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Thinking Big in Dar es Salaam

Changing mindsets is more than just learning business skills: it is about raising aspirations and building self-confidence. Cambridge Development Initiative has been running projects in the Tanzanian Education sector for the past four years. Here the current Education Directors Martha Aitken and Fortunate Buchera share some of their insights.

In 2016 CDI Education piloted a new programme called the Think Big Challenge. Its aims were twofold: firstly to give young people an opportunity to develop employability-boosting soft skills not covered in the standard curriculum, and secondly to mitigate some of the problems associated with the Tanzanian educational environment, including a lack of resources and infrastructure, pollution (mainly dust and litter), and perceived religious divisions. The challenge required teams of secondary school students from across Dar es Salaam to research, design and implement sustainable solutions to pressing problems experienced in their schools and communities. Over the course of the programme, CDI facilitated students in the implementation of their initiatives and ran workshops training participants in skills such as critical evaluation, fundraising, project planning, delegation and leadership.

One of the main difficulties we experienced in delivering this programme was that initially the students lacked confidence when it came to taking risks, taking initiative, and thinking creatively – crucial components of an entrepreneurial skill set – as they were used to the rote learning technique necessarily used by teachers with up to 100 students in a class. In the focus groups we ran for evaluation purposes, some claimed that even when they were given opportunities to try new things, people declined to participate due to fear of failure or punishment. One said “people are scared if they come out that it will go wrong. For example, there was talent show at school but people were scared to join”. Many put this fear down to the common use of caning in Tanzanian schools.

In the post-intervention focus groups, we presented respondents with a scenario to gauge their problem-solving skills, and determine the extent to which our work had helped students to think more entrepreneurially. The scenario was: “People in the community keep dropping bottle caps in the street and young children are picking them up and swallowing them, which is detrimental to their health. What would you do to solve this problem?”

The contrast between the answers of the Think Big Challenge participants and those of the students in the control groups was interesting. In the control groups there was a tendency for students to think the issue was out of their hands. One student said “I have no power and even if I want to I won’t be able to stop people”, while another said “I nominate the president of Tanzania to ask people to clean their surroundings on the last Saturday of every month”. A couple seemed to be mimicking the disciplinary ideas they witness at school – for example, one student said they would “tell the children to stop swallowing them or else I will cane them”. It was not uncommon for students in the control groups to copy each other’s answers, demonstrating that risk-averse behaviour so common to students in the schools we have worked in. And though many spoke about educating fellow community members, they failed to elaborate on how exactly they would educate them.

On the other hand, in the participant focus groups, the ideas tended to be a lot more focused and original. One student said “I would make the problem a job opportunity – people will collect the caps and send them off to be recycled”. Meanwhile, another student elaborated on the vague concept of ‘education’, stating “I will use mass media to educate people and hold seminars for people on how to keep the environment clean”. And rather than choosing to rely on authority figures to solve the problem, Think Big Challenge participants tended to display much more agency. One suggested “making simple dustbins”, while another remarked “it starts with you – you should be an example and other people will follow easily”.

It took a while to overcome this aversion to ‘thinking outside the box’, but once we had built up a solid relationship with the challenge participants they relaxed and started to follow their instincts. These young people tend to have natural creativity in abundance, but are simply not used to applying it in an educational context. In the end the successfully implemented initiatives were varied, original and combatted very real problems. They ranged from teaching the jobless how to bake and sell cakes, to transforming paper litter into fuel for cooking; from setting up a silent study area in a disused classroom, to educating the community about the importance of education for women.

When it comes to converting young job seekers into job creators, we believe it is important to introduce entrepreneurial skills and concepts early (we worked with students as young as 13), and in a context that makes sense to them (fixing issues in their schools and communities was more accessible at this stage than starting a business). The Think Big Challenge empowers students to identify and solve problems themselves; to take initiative as opposed to waiting to be told what to do. This is a crucial step when it comes to changing mind sets as a means of eradicating youth unemployment.



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