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A Year’s Journey with the Youth Think Tank

2015-2016 Youth Think Tank Member, Innocent Onika, on her experience

In partnership with Restless Development, the 2015-2016 MasterCard Foundation Youth Think Tank consists of 15 young women and men between the ages of 15-24 from across East Africa. What unites them is a commitment to contributing to their communities and understanding the challenges and opportunities facing young people as they enter the labour market. This is one of their stories.

As I look back on the past seven months, I appreciate the steep learning curve and the opportunities I have had. For me, it was a time of many firsts: a long list which includes my first time conducting research, my first time interacting with rural youth on such a deep level and my first time contributing to the growth of organizations like The MasterCard Foundation and Restless Development.

As a young, recent graduate who has just completed five years as a team leader with AIESEC Uganda, my passion for youth-led development motivated me to take on the opportunity of being a researcher – a position I had no prior experience with. Upon reading the requirements for the position in one of the local newspapers on a late night in September, I was excited and nervous. Excited, as it seemed to be just what I was looking for in line with my passion. And nervous, as I had no idea what to expect.

My rather hasty decision to contribute to youth development across the East African region has turned into one of the best professional experiences of my life. Joining the team called for one to rely on and build life-skills, such as learning quickly, being a true team player and having communicating effectively. The icing on the cake is definitely the team of young researchers from across East Africa who started out as strangers but are now life-long friends. Nothing can match the professional network of friends I now have that stretches across the region. This opportunity was a platform for me to offer my value and to know it has been deeply appreciated. I now believe that doors to other opportunities will be opened for me.

As this chapter of my life closes, it is important for me to reflect on and prepare for the next chapters of my life. Before this experience, I thought that youth needed to be empowered to lead the world. I now firmly believe that a huge crisis is facing young people in East Africa, with many road blocks that are inhibiting their potential. Young people are marginalized by their governments and within their work places and are further crippled by an education system that simply does not work.

It is high time that East African youth are more empowered and strategically placed in global value chains to fulfill their potential. And this can only be made possible by providing spaces where young people can be leaders and partners.

As President John F. Kennedy once said, “Do not ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” I believe it is time for less talk and more work. Equipped with new knowledge on gaps in the economy, I will use my entrepreneurial skills to become a lead player in the agro-processing sector and hopefully I can inspire more young people to step up and positively change the world in their own way. For me, this chapter has already begun. I have just finished registering my agro-processing company and have embarked on the grinding wheel of entrepreneurship. I look forward to the support of the network I have built and to the many highs and lows that will come ahead.

Read the Youth Think Tank Report.