Illiteracy rates in West Africa were the highest in the world in 2009, but as recently as 2013 the World Bank reported that things were turning around. Across the region, many more children, especially girls, were enrolling in primary school. Despite these significant gains in enrollment rates, the underlying problem was glaringly clear: enrolling in school does not guarantee a young person will be literate upon graduation (in several West African countries, the adult literacy rate is still below 50%) or that they will be able to secure a sustainable and meaningful livelihood in today’s dynamic market.
“Students in sub-Saharan Africa leave school without the basic learning skills to escape the gravitational pull of mass poverty and to create opportunities for themselves in the job market,” said Cameroon-born Madelle Kangha, 24. “Building schools doesn’t necessarily result in higher literacy, post-graduation employment rates or even increased education.”
When it comes to ways forward, Kangha points out that young people who find themselves in real-world, hands-on learning spaces are more willing to take risks and pursue their dreams. “They see a shift,” she said. “Their perception of themselves and what they can bring to the table changes.”
Kangha teamed up with her partner, Nigerian social entrepreneur Omotola Akinsola, to offer an alternative to the lackluster, insulated learning environments widely available. Together they decided not to simply build another schoolhouse but to co-found “Jumpstart Academy Africa.” The Academy identifies existing schools in Cameroon and Nigeria and partners with them to create improved learning environments that equip young people with the skills that will make them assets for any work environment in the 21st Century.
Using a student-based and interactive approach to learning, the Academy’s curriculum cultivates critical thinking, ethical leadership, an entrepreneurial approach to problem solving, and civic engagement, helping hundreds of young people between 14 and 18 become valued contributors in the job market.
Although the schools provide Jumpstart with facilities—classrooms, meeting halls, etc.—“only a fraction of our lessons happen in the classroom,” Kangha said. “It means we have a deeper connection with the students, and we are able to challenge cultural perceptions, especially when it comes to the education of girls.”
Seventy percent of Jumpstart’s student body is girls, selected for their academic performance, ideas for local solutions and their drive to be changemakers. In the next two years, these high school students will receive support and mentorship from local university students and professionals who help them put business, entrepreneurship and community initiative ideas into action.
The community-level input is embedded into every part of the program: case studies, guest speakers, prototype sessions, and team-building exercises are taken from a local, or African context, which serve as serious motivation for ambitious young changemakers.
“It really makes it seem like part of the school experience for them, which has been essential to what we do. This is not just some other random thing they go to in their spare time,” Kangha said. “We make it very dynamic.”
The programming even serves to activate reluctant entrepreneurs—tomorrow’s job creators—like 17-year-old Massa. She was shy, reserved, but under Jumpstart’s tutelage she began hosting a radio program, with the goal of educating her local community about leadership and social entrepreneurship. Massa is now one of 50 young Africans who have been selected to be in the first cohort of the Yale Young African Scholars Program.
Another student, Jude, began with average grades but is now in university after taking his A-levels a year early.
A third student, 17-year-old Joyce, had previously struggled to pay for all the books required for school. But after one school break, she returned with all of her schoolbooks in hand— she had put her entrepreneurship lessons into action and started generating an income by cooking and selling food in offices.
Teachers are not left behind. The Academy’s programming engages educators to take part in the business training activities themselves. Teachers can then use these training sessions to guide and complement their more traditional classroom instruction.
“We can see the impact on the students and within the school. More students are becoming leaders. Within the community, the schools are now becoming the pride of their towns,” said Kangha. “For each student, the impact is different, but it’s still powerful.”
Kangha and Akinsola hope to reach more than 17,000 young people in the next five years. They also aim to spread the model through partnerships and even by working with the government to incorporate components of Jumpstart Academy Africa into national education curricula.
Madelle Kangha is the founder of Jumpstart Academy Africa and an early entry winner of the Future Forward: Youth Innovations for Employment in Africa Challenge. This post originally appeared on Forbes.com and was written by Elizabeth Tompkins, a fall associate with the Future Forward team at Ashoka.