Reeta Roy is President and CEO of the MasterCard Foundation, a major philanthropic organisation focused on microfinance and youth learning initiatives. Under her leadership, the Foundation has prioritised its most substantial commitments to Africa. It forges large-scale partnerships with a diverse range of organisations and initiates large-scale initiatives.
The MasterCard Foundation, established in 2006, is an independent, global organisation based in Toronto, Canada, with more than $30bn in assets. Through collaboration with partner organisations in 49 countries, mostly in Africa, it is creating opportunities for all to learn and prosper.
The Foundation’s programmes promote financial inclusion and advance youth learning. Established in 2006 through the generosity of MasterCard Worldwide when it became a public company, the Foundation is separate and independent from the company, MasterCard Worldwide.
Reeta Roy, a passionate advocate for youth employment and financial inclusion, travels extensively in the areas the Foundation is involved in. She is a member of the Aspen Philanthropy Group and the World Economic Forum on Social Innovation.
She has spoken at a wide array of fora, including the UN General Assembly, the Clinton Global Initiative, the World Innovation Summit for Education and the UNESCO Youth Forum.
In this interview with New African’s Editor, Anver Versi, she explains how the Foundation’s new campaign, the ambitious ‘Young Africa Works’, is designed to help create 30m new jobs by 2030.
Why have you made youth employment the central pillar of your new strategy?
Deliberate investment in youth is the most transformative investment any society can make.
This is particularly relevant for Africa today. Ensuring that Africa’s young people secure employment or can create their own livelihoods is arguably the number one task for African policymakers.
Africa is currently the youngest continent in the world and will continue to be for the next several decades. By 2100, almost half of the world’s young people will be African. This presents a distinct opportunity.
Through the Mastercard Foundation’s work across the continent over the last decade, we have heard from Africa’s young people, that securing work to provide for their families and improve their lives is one of their greatest challenges.
We also know that the pace of technology and digitisation is changing the nature of work rapidly.
Ten years from now, the nature of work in Africa may look very different from what it does today. We believe that there are already significant opportunities for young people to find and secure work – work that not only provides income, but that they find fulfilling.
Those opportunities may be invisible to them now, but they do exist. For example, we may know that a horticulture business that grows fruit could create work for a few people – perhaps the business owner and a couple of others who provide labour.
But there is more work across the value chain that is largely invisible – constructing the green house, providing seeds, providing advice on horticultural practices, transporting the product, drying, packaging, marketing and selling the product, both in traditional markets and e-commerce markets.
When we look across the value chain, those opportunities that were once invisible, are made visible, and the potential for adequate work is much greater.
How will you implement Young Africa Works on the ground?
Our role at the Mastercard Foundation is to be a catalyst. Young Africa Works focuses on co-creating strategies with others to spur systemic change in a country so young people have the opportunity to find work that is dignified and fulfilling.
Through this strategy, we focus on improving the quality of education and vocational training to enable youth to acquire the skills they need.
We are leveraging technology to connect employers and job seekers and drive growth; and we are working to enable entrepreneurs and small businesses to expand through access to business development services, financial services, and markets.
Over the last 10 years, we have worked in 30 African countries. Beyond the youth that have directly benefitted from our programmes, our partnerships have benefitted 38m people. The lesson from this experience has been clear – partnerships work.
We have learnt that it is essential to partner with youth, government, and the private sector to co-create solutions. We are aligning our work with the priorities already established in the countries in which we work.
We are focusing on existing solutions that demonstrate impact and we’re working with partners to scale and amplify these solutions.
In how many African countries will you roll out your strategy?
We have begun rolling out our Young Africa Works strategy in Rwanda, Kenya, and Ghana. We also plan to implement in Senegal, Ethiopia, and Uganda this year.
What is the level of support and collaboration you have received so far from African governments and the private sector?
In principle and in practice, our approach is collaborative, and from the beginning we have taken a partnership approach with youth, the private sector, investors, and government.
We are implementing our strategy in alignment with these partners and their priorities. It is not the Mastercard Foundation deciding on what we think is best. Rather, we are working together to co-create initiatives that will move 30m young Africans to dignified and fulfilling work by 2030.
Can you define ‘work’ in terms of your strategy?
There is a need to take a broader view beyond traditional definitions of work that only focus on formal jobs. Most young Africans will continue to work in the informal sector. Our definition of work recognises that there is a continuum, from informal work to entrepreneurship and salaried employment.
It puts an emphasis on the individual’s right to work without coercion or abuse. We recognise that young people are looking for work that they see as dignified and fulfilling.
How important is financial inclusion in creating more employment in Africa?
Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the engines of economic growth, but they often don’t have access to sufficient financial resources or products and services to be sustainable and create employment opportunities for others. We’ve heard from business owners that limited access to finance is one of the top challenges they face.
