Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Antidote for aids is opportunity

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A recent report by UNAIDS estimates that 5.6 million South Africans are living with HIV/AIDS. This is the highest number of infected people in any country in the world. With so many infected people in spite of decades of action and billions of Rands spent on awareness and preventative campaigns, one can only ask what is really behind the seemingly unstoppable spread of this disease?

Not so long ago, a LoveLife radio campaign speculated that the root cause of the South African Aids epidemic is not ignorance, cultural practice or lack of education. Rather, it is a lack of hope and income-earning opportunity amongst those most at risk, namely school leavers and the youth, that continues to fuel the spread of this insidious disease.

The message seems to be that in the absence of prospects for employment, education and a decent quality of life, our youth are adopting a 'what's the point' attitude towards their health and their future, leading to irresponsible sexual behaviour and the resultant risks that this carries with it.

If this is the case, reason would dictate that in order to halt the spread of Aids and reverse the gains that this epidemic continues to make amongst our poor and marginalised communities, we need to offer young people real alternatives and opportunities. Our youth need to be inspired to look forward, and to envision a future for themselves and their families in which they are able to survive and thrive.

The myriad of youth development and training opportunities, and dozens of government agencies and NGO's geared towards supporting and educating school leavers and new entrants into the job market show a passionate commitment to finding solutions.

Unfortunately, the continued spread of Aids and ever-increasing unemployment (especially at a graduate level) would suggest that these initiatives are simply not having anywhere near the impact that our country needs.
So what is the answer? How do we create solutions that encourage young people to reach for the stars and not stumble over their own feet? How do we create young South Africans with a passion for life and hope for the future?

Bridging the Gap

Firstly, we need more opportunities that bridge the gap between where the unemployed youth are now, and where they aspire to be.

The rapidly changing world is a scary place for many people, and especially for school-leavers and graduates as they face the responsibility of making a living and supporting their families. We need to make this transition from childhood to adulthood easier, by providing accessible stepping stones such as internships, apprenticeships and low-risk micro-business opportunities.

Internships are used extensively in the USA and Europe as a way to provide on the job experience for young school leavers, often forming part of the requirements for a tertiary degree. Internship can provide huge value to the employer too – introducing a 'try before you buy" option for a business seeking new talent, and stimulating interest in recruitment for others who were not yet in that mode.

Internship provides excellent practical experience for the youngster and brings an infusion of new ideas and affordable, capable resources to the business. In our experience, a good internship programme stimulates growth in both student and business – creating a win-win solution for all.

For that reason, we recently initiated the Graduate Asset Programme (GAP), which seeks to place 24 000 unemployed graduates into internships over the next three to four years, creating in the region of 8 000 permanent jobs. Supported by the Jobsfund, we are aiming through GAP to revolutionise the way the SMME sector views the hosting of graduates and interns.

Simple Solutions

The concept of learnerships and apprenticeships is well established in South Africa, but appears to be having limited success. Unfortunately, the cumbersome SETA process makes the accredited training and learnership route unattractive for most smaller businesses and an administrative nightmare for learner and host alike. Sadly , the red tape and bureaucracy places a barrier for the hundreds of businesses out there who would willingly host a young learner and teach them the 'ins and outs' of a particular industry.

We need to simplify this process, get youngsters into businesses to learn on-the-job, and start producing school leavers and graduates that have relevant, practical skills that align to employers needs.

In the same vein, the youth need access to practical, needs-based training that provides the skills needed to succeed in the real world. We must interrogate training programmes to be sure that they are teaching skills which are needed by commerce, and be sure that these skills will help our young people find jobs. We need to ensure that in addition to self-belief and motivation, youngsters have practical, immediately implementable and in-demand skills, such as IT, artisanal and sales skills.

A recurring theme across dozens of rural and peri-urban small businesses that participate in Legends, an enterprise development programme we run, is a lack of basic computer skills. However, to find training organizations that offer decent PC Literacy training at reasonable rates is nigh impossible.

The provision of computer training at school and University level needs to be a top priority in every province if South Africa is ever to build an economy where our people can advance from being low-skilled labourers to valued employees. This is a project that needs support and a working partnership between Government and business.

Thirdly we need to ensure that the trainers and support partners are themselves equipped and experienced in the skills they are teaching. Business trainers need to be people with practical experience, and not simply academics and theorists.

Stop Chasing Numbers

We would do well to interrogate why so many support programmes are having limited success in solving the unemployment problem. Why are most government-funded youth and enterprise development initiatives achieving below target? Enterprise development organisations should be measured on the results of their support – the growth of the individual or the SMME, not simply by the numbers of people trained, or other input data. Performance management of this space needs to be impact based – and driven by people with a passion and understanding for the commercial arena!

Role Models and Mentors

Lastly, without successful, visible role-models how will we ever wean our youth away from the fantasy life of gangsters, TV Stars and Tenderpreneurs? We need to show that 99% of people succeed because they love what they do and because they work hard – not because they chose the winning numbers in the lotto, have political connections or can kick a football!

In addition to these role-models youngsters also need a support base to whom they can turn when things get tough, an experienced elder they can seek for seasoned advice. This is why a good youth training programme needs to include mentoring support as an additional offering, because simply teaching people new skills is not enough. They need to be guided and supported as they take their first steps into the big wide world, whether they show potential as entrepreneurs or as employees.

According to the LoveLife campaign, the antidote to Aids is opportunity. If this is true, we clearly need to do better in the Opportunity department, and start offering it in ways that will strike a chord with our youth. We need to show a clear link between cause and effect – hope and life, skills and opportunity, hard work and success. We need to inspire our greatest asset, the next generation, to look ahead and see a future that is prosperous, positive and Aids free.

To learn more about Fetola and the programmes we run visit

Catherine Wijnberg is recognised as a catalyst for her innovative thinking in the field of small business development. She is the Director of Fetola, a fast growing enterprise development agency that operates throughout Southern Africa. Qualified with a Masters degree in Agriculture and an MBA, Cathy has owned and operated small businesses in five different sectors, including agriculture, tourism & craft development.

Anton Ressel is a Senior Consultant at Fetola and has over 15 years experience as an entrepreneur, trainer, business developer and mentor in the emerging business sector. He is a director of the Fetola Foundation and was a founder of Streetwires, one of SA's largest and most successful social enterprises.

Published in Health and Medicine