence from Britain in 1964, collapsed, as copper prices halved in the mid-1970s, Kabwe did too. Mass privatisations, conducted at the behest of the World Bank and the IMF, led to huge job losses. As unemployment rocketed, HIV/Aids spread and alcohol abuse increased.

“Kabwe’s a ghost town now. All those activities that kept the place alive are gone – but there’s probably double the number of people that there was 30 years ago,” says Hendricks Kapila, head of Kabwe Community Youth Mobilisation.

The scene in the town’s central business district on a weekday morning confirms his dismal appraisal. Groups of young men gather on corners hustling for work. Plastic Tujilijili sachets, sucked dry, lie strewn on the dusty streets. Nearby, sentries guard the padlocked gates of the vast Mulungushi-China textiles factory, which once employed 12,000 people but now stands empty.

Samuel Tembo, economic empowerment co-ordinator for children’s charity Plan International, in Zambia, believes affordable startup capital is key to tackling the country’s labour market problems. While the vast majority of the population is not in formal employment, almost everyone over the age of 18 works. From farmers, who supply the bustling markets and roadside stalls, to youths selling phone cards, commerce is ubiquitous. “Young people are energetic, they are establishing small businesses. What they need is initial capital to make their business grow and prosper,” says Tembo.

Village savings and loan schemes have proved successful in other developing-world contexts and, last year, the NGO Plan International, in partnership with Barclays, launched Banking on Change, a community-based microfinance programme in Zambia. The theory is simple: 10 to 12 people save and lend relatively small amounts together at low interest rates, with all decisions taken by the group as a whole. A small annual subscription fee covers administration costs and a “social fund” for unexpected outlays, such as funerals.

Eighteen-year-old Joyce Mushala is one of the scheme’s beneficiaries. Perched on a cow-skin chair under a jacaranda tree in a village in Chibombo, a rural province abutting urban Kabwe, the softly spoken single mother explains how a 100,000 Kwacha (about £13) loan kickstarted a profitable confectionery trade.

“I bought lollipops and hard-boiled sweets and sold them in schools,” says Mushala, cradling one-year-old Catherine in her arms. “My business has changed my life. Before, I used to just grow maize and brew beer and had no income.”

Neighbour Doreen Chali, 34, spent half her 100,000 Kwacha loan on household items, and invested the remainder in fish, which she sells in the village. The profit covers school fees for her 16-year-old daughter, Grenda. “She’s very happy about that,” the mother of five says with a smile.

Barclays estimates that the 675 savings and loans groups initiated so far have involved more than 7,000 people and accrued assets worth more than £680,000. Lucy Mataka, community affairs manager at Barclays’ Lusaka office, says disputes within groups are rare, and are almost always settled amicably.

Nevertheless, in a country of 13 million people, more structured guidance and funding for new businesses is also needed, especially for enterprises incurring large startup costs or that have potential to employ substantial numbers of young people. Such support requires governmental as well as financial muscle.

There are signs that this political will is starting to emerge. Employment was a pivotal issue in September’s elections, with opposition leader Michael Sata winning the presidency on a platform of job creation and social justice. Young Zambians, who formed the bulwark of Sata’s support, are expectant of change.

Back in Kabwe, Jonas Silupumbwe, a youth worker with Restless Development, wants to see the government’s good words on employment translated into deeds. He cites the previous administration’s National Youth Empowerment Plan, which, in 2007, allocated 10bn Kwacha (approximately £1.25m) for new businesses in each of Zambia’s nine provinces. Four years later, “only one project in the whole of Kabwe” has received funding, he says.

“Government have said a lot, they have written a lot, but they have actually done very little. That’s the major problem,” Silupumbwe says.

“Young people have been told there’s money available but they’ve not seen any of it. Some don’t even know it’s there. The youth want to work, but they need to be given the opportunity.”

Zambia's young people want to work
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