Africa Digest

Interview with 24-year-old Award-winning entrepreneur and Anzisha Fellow, Vanessa Ishimwe, Founder of Youth Initiative for Development in Africa (YIDA), Uganda


Q&A by Vanessa Ishimwe:

We understand you founded your organization Youth Initiative for Development (YIDA) at a very young age while in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda. How old were you when you started, and what pushed you into creating YIDA?

I am not the only founder of YIDA, we are three, and we are all refugees in Kyaka II refugee settlement in western Uganda. So I co-founded YIDA at 18 years old with intentions of creating employment for myself and other young people. With my colleagues, we identified a need of early childhood education in Kyaka II refugee settlement, since this is an area that is given enough focus or attention, yet it is crucial stage in a child’s life, so we thought, if we can have a school, we will educate children and while creating employment for other refugee youth. We focused on employing refugee youth, mostly because it makes it easy for refugee children to communicate with their teachers and, there are not many job opportunities for refugees in general.

How were you able to raise capital to establishing the organization and how do you get funds to sustain it?

At first, it was a matter of just getting a shade and a black board, and we first taught under a tree shade and the blackboard plus the chalk that we used was donated by a nearby primary school. When we needed funds to pay teachers, we asked for parents to contribute 5000 shillings for each child per term. However, some refugee parents could not raise so they would work in the school a garden that was given to us by OPM and the crops grown would be sold to help us run the school.

Can you briefly tell us about your childhood, the school times experience in the refugee camp where you grew up from and how you managed to rise from a humble background to a successful young entrepreneur?

Before becoming a refugee, I went to the best schools in my country, and I studied with ease. When we migrated to Uganda after my father’s death, studying became hard due to lack of school fees for me and my other 3 siblings. I was in and out of school most of the time, and this greatly affected my performance in class, that even if I was to look for a scholarship I would not be eligible because I didn’t have the marks for it. In the process I lost about 4 year and half of study.

It is important to have the right company always, because this is how I got to be an entrepreneur. I had friends who had the same problems as I, so together we embarked on a journey of looking for scholarships and employment opportunities, until we realized that we could create the employment ourselves, and we would be able to afford an education when we are employed and when we are creating a way for other young people facing the same problem.

Can you briefly take us through the memorable phases of what you went through in growing your organization up to where it is today?

The first thing I can not forget is that we started our very first class under a tree, using church benches and teaching just a few children, seven year ago. During this period not many people believed in what we were doing but as our team kept growing from one volunteer teacher to two teachers, to three, and we made sure that we actively engaged the community, especially parents, we would have numerous meetings with parents to present our plans and sensitize them on the importance of early childhood education,  with time they started believing in us as they started seeing a bit of change in their children’s behavior and English language adaptability since many of the parents and children are francophone.

From the phase of convincing our clients/beneficiaries, we went through many phases of developing a strong and competent team, so since 2014 we have series of trainings for our staff, trainings that are relevant to their area of work, and  this is the culture for the organization since we consider the “team” and the right skills are very important part of any business.

We then moved to our first minor partnership with UNICEF to train our caregivers and teachers, and then to partnering with Idea4africa that provided us with entrepreneurship training that helped us, and other beneficiaries clearly define our businesses.

In 2018, I became an Anzisha finalist, and in 2019 I won the social impact award from the Anzisha prize, and since then we have been able to access other partner like “Children on the Edge Africa” and have attracted more donations and grants from other organizations including the Mastercard Foundation.

Towards the end of 2019, we started a stationary business that will act as our financial sustainability venture, one that we help us not to just survive on grants.

So, we have come from studying under a tree to employing over 30 employees and to being on the journey to self-reliance.

Your dream of providing early childhood education to children in refugee camps is a rare one. What drove your passion to become an entrepreneur at a young age?

As refugees, I and my sibling struggled within our academic journeys, and we most faced a problem of language barrier since we had previously studied in a French system, and we also did not have enough money to take us all to school. I knew I was not the only one facing this challenge, and I knew, having a good education foundation can go a long way towards giving one a successful academic journey, also, an early childhood development center was what we can do for the start, and since it is not a priority in the government or in other organization, yet it is a very crucial development stage, we embarked on a journey of creating academically successful refugees starting from the time they learn to speak, and we have an aim of having a primary school that caters for education needs for refugee children and youth. Hopefully and T-Vet in the future.

What are the basic challenges of school-going refugee children and what next after the children go through YIDA early childhood education program?

Children often face a problem of language barrier, the biggest population comes from French systems, that is DRCongo, Burundi and formerly Rwanda. This is because children studying in lower primary and kindergarten, according to the Uganda policy of education, these children are supposed to be taught in the local language, but the local language in the area these refugees are living is nothing close to what they can understand for example the local language in Kyaka II is Rutooro, but the refugees mostly speak Swahili, and this makes it hard for children to communicate or even continue to study. We have solved this by training refugees themselves so they can be able to teach refugee children in a language they are familiar with.

They also have general issue of having to travel long distance to reach school, hunger at school, especially for very little children this is dangerous, overcrowding in classes and having 200 children to be attended to by just one teacher (these are some of the problems we are trying to address too)

When the children leave the kindergarten section of the ECD they go to our lower primary section that we started since 2018, for now we just have primary one and two, but each year, a class is added so the ones in P2 will go to P3 and so on, but in an instance where we are unable to continue up to P7, the children go to other primary schools, and we are sure they will excel because by the time they leave us, they are already adapted to the education system.

Where are YIDA learning centers located and how long have they been in operation? Are they accessible to all refugee children?

The centers are in three zones of Kyaka II refugee settlement namely, Sweswe (which is where there is a reception center for refugees), Kabologota, and Itambabiniga. These center are initiated by YIDA and they are mostly run by the community and they are very accessible to many refugee children, I would not say all refugee children, because Kyaka II is big and it has about 9 zones and we are just working in 3. Also, we do not just educate refugees, we also welcome children from the host community so we can grow together.

Using your experience, what are the biggest problems that young African entrepreneurs are facing today and what would you suggest as possible solutions to such challenges?

Many businesses or entrepreneurial ventures tend to last a very short time, and this is because in many times the young entrepreneurs lack skills, or a sense of solving a problem (they just want to earn a living) and when business gets uncomfortable, they collapse, and this is even harder if it is a social venture that is going to survive on grants and donations because for someone to invest or donate they must see some impact and to make impact you need money or a lot of effort.

So to these challenges, I will say something people may have heard, look to solve problem, get products for your customers not customers for your products, associate you business to a pressing need, this way you know there is demand, and for social ventures lobby for funds but look at being self-reliant from day one, plan to have income generating activities that will financially support your social venture.

What are your greatest accomplishments at YIDA? And where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

Greatest accomplishment is yet to come, but for now I celebrate the fact that now we have over 34 young people directly employed by YIDA and we are reaching about 765 children this year. I see YIDA in a financially stable position in 5 years with our primary school that will enable refugee children and children from the host community attain a quality education.

What is the top biggest reason why your start-up succeeded?

An Amazing team of visionary people, people who didn’t know much but were ready to learn and were ready to volunteer extra time, people who are saddened by what is going around enough to try and make a change. So, I will say, the team has defined our success.

What kind of people do you employ for your project? Is it easy getting them?

We employ refugee youth and Ugandan youths from the host community, and it is easy to find them, because many young people are unemployed. For the teachers we get youths who have studied at least up to O’and A’level, we give them training for 1 to 2 years and they are able to teach the children then, though many learn while working. As for the management team, depending on what post we need we still focus on employing locally, and there are many refugees with qualification and many can’t find jobs, may be because not many people would believe in them so we employ them and give them training where necessary.

 Talk to us about the Anzisha award? What prompted you to take part? Was it easy? What does the prize come with?

Well, at first a friend nominated me and also encouraged me to apply, and I can’t be more grateful that I did, being an Anzisha finalist was not easy really, because many people from all over Africa applied, and I have no doubt that many young people who applied had really very compelling ideas and businesses, but being chosen was a blessing because, from the time I became a finalist, the time I got the social impact award, it I have been approached by other different people that include supporters and young people who want to learn from me. Being an Anzisha fellow means being in family that watches over you and boosts your business growth, because from the year one becomes a finalist, you are given a mentor and connected to many other opportunities that help you grow as an entrepreneur and as a business. The beauty of the Anzisha prize is they are more interested in developing the entrepreneur, especially young African entrepreneur.

Any advice for budding, young entrepreneurs across east Africa and the continent?

Find a great and visionary team, focus on solving African problem (they are many) and find a way of generating money by solving that problem, then employ from your community, Africa has got the skills, and it is the entrepreneur’s duty to develop our continent.

About Vanessa Ishimwe:

Anzisha Prize winner Vanessa – is a Rwandan National who was raised in a refugee Camp in Uganda from the age of 9. Despite facing enormous economic challenges that greatly impacted on her education in the refugee camp, she realized that young people living in such camps needed immediate help which motivated her to innovatively start an organization called Youth Initiative for Development in Africa (YIDA) in order to engage young people in education, entrepreneurship and leadership initiatives that can broaden their prospects for a better future.

Vanessa’s initiative is currently running 3 learning centers which are providing free Early Childhood Education to several refugee children through special learning centers and schools. YIDA is employing several young people (as teachers) hence impacting on communities and the continent.