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Battling the Global Youth Bulge: Mobile Phones are Making New Connections Between Youth and Economic Opportunity

Originally posted on www.youthsave.org

Born and raised in the slums of Cape Town amid poverty, drug abuse, and gang violence, Marlon Parker was like millions of youth living in hardship today.But through hard work and cell phone technology, this once airport trolley boy became the co-founder of RLABs, a social enterprise based in South Africa that revitalizes communities through technology.

Parker didn’t stop there. His fascination with ICT and entrepreneurial spirit led him, in partnership with MoVigo Technologies (Pty) Ltd, to launch JamiiX.com. The world’s first mobile platform to provide counseling and support services, JamiiX.com has reached out to 100,000 low-income individuals across South Africa on issues as diverse as HIV/AIDs, depression, substance abuse, employment, and child abuse — all via text messages. 

According to a mobileYouth report, “by 2012, the number of mobile phone subscribers below the age of 30 in South Asia is projected to rise by 30 percent, to 380 million, sub-Saharan Africa is expected to have 108 million subscribers under 30, and Latin America, 188 million.” Therefore, it seems fitting that young entrepreneurs, like Marlon Parker, are exploiting mobile-phones and their widespread use to generate self-employment and employment opportunities for others. And these jobs can’t come soon enough given the rising levels of youth unemployment globally.

Recent statistics show that youth unemployment rates are shocking on a country-by-country basis. In Iran, unemployment rates top 57 percent for highly educated female youth, and in Spain youth unemployment has peaked at 40 percent. As a result, at the recent annual meetings of the UN General AssemblyClinton Global Initiative, and World Bank, high-level officials discussed “the youth bulge” extensively.

Youth bulge. This somewhat alarming phrase is used by many to describe hoards of disenfranchised youth as jobless, looking for trouble, and a population ready to explode. However, other social entrepreneurs are using mobile technology to transform this population into what Ambassador Steinburg preferred to identify at the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference as a “demographic dividend,” or a population that could be a driver of macro-economic growth rather than a looming liability.

Souktel, an NGO created in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), is leveraging an SMS (Short Message System) service to link this demographic dividend with prospective employers. A valuable cause, since in MENA, unemployment among 15-24 year olds exceed 24 percent – nearly twice that of the global average. It should not be surprising, then, that Souktel’s Palestinian co-founders, Mohammed Kilany and Lana Hijazi, spent a year and half searching for work, but without resources, the right connections, or sufficient information on the job market, their efforts were to no avail. So Kilany and Hijazi formed Souktel, to level the playing field for others in a similar predicament. Using a Souktel phone number, job seekers simply register and create a mini-resume, then text “match me” any time they want a list of jobs that match their qualifications. To date, the organization has over 8,000 youth and 150 employers registered in their database with over 2,000 youth linked to jobs from 2008-2010.

RLABs and Souktel are just two examples in which young entrepreneurs have embraced mobile technology for the greater good. Still, as journalist Peter Coy maintains, “entrepreneurship could be the most underexploited means of reducing youth unemployment.” Unfortunately, around the world, youth can run into significant red tape in setting up their businesses. As a result, policy makers must facilitate an environment where young entrepreneurs can thrive without going through excessive bureaucratic hurdles. Additionally, in order to advance young peoples’ already natural ability to adapt to technological innovations, strong education and vocational systems must be in place to prepare youth with the math, science, and ICT skills to meet the market demands of a modernizing global economy. Finally, low-income youth seeking to establish their own businesses need financial services, including credit and savings, for start-up capital.

“It is my strongest conviction” President Clinton declared at the Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, “that the world’s greatest challenges today are simply modern manifestations of our oldest problems.” Youth unemployment is undoubtedly an old problem that requires 21st century solutions. Though, entrepreneurship does not hold the key to the world’s unemployment woes, Marlon Parker, Mohammed Kilany, and Lana Hijazi, allow us to imagine the untapped potential of a demographic dividend: when youth enterprise is combined with mobile technology.