By Ferdinand Francken, Coordinator LEAD programme, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Economic perspectives of youth are extremely poor and unemployment rates staggering high. Even when jobs are available there is often a mismatch between the skills youngsters can offer and those required by the employers. Poverty, social instability and political violence are on the brink, often leading to migration and radicalisation. This is why addressing the youth employment challenge ranks high on the international and local development priorities, including the priorities of the Dutch development policy and the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

In 2015 the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set up the programme Local Employment for Development in Africa (LEAD). The overall objective of LEAD is to generate sustainable income for youth by creating in total 17.000 sustainable direct decent jobs for youth in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Mali, Nigeria and Somalia.

In a nutshell, LEAD seeks to stimulate entrepreneurship among youth and to enhance their employability. Young entrepreneurs are supported by business and social skills training, mentoring and support services are provided to establish local co-working spaces, incubators and innovation labs. They can be linked to interested investors and are supported in getting access to finance. Through business and social skills training youngsters are helped to enhance their changes on the labor market.

SPARK is one of the four implementing partners of the LEAD programme. SPARK has set up a LEAD project in Tunisia that aims to support Tunisia’s new and existing SMEs, particularly businesses led by women. 

One of these women is Cherifa Soltani. She lives in the rural province of El Kef; a beautiful area with abundant natural resources but a high rate of unemployment. Cherifa left school early to learn to weave so she could support her family financially. In 2005, despite economic hardships, she was able to buy a basic machine for weaving and installed it in a small outdoor area near her home, to be used whenever the weather allowed it.

Always looking to overcome her difficult daily life, Cherifa has always been deeply committed to learning. Her technical skills were always improving and she became more and more creative in her designs. Later on, with the support of some NGOs, she participated in training programmes and local and regional exhibitions.

In 2016, after 11 years of building on her dreams, Cherifa was introduced to the LEAD programme. A number of technical coaches assessed her capacities and thought that she was greatly benefit from proper business training. The LEAD coaching team assisted her in seeking financial support from a microfinance institute. This enabled her to expand her business; she opened two new workshops and increased her production to meet the market’s demand. Today, Cherifa employs 22 women in three workshops and her total investment has multiplied by 10 since 2005.

Cherifa Soltani is one of more than 100 trainees who participated in two 4-day workshops organised in October 2016. More than half of these women already have an established business like Cherifa’s or are looking to start their own business. Under the LEAD programme, implemented by SPARK and TAMSS in Tunisia, these strong women learned about business planning, administration, human resources, legislation and financing.

For SPARK and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs these results in the field work to the benefit of young entrepreneurs like Cherifa. The LEAD programme aims to inspire structural solutions to give young people the productive economic future they aspire and deserve.