The Employment Revolution: How BBOXX’s Rural Shops are Fighting Youth Unemployment in Africa

(A version of this post appeared previously in two parts on BBOXX’s blog)

Byangabo Shop Manager

Jacqueline Nyinawumuntu, Shop Manager, Byangabo

Jacqueline Nyinawumuntu is Shop Manager of BBOXX’s Byangabo shop in northern Rwanda. A n­­ew mother, her salary from BBOXX makes the task of caring for her young family a bit more predictable: unlike the uncertain income most young Africans rely on–informal jobs and petty businesses and small agricultural holdings–Jacqueline knows exactly how much money to expect each month, and it always arrives on time.

Jacqueline is one of the lucky ones. Youth in Sub-Saharan Africa face an unemployment crisis that makes the Great Depression look like the ‘90s tech boom. Youth unemployment in Rwanda is an estimated 42%. In Uganda it is even worse, with estimates ranging from 63% to 80%: the highest in the world. For a foreigner, it’s hard to walk down the street without being asked by a young person for a job.

“What job do you want to do?” I ask.

“Anything.”

Any job. Sweeping the floor. Working as the ‘boy’ in an uncle’s shop for $40 a month. Pushing bicycles laden with multiple 90kg sacks of grain up hills. Every day two dozen young men sit idly atop concrete walls outside a hotel in Kasese, Uganda, one of 3 towns in East Africa where BBOXX has established a ‘Hub’. But they’re not loitering: they’re waiting for trucks to arrive, offering the chance for a few of them to work that day offloading it for a dollar or two. Uncertain jobs like this are the only jobs available to most young Africans today.

It’s not for a lack of education.  In Uganda, for example, 40,000 students graduate from universities each year, but only an estimated 8,000 will find jobs in the formal sector: that’s an 80% unemployment rate among university grads. I once met a boda boda driver who had graduated from Makerere, Uganda’s flagship university—but finding no work in Kampala, had been forced to move back to his village to ferry people and produce around for small sums. Youth in much of Africa are being educated for a future that does not exist.

Yet.

That’s all changing, with companies like BBOXX creating jobs for youth in rural areas. So far we have 120 full time employees across Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya; most are under 30, and more than 30% are women. That’s still a small number, but with enough investment we should triple that number by the end of next year, and will employ more than 2,000 people in Africa by 2020.

Uganda Country Technician

Patricien Tsangya, Country Technician for Uganda, repairing a PCB

While most off-grid solar companies sell through existing distributors and retailers, BBOXX is opening our own shops in rural areas of Africa. Not only does this improve quality and service standards, it also creates good, local jobs. Each shop BBOXX opens employs a Shop Manager and a Technician, usually recruited from the same rural areas where BBOXX works. Each group of ~10 shops are managed by a central “hub” employing another eight middle management staff.

Opening Bwera Uganda

Simon Bigabwenkya, Shop Manager, and Masika Annet, Pay Plan Officer, opening a shop in Bwera, Uganda

Besides full time staff, BBOXX recruits commission based agents to reach the deep villages and tall mountaintops that we ourselves can’t possibly cover. The best agents can earn a lot of money.  Our top agent in East Africa, Munyemana Leopold of Kidaho, Rwanda, earned 8-times his country’s average monthly income per capita when he sold 59 solar systems in October.

Another star agent, Kafude William of mountainous Kyondo Subcounty, Kasese, sold 44 systems in his second month of business. He told me that when he saw how much money had been transferred into his bank account at the end of that month, he called the bank thinking it was a mistake. When they told him it was correct, he had them print out the bank transfer document and slept with it under his pillow, then took his wife for a long-awaited honeymoon.

“I’ve never seen that much money before,” he told me. “Ok, I have for my NGO, EPAFO, but that was for projects. This was mine.” As a token of his gratitude, he presented us with a chicken.

Kidaho agent and technician

Jean Claude, Technician for Kidaho (left) and Leopold, Agent for Kidaho (right)

It’s not just income.  Many of the skills we require don’t exist in the places we work.  Staff must keep meticulous records of every transaction, use computers, manage cash and stock in line with proper accounting methods, and deliver excellent customer service—all in a part of the world where people are not used to doing business this way.

To cultivate these skills, we are developing a BBOXX Academy based on international best practice research from CEB (my former employer).  This Academy takes a long-term approach to staff development, focusing on coaching employees and measuring their actual performance on the job.  Entry-level Shop Managers and Technicians are assessed every two weeks after training to ensure they are improving—and they almost invariably are.  After they’ve demonstrated proficiency at their new skills in the field, BBOXX will certify them, and they can proceed to intermediate and advanced trainings.

CRM System

Learning to use BBOXX’s CRM system

Training Exercise

Training Exercise

NewAgentTraining

Gauthier, Sales & Marketing Manager for Musanze, leading a training of new Agents

Agent Training

New Agents at training: most are youth and women from rural areas

The impact is palpable.  Shop Managers who started out having never touched a computer are now confidently using Microsoft Excel to track hundreds of customer accounts.  They feel proud to be part of an international company.  Unlike a typical entrepreneurship training that leaves graduates to fend for themselves, BBOXX employees have time to learn and grow while stably employed with a company.  When they are ready to leave BBOXX, the skills they’ve learned and relationships they’ve made will position them to found and lead enterprises in their countries for years to come.

HubStaff

The Employment Revolution: BBOXX Hub and Shop staff in Musanze District, Rwanda

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ryan Z on February 20, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Inspiring story. It’s interesting to hear about the employment side of the business, which complements previous posts about how you guys are helping customers and the environment.

    Reply

  2. Posted by sunday Geofrey on June 24, 2015 at 7:34 am

    This is nice and true BBOXX has reduced on the unemployment rate in Uganda .

    we pray that it continues to prosper and Government should give it more incentives to make it possible to continue doing business in uganda

    Reply

  3. […] such businesses and helping to finance their expansion, donors and investors can spark an employment revolution in the developing world that lifts millions into the middle class, at a much lower cost than […]

    Reply

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