The young women getting on with business

08 March 2022 by Alicia Mills, Girls' Education Challenge

I recently met five young women – Aurelia, Maryam, Alice, Dora and Rita – who have their eyes firmly set on the future. Each of them has a clear plan for career they are going to pursue.

Aurelia (studying ICT) wants to open the area’s first cybercafé; Maryam (studying fashion) has spotted a demand for menswear tailoring; Alice (studying plumbing) has already got a glowing reference from the next-door hospital where she refitted all the toilets; Dora (studying fashion) wants to open a small factory; and Rita (studying beauty) wants local brides to come to her for makeup, instead of going to the nearest city.

At 19 years of age and having been out of the formal school system since the age of 9 or 10, these young women have been supported by the Education for Life project, led by Action Aid and funded by UK aid through the Girls’ Education Challenge. Initially they were enrolled in catch up centres where they received literacy, numeracy and life skills. They finished those classes last summer and are now all receiving training at a Vocational Training Centre in Kenya. The project pays the annual fees, organises an on-site creche and advocates for admission despite the lack of formal schooling.

All of these young women are working hard and have thought through their plans carefully, conducting their own mini-market-analysis and figuring out how they can make their dreams come true. They want to be connected to financial services like loans and are demanding better business advice. Their lives look supremely brighter to them than they did two years ago.

Three of them are young mothers and the others were working with their families on farms or doing occasional labour, with no real prospects of solid, long-term employment. They all say that before they joined the project, they did not feel they had any prospects and that their lives were unlikely to change. They saw college and careers as something for other people, not themselves.

So, when the project came along and identified them as eligible participants, they were incredibly excited and saw it as a new opportunity, one that they genuinely did not think would come their way.

The girls board at the training centre which means they are safer and do not have to travel long distances, which is especially difficult for the young mothers. Indeed, the training centre is very accommodating for parents. Childcare is on offer when the girls are in their classes - although it is not unusual to see some of the smaller babies in the classrooms or travelling around the centre on their mother’s backs!

What struck me most when speaking to the young women was how much thought they had put into the choice of subject and the career opportunities this would offer them. With the help of career counsellors, they identified their interests and skills. Aurelia had always found the use of technology intuitive and easy so had chosen that path, with plans to open a cybercafé to serve the local community. She is certain that there is a significant demand from people without connections at home who want to use Facebook, keep up with national affairs, apply for jobs, or simply keep in touch with people online. At the same time, she understands that this ambition comes with challenges and expenses. She is already looking for advice and support on start-up costs and potential loans.

“When I dropped out of school, I did not think there was a possibility of having a better life. I was passing through several challenges and was desperate at home. However, since I was involved with the Education for Life project, I foresee a bright future ahead. I chose to train in basic computer skills. I am hopeful that the knowledge will lead to my opening several village ICT centres so I can train the community to operate their digital gadgets and the internet. Presently, I know how to read and write English and to typeset a document. I am happy that I can use these skills to improve my livelihood and that of others.” Aurelia

Alice, who is studying plumbing, found she had a natural aptitude and was described as ‘one of our stars’ by the Principal. Indeed, she was chosen to refit the toilets of a small local hospital who were looking for local support instead of using a more costly, out-of-town plumbing company. Alice is not fazed by studying with a group of mostly boys – or the prospect of moving into a traditionally male profession. She is under no illusion that this may be challenging but she has a strategy. Firstly, she tells me she is not intimidated as she knows she is as good as the boys. She also knows people will always need plumbers, especially larger buildings like schools and government buildings. She says she will work hard to get her certificate to show potential clients and collect references – she already has some from the work she did at the local government hospital. She will also show people what she can do – literally proving it to them in person.

“I am now training as a plumber. I have used my skills in installing showers and water pipes for the local Health Centre. I am happy that I can now earn a living from plumbing.”  Alice

Rita is another young woman with a sound business strategy. She wants to do bridal makeup. She has understood that most women are prepared to spend money on professional makeup when they marry. Even women who do not have very much money will save up and spend it on their wedding day.

“I love what am doing here because I was given a chance to choose what I wanted to pursue in life. I am training in beauty and therapy and would like to be known in the whole country so I can get big business deals like making celebrities’ make up. I can train and take care of my baby comfortably at the same time because of the good childminders. Since I joined Education for Life, my life has really changed for the better. At first, other girls and community members were laughing at us because they couldn’t believe there is any project that can support people like me, who had babies at an early age.” Rita

One question I asked them was whether they would consider moving away, taking their qualifications and skills to a larger town or city. They all said this was something they did not want to do. They said they don’t want to leave their communities behind. It is not all about making money for themselves. They want to bring more jobs and wealth to the economy of the local community. They also said that they wished that the same industries in big towns such as Nairobi and Mombasa could be brought near to their villages so they and other community members would be able to access and build their livelihoods on them.

I came away from our meeting impressed and inspired by their determination and self-confidence. It is genuinely incredible that in two years these young women, who were without a great deal of hope or personal ambition, have worked out what they want to do and, importantly, how they are going to do it. The impact of this project on their lives has been truly transformative. It also showed me very clearly that when young women see other people believing and investing in their potential, their self-belief and ambition can soar.  

“Life before joining the Education for Life project was very difficult, I was isolated in the community and hopeless. I got hope after going through mentorship at the catch-up centre. I have gained skills in tailoring and dress making and bead work. I hope to own a company in future to sell my products and employ other designers.” Dora

“When I chose to train as a tailor and dressmaker at the vocational training centre, I did not know I would get to where I am today. I made the skirt I am wearing today by myself. In my village, they now call me for jobs like repairing their clothes. Every day when going home after the day's training activities here, I carry with me waste cuttings from the materials and make some decorations whenever there is a function near my village. The community is viewing me differently. My aim is to be self-employed in future when I complete my course. ActionAid and Sauti ya wanawake have done well to support me and showing me that there is light at the end of the tunnel.” Mary

“I am happy I joined Education for Life project. Since I joined the project, I have had a chance to join the Vocational Training Centre training as a welder. I am proud to have been able to make grill items including the table I own back at home.” Lilian