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How youth-led makerspaces plug the skills gap in Africa

Written by Susan Njambi-Szlapka

The population of young people in Africa is increasing at a steady rate. According to some estimates, it will reach 2.4 billion by 2050 – so no wonder there is a constant quest for solutions to boost their employment prospects.

Reasons for youth unemployment in the continent include the lack of labour market appropriate skills and jobs in the private sector; and the demographic challenge that comes from more young people entering the labour market than people leaving it.

Youth-led initiatives and creative spaces such as makerspaces are one of the many programmes working to improve youth employment. They provide open-source access to the creation, testing and piloting of products and goods. These include fabrication labs (fablabs), hackerspaces, hubs and to some extent co-working spaces. They promote a ‘maker culture’ – also known as the ‘do-it-yourself’ movement.

They are small but growing fast and have a strong network of members. But what is their current and potential role in plugging the skills gap and contributing to youth employment? Can they generate innovative businesses with their potential for growth in the digital space?

In Africa, makerspaces are often located in urban areas and within innovation labs or hubs that provide more support for youth entrepreneurship, including business skills and linkages with financial and in-kind support.

An example is Nairobi’s iHub (which hosted the makerspace Nailab and m:Lab) – located in an area that also has other tech start-ups such as Gearbox, Ushahidi and others, leading many to call it the Silicon Savannah.

Makerspaces and youth employment

In Africa, where technical and vocational education training institutions lack adequate facilities or equipment to provide young people with practical knowledge, makerspaces can provide an avenue for increasing young people’s employability.

Skills are taught through organised classes, as well as collaborative peer-to-peer learning between makerspace users. More spaces such as fablabs, which are typically part of an international community, provide training material. Users shared their creations with the wider community.

Studies have found that when young people get access to investors and broader entrepreneurship support, the ‘survival rate’ of start-ups increases. The Kumasi Hive houses over 25 start-ups and has provided training to over 1,066 young people between 18 and 30 years old.

The limitations of makerspaces

Young people need some skills, especially in IT, to be able to make use of these spaces. Those who are not literate are even less likely to benefit. Typical makerspace users tend to be young male university graduates with a background in IT or other creative skills.  At iHub, for instance, only 16% of the users are women. In Gauteng, South Africa, some makerspaces have struggled to attract people from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. 

Other typical challenges include slow connectivity, limitations in staff capacity, lack of investment and access to sustainable funding, limited space, poor connections to strategic partners, poor quality assurance and infrastructure. The arrival of the undersea optic fibre in East Africa meant to increase broadband internet access in the region but many people – especially in rural areas – do not have access to internet and reliable electricity.  

Three ways to maximise the potential of makerspaces

1. Reach more young people, including marginalised populations

The UNICEF Innovation Lab successfully trialled a targeted outreach approach to connect with youth in Kosovo. Rather than inviting people into the lab, staff are now mobile and are present in rural areas where many marginalised people live and where connectivity is poor. This has reached over 3,600 young people and fostered over 130 projects. Some have turned into NGOs or social ventures and others have secured funds for scaling up. 

Another way of increasing inclusivity is user-centred design, where young people actively shape the offerings of the spaces. This means offering basic skills education (such as reading and writing) to ensure spaces are not just for highly educated young people.

2. Increase linkages with educational institutions, other entrepreneurship support services, potential employers and the private sector

The flexible nature of makerspaces means that there is no unified accreditation process, and this makes it difficult for employers to understand what graduates have learned. Finding ways to formally accredit the skills that young people acquire in these spaces will help employers to recognise them and allow young people to transition to formal employment. It will also improve the links between makerspaces and accelerator or incubator programmes to provide young people with essential entrepreneurship advice and support.

3. Increase access to financial services, particularly longer-term investment

Scaling up the products produced in makerspaces, so they can be sold on the market, requires additional financial resources. Makerspaces merely provide grounds for testing.

More generally, these spaces should be integrated within wider programmes working with young people. One approach is being implemented through the Resilience Collective, a partnership of organisations working with youth and children to leverage makerspaces and digital technology to reach the most vulnerable populations.

Youth-led makerspaces offer one solution to fill in the skills gap in youth employment. However, so far, their role has been relatively limited. The question for future initiatives must be how to scale up these creative spaces and innovations they produce in an inclusive and sustainable way, so they serve more young people and prepare them fully for the changing workplace.