Rapid growth for youth training scheme

December 12, 2010

South Africa’s innovative Umzi Wethu Training Academy for Youth from impoverished communities, established by conservationist Andrew Muir, has expanded rapidly, far beyond the initial expectations of this 2008 Rolex Awards Laureate.

Five years ago, when Muir conceived the idea to set up a multifaceted intervention programme to empower vulnerable youth, many of whom have lost their parents in the Aids epidemic, he had a total staff of two. Today, Umzi Wethu has 14 full-time staff, two academies — with a third due to open in mid-2011 — and 111 graduates in full-time jobs.

©Rolex Awards/Tomas Bertelsen At the Umzi Wethu academy, vulnerable young people learn how to become game rangers. The curriculum also includes life skills and wellness counselling.Somerset East, South Africa, 2008

Muir attributes this success to his unwavering belief that only training that goes beyond job skills will succeed in helping reverse the cycles of social and financial vulnerability his graduates face. His training model includes mentorship, counselling and support, and these key elements continue long after the actual vocational training has been completed: “We are dealing with youths who are facing serious social issues,” he explains. “Most have lost one parent, if not both, and have therefore been through tremendous trauma. How can you train for a job until you have worked through some of the trauma, had a chance to heal some of the pain? We can’t just give them job training; we need to care for the whole individual if there is to be any real hope of them holding down a job for an extended period of time.”

©Rolex Awards/Tomas Bertelsen At the Conynghams Coffee Shop in Port Elizabeth run by Umzi Wethu students: Busisiwe Mhlakaza. Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape province, South Africa, 2008

Muir says that this “holistic” training does cost more, but rather than trying to trim costs, he and his team have worked to improve and expand the counselling and support components of Umzi Wethu’s training. “We measure our success by the number of graduates currently employed,” he says. “It is the emotional and financial gains of long-term employment that ultimately will reverse their vulnerability.” Umzi Wethu boasts a 95 per cent graduate placement rate and consistently maintains an 85 per cent success rate in terms of graduates remaining in employment or further education. Furthermore, 10 per cent of graduates have progressed into junior management positions.

The publicity generated by the Rolex Award has been instrumental in helping raise an estimated additional US$1 million in funding, according to Andrew Muir. It has also been the catalyst enabling Umzi Wethu to expand. In June 2011, Muir expects the first partner-run academy to open in the Western Cape’s Stellenbosch wine region. The Sustainability Institute, an international living and learning centre focused on sustainable living, is partnering with Umzi Wethu to open the third training academy. “This will be the first academy which will not be run directly by Umzi Wethu,” says Muir. “Rather, we have provided the blueprint for the academy and will help with the evaluation of the programme. This partnership is pivotal in helping us to realise our dream of expanding the Umzi Wethu programme outside the Eastern Cape, and eventually outside South Africa. We are very excited!”

©Rolex Awards/Tomas Bertelsen Students Siyabulela Fobe and Phakamisa Kolisi washing up. Umzi Wethu runs a small coffeeshop "Conynghams Coffee Shop", where the students are responsible for preparing and serving food and beverages for the customers. Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape province, South Africa, 2008

Muir is constantly looking for new ways to help improve the earning potential of his graduates. In 2009, he set up the Umzi Wethu Catering Unit as a job creation and junior management development initiative. In its first year, turnover exceeded R800,000 (US$112,000). In 2011, Muir plans to expand on this initiative, by enabling graduates to set up their own coffee shops. He believes this will be a niche market for his graduates: municipalities which require reliable “SMMEs” — small, medium and micro enterprises — to supply new developments in order to improve life for local residents. “We have identified two sites within Port Elizabeth — as well as graduates who have shown an entrepreneurial flair — and we hope to open our first small, owner-run coffee shop in March 2011. The idea that we could help our graduates to have their own business, creating wealth for themselves and others, is too good to pass up. We will mentor and provide advice for their first year of business.”

Muir is also currently holding discussions with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to assist with the rollout of the organization’s Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools within South Africa. The schools seek to support rural youths with active learning programmes relevant to farming, income generation and nutrition. Schools have already been established in African countries including Mozambique, Burundi, Cameroon, Sudan and Zimbabwe, as well as in Gaza and the West Bank, and Nepal. By partnering with the FAO, Umzi Wethu will be able to offer supplementary opportunities in the related fields of sustainable agriculture and horticulture, greatly extending its ability to provide a livelihood to its graduates.

©Rolex Awards/Tomas Bertelsen In front of the small coffeeshop "Conynghams Coffee Shop", run by UW's students. They are responsible for preparing and serving food and beverages. Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape province, South Africa, 2008

“Umzi Wethu has grown so much over the past four years,” reflects Muir. “I feel like a father, but one whose child is growing up quickly and who realises he has to let go a bit for his child to continue to develop. Umzi Wethu is a far more stable and robust programme today, and the maturity of the model means it is ready to be rolled out in any number of different applications.”

Alexa Schoof Marketos

Learn more about Andrew Muir

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