There are many barriers. Banks may find it difficult to lend to small businesses. Small business owners often don’t have the necessary documentation and paperwork outlining their revenue history to make it easier for banks to lend to them. There are high levels of perceived risk.
Alternative forms of finance, such as venture capital, while growing, remain limited. We have found that when banks and microfinance institutions develop digital channels for their products, they can lend to more businesses at a lower cost. Similarly, digital payment channels make it easier for small agribusinesses to pay their suppliers, reduce costs and grow, which leads to more job opportunities.
Technology is now the bedrock of most employment. How can it be deployed most effectively in Africa, especially in rural areas?
The mass adoption of technology in Africa, and mobile technology in particular, has been remarkable. Technology has become a key part of most economies, including in rural areas.
For instance, by using basic and feature phones, farmers and rural households can access information through chatbots via SMS and interactive voice response. Entrepreneurs in agriculture and retail are increasingly using smartphones that have offline capabilities to work in low bandwidth areas.
We are seeing incredible innovations that can link small businesses to regional and global markets. Small-scale traders in Kumasi, for example, can sell their shea butter to buyers in Kenya, or China, using e-commerce. The sellers can get a higher price for their product by selling directly to buyers, and invest that money into growing their business, and hiring others.
Africa is rapidly urbanising, but its economy is still largely agricultural.
Where do you think new jobs are most likely to be created?
Agriculture has always been the largest source of work for most people across the continent. We expect agriculture to continue to be the leader in employment creation in the short- to medium-term, and because of this, to be a priority sector.
Urbanisation does not necessarily reduce opportunities in agriculture, but it certainly changes their nature. Urban farming using modern farming technology is one of the most lucrative, most efficient, and weather-resilient forms of agriculture. It is also appealing to youth. Young urban farmers in Africa today don’t fit the stereotype. Farming for them is a scientific enterprise that is more lucrative than farming in rain-fed fields.
Beyond agriculture, technology, tourism, services and manufacturing will be the next most important sectors in creating work opportunities for young people on the continent.
Digitisation, automation and technological advances are changing the nature of work globally, including in Africa. This means that technology as a sector in itself will provide work opportunities, and cross-cutting technologies will also offer major advantages to other sectors.
Our work will focus on these sectors as drivers of opportunity for youth. We will also explore other high potential sectors and will continue to align our work according to the priorities of our partners in their respective countries.
Young Africa Works is a medium-term strategy – going on to 2030. How will you ensure that momentum is not lost over this period?
Our Young Africa Works strategy is focused on enabling 30m young people, especially young women, to find dignified and fulfilling work. We know that we cannot do this alone. We want to partner with African organisations – governments, private sector and employers, educational organisations, and most importantly, young people – because they have the greatest stake in the outcomes.
System-level reform will be critical in creating the conditions for growth and job creation. This means reforming the education system at the secondary and tertiary levels, creating linkages between the classroom and work, driving growth by growing the financial sector, improving the entrepreneurial ecosystems, digitising value chains, and putting in place an enabling environment for economic transformation
Young Africa Works will have a few defining elements. In each country, we will align with the country’s national priorities and aspirations, including industries that are transforming those economies and industries poised to be job destinations for a skilled, young workforce. To make youth work-ready, we will support secondary education, TVETs, and universities to improve the quality and relevance of education so young people acquire the skills that employers need.
It is important that the youth is directly linked with work opportunities. We will enlist employers and companies to provide young people with internships and apprenticeships and connect young entrepreneurs with the capital and tools to become job creators. It will require technology to achieve impact at scale.
Ms Roy, you have often stated that this is Africa’s century. What makes you so optimistic?
This is an optimistic time for Africa. Young people today are growing up with better access to education, health, technology, and opportunities undreamed of by their grandparents and parents.
Across Africa, there are several flagship initiatives underway to strengthen governance, conflict prevention, transportation, telecommunications, and the power supply. The most recent is the creation of an African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which will expand markets for young entrepreneurs.
Unlike the rest of the world, Africa will keep getting younger as the century advances. By 2050, a fourth of the world’s population will be African. And, by the end of this century, almost half of the world’s young people will be African.
It is not only the numbers that are changing. The narrative is changing too. The entire continent is coming into its own. As I travel across Africa and listen, this sentiment of pride, ownership, and optimism is palpable. I see young people pursuing fresh ideas in business, community service, the arts and culture.
We are fortunate to work with an impressive cohort of African businesses and entrepreneurs at the forefront of economic transformation. Many of these companies have grown from small start-ups into giants through innovation. Entrepreneurs are leading innovations that are changing how business is done.
These are the entrepreneurs that will build companies of scale and drive job creation.
The calibre of our partners and what they are doing are daily reminders that Africa’s transformation is underway.
In brief, Africans are already leading, and I am optimistic that they will bring about change that will be transformative and meaningful to millions more.