Dutch native, Dorien Beurskens, moved to Kenya in 1995 to work as a volunteer at Don Bosco. Don Bosco is a global organization that empowers young people through its international project, which focuses on the issue of street children. Prior to moving to Kenya, she volunteered at Don Bosco in Holland for a long time working with young people, and they facilitated for her to travel to Kenya. According to Dorien, “After two weeks in Kenya, I fell in love with Kenya and the development work,” adding, “I realized at that time, where I want to be and what work I could do which fits my values and skills.” Dorien stayed in Kenya for four months, and then she went back to Holland for one year to work with Don Bosco to deliver employment training for young girls about computer and secretarial training. She then returned again to Kenya for one year to Don Bosco. “Once I went back to Holland, I felt homesick to Kenya, that’s why I went back again to Kenya after the one year long that I stayed in Holland.”

Dorien didn’t only fall in love with Kenya and development work, but she also fell in love with her life and work’s partner Raj Joseph, originally from India, who later worked together to start one of the most successful, sustainable, and influential NGOs called Young Africa (YA). YA empowers underprivileged young people with skills of the hands to make them self-reliant, skills of the heart and mind to live with dignity, and skills of the soul to live with purpose. Dorien said, “YA wasn’t only my idea, but it was me and Raj’s idea, we built out dream together,” adding, “Raj was already working at Don Bosco when I arrived in Kenya, and before he was working at Don Bosco in India. Both of us didn’t have degrees in development, I had a master degree in Latin and Greek ancient history from Leyden University at Netherlands and Raj had his master in film and television from UCLA in the USA.”

Dorien spent one year in Kenya working with Raj on the street children project while they were also thinking about and developing the idea of YA. “Don Bosco does great work, but there are a few elements that we saw in the work of development that we wanted to change: first, working towards financial self sustainability of the organization; secondly, the technical issues that are usually happening when you’re handing over the management of an international organization to local people.”

YA finally came to life in 1998. “We had been searching for a name for the organization that was possible and positive, I thought of YA which means ‘yes’ in Dutch, and then when we searched for the abbreviation that fit that name, we ended up with Young Africa. Even after many years, we are still happy with it, because it’s a dynamic name which explains extremely well what we do, and the word young gives energy.”

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They started YA activities in Zimbabwe July 1998. That was the first destination they targeted as they found that it needed more development, especially youth empowerment and they were searching for a place where they could make a big difference. According to Dorien, “Before designing any programs, we did a very informal survey for six weeks to see what are the youth’s dreams in Zimbabwe? And what are constrains that block young people from achieving their dreams? And how could YA contribute to that?” They asked local people, government people, NGOs, students at schools and universities, and the answers were almost the same: young people need vocational training and income generation projects, and that was the direction that YA ended up following.

Dorien said, “We felt strongly, if we want to contribute to development in the society, we need to engage young people in the process. They are a very dynamic and big energetic force, with their power they can shape their society. Young people by nature, they want to change, improve, and innovate, and they are the most powerful force for change.”

The first project they started was entrepreneurship training. They trained a group of young people to start their projects, which lasted for two months until they had the opportunity to submit proposals to the high school Dorien attended in Holland. They succeeded in receiving a grant to start the first vocational school at Chitungwiza, the biggest township in Zimbabwe, and they have been rewarded by the mayor who offered them a big space of land where they built their first vocational school.

“At the vocational centres, we succeeded in building different workshops for technical, commercial, or agricultural courses, where the young people can either learn how to be the qualified and perfect employee or how to be successful entrepreneur,” Dorien explained. “We have created a very creative business model that helped us to be sustainable and start YA’s training centres in three different countries, starting with Zimbabwe (Chitungwiza and Epworth),then Mozambique (Beira and Dondo), and finally Namibia (Walvisbay).”

YA has rented workshops, land, equipment, and facilities to local entrepreneurs who are working in different fields (restaurants, garages, crèches, hair salons, farms, and libraries, etc) so they can earn revenue while they are producing goods or services, as well train youth in the field of their expertise.

“Students are getting hands-on experience working with entrepreneurs”

According to Dorien, “At YA, all courses are franchised to a local entrepreneur. This franchisee pays rent for the use of YA facilities and equipment. Each department raises their income from the profit they generated through the production of goods or services. A contribution from franchisees covers the operational expenses of a YA centre and guarantees its sustainability.”

YA succeeds in training 1,000 students in each centre on a yearly basis. Each training lasts between six and twelve months depending on the course, with thirty-five hours training per week, for only fifteen students to make sure that each student has the hands-on experience. Their target audience is students between fifteen and twenty-five years old with lack of academic performance.

“Graduation of students who have successfully completed a YA training”

YA has developed the curriculum for the courses, and the local entrepreneurs who were highly selected and interviewed are delivering the training. At the end, students have the freedom to choose between searching for jobs that fit their skills and being an employee, or starting their business and being an entrepreneur.

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YA teaches young people skills of the hands to be self-reliant, skills of heart and mind to live with dignity, and skills of the soul to live with purpose. Moreover, life skills, education, and entrepreneurship training are integrated in all Young Africa’s courses.

Since they started, YA has trained over 25,000 youngsters. They currently have six model skills training centres in three countries, 83% of the graduated students find a job, apprenticeship, or start a business, and 90% of the youngsters make responsible choices with regard to HIV/AIDS. Finally, the YA model has been replicated by GOs and NGOs.

Dorien has been accepted as an Ashoka Fellow. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in seventy countries putting their system-changing ideas into practice on a global scale. Dorien considers being an Ashoka Fellow one of the most prestige awards she has been granted.

Within the next ten years, YA is planning to reach half a million youth with fifteen centres in southern Africa through scaling the organisation and dissemination of the model.

Students’ success stories: