Five years ago, I turned in my resignation letter at Junior Achievement of Nigeria. The vision of what I started at the time was simple: connect young Nigerians with technology-enabled opportunities, with a strong focus on improved livelihoods. Thousands of stories later, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria continues to do this all-important work. Over the last few weeks, we have invested heavily in scaling up our work, and it is always exciting to read from young people who have benefited directly from our projects. The stories of Famous, Esther, Favour, Funke, Yinka and many others continue to assure us that the hours of investment eventually turn into a better life. You can imagine my delight when, few days ago, Yinka told me about how he joined forces with other friends to implement a bore hole project in Ajegunle. Our trainees have gone on to become tutors, mentors and changemakers, and we are proud of that.
However, a recent in-house study shows that our work, that focuses on investing in the bottom of the pyramid, can only reach 1,000,000 young people directly in about 10 years. We focus on a complete cycle that begins from trainee identification to demonstration of improved livelihoods, and we avoid the temptation to focus on numbers instead of quality, but reality is that the many young people who need to be connected to the kind of opportunities our training offers have increased over the years. Even when we looked at the numerous organisations investing in a similar demographic, it is clear that massive scale can only be achieved when structures managed by government complement such.
As I continue to discuss with more young people, I sense an increasing level of anger that seems to ask: “do we really have hope?” I am not sure if anyone has studied the connection between the level of crime in Nigeria and the funnel effect, but there will be no surprises. Funnel effect refers to how various layers of young people fall off the opportunity radar. Beginning with those who are born into abject poverty, this trend continues with those who drop out of elementary school in order to earn an income to support their family. Many households depend on what children bring home, hence the huge loss of value as long as income is concerned. If I came home with a new item (regardless of cost) while growing up, my parents would ask me where I got such from. Now, some parents simply thank the child for being a star and ask his/her siblings to watch and learn, without any question about the source of the sudden income.
Government-issued numbers for the Nigerian economy will keep looking good. They are numbers. These numbers account largely for the top 20% (and that is actually generous) while the bottom 80% will continue to groom disenfranchised young people who can become anything from success stories (in spite of the challenges) to criminals (who blame the system for their situation). For example, who are the kids who knock on windows to ask for phones they didn’t buy? The funnel effect continues beyond elementary school drop-outs to those who can’t continue to secondary schools for cost reasons. In my work, I frequently discuss with kids whose parents have asked them to forget tertiary (university) education so that their brother/sister can also benefit from secondary school education. And it continues on and on. At each level, the funnel effect creates a bulge in the size of angry young people.
Many have said that the funnel effect is unreal and that those who end up on the bottom of the pyramid are only unable to grab opportunities around them, but my eleven years of work in the third sector – and everyday reality – tell me that Nigeria encourages the funnel effect. At the very least, there are many young people who will never know if they’re truly lazy because the opportunities that many squander don’t even come close to them. Every day, as I read the various complaints on social media channels, I can only imagine how many young people will gladly trade places with those who think they are angry with Nigeria. Paradigm Initiative Nigeria’s work in technology and development continues to be my primary assignment, but I worry about this rising anger. We can only take on so much, and will seek to expand our reach, but Nigeria will have to tackle this funnel effect before our opportune youth bulge goes the way of oil.