Q&A with Pauline Mwangi: How Guidance from Girls Strengthened a Program in Kenya

Girl-centered design works. Learn how TechnoServe transformed a program in Kenya with guidance from girls.

The Girl Effect is a campaign sponsored by the Nike Foundation and the NoVo Foundation that leverages the unique potential of 250 million adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves, their families and their communities. TechnoServe runs the Young Entrepreneurs program in Nairobi with the Nike Foundation’s support. The following post originally appeared on the Girl Effect’s website and is reposted here with permission.

Our background

We started the Young Entrepreneurs (YWE) program in 2009 to create entrepreneurship opportunities for girls in urban Kenya. Using training, support and a mentor program, we hoped to equip future female entrepreneurs with everything they needed to succeed. Over the past three years we’ve reached more than 4,000 vulnerable girls, mainly in the Mathare and Kawangware slums in Nairobi.

The girls who finished the program not only gained valuable economic skills that put them on the path to sustainable employment, they also gained confidence, met mentors and formed the social networks essential to ignite their potential.

So what was the problem?

Not enough girls were finishing the program. Low enrollment numbers, high dropout rates and poor attendance meant the program was not delivering to the scale we wanted. Something had to change.

Talking to her

There was a sure-fire way to find out why girls weren’t completing the program—ask them. We spoke to the girls directly, to their trainers and to their parents and guardians. We organized focus groups of girls according to age, marital status, economic status and where they lived to pin down exactly what was missing for them.

She said…

The girls talked and we listened. What they told us helped us define clear solutions to the program’s problems. Here are some of the things they told us and how we responded.

Being a mother comes first. Almost half of the girls had children, and taking care of a child doesn’t leave much time for anything else. We gave them a $0.60 weekly allowance for childcare so they could attend classes. We also gave them a lunch allowance of $1 per week.

A year is a long time. With many of the girls not living in a stable home and frequently being on the move, a 12-month program was too long a commitment, so we halved the program length to six months without losing much of the content.

Different girls have different needs. Younger girls thought the classes got boring, while older girls found their younger classmates’ behavior childish. We created two groups: one for ages 14-18, the other for ages 19-24. The younger group’s program had a strong fun element while the older girls focused more on the practical business skills they craved.

YWE is not the same as school. Many girls had dropped out of school and the thought of another classroom full of textbooks daunted them. We cut the training hours, simplified the language of our literature, used more images and packed classes with hands-on activities.

No girl is an island. The girls themselves were not the only ones who needed to be convinced of the benefits of the program. We made sure to involve and inform parents, guardians and spouses.

What happened next

More girls came. And they stayed the distance. More girls signed up and fewer dropped out. In hard numbers, registration improved by 36 percent and 90 percent of enrolled girls completed the course.

The entrepreneurial spirit caught on. Almost immediately, girls began to save some of their lunch allowance, putting the financial skills they had learned into practice. In groups, they took it in turns to guard the pooled savings and were able to open their own bank accounts, taking a huge step to financial independence. A significant number of them have started businesses.

Girls owned their own futures. Listening to girls in the focus group and tailoring the program to their needs helped build self-esteem and confidence, which made them own their work. The classroom environment that had previously seemed stuffy became a fun, active place to learn and share ideas.

The alumni stayed on. Twenty stellar students from the first girl-centered program became peer mentors, and continue to play a huge role in inspiring the next class of entrepreneurs.

We’re still learning. We don’t intend to stop listening to the girls who turned the program around. We’re experimenting with an even shorter program length and we still provide support for our graduates who have blossoming businesses of their own.

What we’ve learned

  1. Dare to include girls in your business model. Girls can achieve in any business if it’s tailored for them and they are supported and made to feel proud about it.
  2. Girls know their situation and can articulate what they do and do not want. Girls want to know what a project is about and what it will teach them. They’ll tell you exactly what is working for them and what is not.
  3. Girls want a fun learning environment. Keep them involved and engaged with hands-on and light-hearted activities.
  4. Girls are not the same; they are individuals with unique needs. Their interests depend on age, marital status and a host of other things. Meetings should be in spaces and times that fit with their needs.
  5. Girls are creative and positive. They will find a solution that is good for them if you give them a chance.
  6. Girls are social. Girls need people around them to share ideas with and for moral support.
  7. Girls are agents of change. Give a girl an opportunity to learn and the space to put those lessons into practice. Then she can influence a society.
  8. Girls are sensitive. Girls need trainers who can identify with their needs, empathize with them and help them believe in themselves and their potential.
  9. Girls need a mentor. Someone who has had a successful life, whom the girls can look up to and to learn from.
  10. A girl esteems herself highly. Once she knows that she has a place in society and that her role is vital, she works hard to achieve it.
  11. Girls are not women. The program was called Young Women in Enterprise at first. But girls refused to take on the program due to its name: they are not women; they are girls. The girls were asked to rebrand the program—they called it Young Entrepreneurs.

View this infographic to learn more about YWE’s girl-centered program design.