Building skills and better futures in Ethiopia

March 11, 2014

Concern is helping ensure Addis Ababa’s growth benefits its poorest citizens

Just a year ago, Fatuma Mohammed would have described herself as “desperate.” An uneducated widow, she had no skills that she could identify, and depended on what little family members could spare to feed herself and her two children, ages 13 and 10.

Now part of Concern’s “Promoting Marketable Skills for the Informal Sector” project in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, Fatuma (27) is learning how to be a plasterer. She believes she has a “natural talent” for it, and for the first time feels a sense of poise and pride.

“My children are happy,” she says, “and I know I will be impactful for my whole family very soon. I will be a great woman and be able to live a decent life. I will support myself and all my dependents.”

Addis, with a population of about five million and an annual growth rate of about 4 percent, is “expanding at the rate of knots,” says Concern’s Country Director, Kate Corcoran. But only about 3 percent of the city is on the sewage system, and more than 50 percent lives below the poverty line. The Promoting Marketable Skills project “allows the city’s poorest to participate in that growth,” Corcoran says. “It also works to close the gap between rich and poor—not just in skills, but in confidence.”

“My children are happy,” she says, “and I know I will be impactful for my whole family very soon. I will be a great woman and be able to live a decent life. I will support myself and all my dependents.”

The project aims to increase the employability and productivity of people dependent on the city’s large informal economy — those who do not pay taxes and are not tracked in any official way. It offers training in six areas identified after a labor market survey as well as consultations. As Addis is a city under construction, three of the areas are plumbing, plastering and metal work. The other three are leatherwork, automotive painting and hair cutting for men. In all, the program targets 900 residents — 270 men and 630 women — including 10 percent of youth with disabilities and 25 percent HIV-infected trainees.

But learning new skills is only the first part of the project’s aim. The trainees are connected in a network with others including potential employers and the city’s Chamber of Commerce. “Our main objective is jobs, not training,” said Mulugeta Engida of the local NGO Chadet, which has been a Concern partner for many years.

The project’s business counselor, Abi Wasuylun, says he is already successfully securing jobs for trainees like Fatuma. “I hope to place three more plasterers today,” he says. “Every employer so far has been very impressed with the skills our people bring to the job.”

Million Shimelis, 25, is one of six children who grew up living with their parents in a single overcrowded room. He was never able to attend school because his family could not afford the uniform or books. “I really wanted to learn, so I was very disappointed,” he says. “There was no chance for me.” His father, the family’s sole wage earner, brings in about $50 a month working as a security guard.

Today Million is nearly through six months of training to be a plasterer, and very soon, he expects to be earning up to $15 a day, working seven days a week.

Though the trainees are highly motivated and look primed for success, training coordinator Fissia Wosk noted it was not always easy for them to learn to take full advantage of this opportunity. “When they arrived, many of them seemed like vagabonds,” he says. “We had to teach them to wear uniforms and respect the time. Now, though, they are focused and eager.”

“Every employer so far has been very impressed with the skills our people bring to the job.”

It was this kind of attention to detail that helps make the project sustainable as well as life-altering.

“I have worked on many great projects,” says program manager Abraham Asha, who has worked for Concern for eight years. “But I haven’t ever seen one like this that makes people so happy and has such a transformative role.”

A case in point is Abera Birhane, 35, with two children, ages 8 and 9. Uneducated until now, the only work either he or his wife could find was the odd day job. “We brought in maybe 600 birr ($30) a month, and it was very intermittent,” he said. He managed to buy school uniforms and books for his children because he believes they must be educated to break the pattern of poverty. “But my kids were hungry all the time,” he says. “We were living just for the sake of living.”

He says he has studied “all the time” during the months of training that have taught him automotive painting, and is nearly finished. Once he gets work, he expects to earn between $160 and $200 a month. “I am giving great hope to not only my family, but my community,” he says. “If I can achieve this, I will be a model for them all. This has changed my life.”

“If I can achieve this, I will be a model for them all. This has changed my life.”