This week the Youth Connekt Africa Conference is being hosted in Kigali, Rwanda. 2500 representatives from across every African nation will be gathering.  And they’ll talk about some of the most compelling challenges the continent faces right now.  Emerging Leaders wants to make sure that “Youth Transformation” is on the agenda.

Youth Ministers, Youth NGO’s, Youth experts and Youth donors, all gathering to discuss the quadrupling of the continents population in the next century from over 1 billion, to over 4 billion.  For Rwanda, like every sub Saharan African country, this is top of the urgent list of priorities. With a youth population of 60% under 24 years old, Rwanda has a target of creating 1.6 million youth jobs by 2020. Neighboring Uganda will be at the conference with an under 24 years old population of 68% (48% under 14 years old!). So much potential, so much opportunity, so much urgency, so much need to get the youth into these key policy-shaping conventions.

Big Question:  How will we create enough jobs?

As the conference delegates assemble, one of the big questions is: How will we create the number of job opportunities for youth that will be needed?  Yes, we need to ensure growth in each country’s GDP. But we also need to ensure that this latent potential for productive youth citizenship doesn’t turn in on itself and become destructive. South Africa will be at the conference only too aware that their youth are so frustrated they are burning down their own much-needed infrastructure.

These issues of youth job creation and entrepreneurship certainly will be among the crucial debates.

Big Answer:  A Generation of Youth Entrepreneurs

But where will the actual grassroots answers come from? Of course the answer is in some ways simple – the youth themselves. We simply can’t create enough jobs.  The only scalable answer is creating a generation of youth entrepreneurs from childhood through to school leavers.

While the delegates arrive and settle into their local hotels and guesthouses something else is happening in the east of the country.

Transforming Teachers into Entrepreneurs at the University of Rwanda

Last week, Bernice arrived at the Emerging Leaders training with graduating teachers at the University of Rwanda.  Her head down, she burrowed her way into the crowd of almost 200 other youth and hoped she was hidden from view.  To start with there was no eye contact, no response to a question, and no engagement in any discussions.  Fast forward to the end of the training on entrepreneurship: Bernice is up at the front teaching this large group, predominately men, on her first ever business strategy to get from where she is right now, to an established bakery within 6 months.  Youth transformation in action.

How did that young woman move from hiding within the shadows to becoming a confident young entrepreneur? This is a complex question, but in essence the answer is a lot of hard work from the facilitators. Helping young people to wake up from hopelessness, gain the mindsets and skills to be an entrepreneur requires someone to get down in the trenches with them and fight along side them for their hearts and minds; helping youth to believe in themselves and see that they can turn their own lives around.  Bernice is on her way as one of Africa’s much-needed youth entrepreneurs.

The Hard Work Miracle

There is a wonderful book called Character Transformation. But it has a more compelling subtitle “The Hard Work Miracle”.  Seeing the change in Bernice and 184 other youth last week was indeed a miracle of youth transformation. But it only happened because some people were willing to spend themselves wrestling for hearts and minds.

At this week’s conference, there will be discussions on needs, encouragements, opportunities, scalability, donor transparency, national governance and youth policy.  Amongst all these things, I am wondering if we will be spending enough time talking about the hard work miracle. How, actually, does a hopeless youth become a youth with a self-created future?  What’s the process to support youth as they wake up to their potential? How do you actually create mindset change in the life of a young person who has grown up with intergenerational poverty thinking, hard wired into them from birth?

What I do know is that Bernice changed because her facilitators spent hours a day wrestling for hearts and minds. Hour after hour over a two-day period, helping her struggle with her own inner challenges, those intergenerational poverty mindsets that kept both her and her friends, parents and grandparents poor.

Transformation is Hard Work

Youth transformation is hard work. It is exhausting work. But it is also amazing, rewarding work to see a young person who started out as hopeless in their own eyes, becoming a serial entrepreneur.  But you have to fight for it. Hour after hour. It needs face to face engagement (yes, supported by technology).  Transformation needs people who believe in youth when they don’t believe in themselves. It needs people who walk with these youth through their own struggles until light dawns, mindsets begin to shift and skills develop. However much we are desperate to scale this kind of transformation, we can’t take short cuts to it.

I am delighted about the Youth Connekt Africa in Kigali this week. Attendees are passionate about the future of youth, as I am sure most countries are. Rwanda has led the way and embedded entrepreneurship into the curriculum from Primary through Secondary school. Conferences, meetings and policy debates, whilst important, are an incomplete story.  Why? Because they are a long way from the places where these young people are fighting for their futures. There are no short cuts to the actual hard work of transformation.