Samuel Yalew Adela
Ethiopia Country Head, Mastercard Foundation
Samuel Yalew, as head of Mastercard Foundation – Ethiopia, leads a massive youth employment drive of one of the world’s largest foundations with global commitments of around USD4.4 billion. Holder of a Master of Arts from Addis Ababa University, he has over 25 years of experience in education, child rights advocacy, public health, and youth employment while working at public, private, and non-governmental organizations—with many in senior leadership roles in various large and multi-year projects in Ethiopia, Namibia, Canada, and Uganda. Samuel joined Mastercard Foundation in 2015 and is said to have played an essential role in developing vital strategic interventions and programs, including the foundation’s Young Africa Works strategy. Prior to his current engagement, in August 2019, he moved to Kampala, Uganda, to set up the foundation’s branch and Young Africa Works strategy there, which he successfully delivered. As of August 2021, Samuel has been the Country Head for Ethiopia, working towards the effective implementation of the Young Africa Works strategy to enable 10 million young women and men access dignified and fulfilling work which earns them the respect of their families and communities. In this interview with EBR’s Addisu Deresse, he talks about the foundation’s ambitious goal of creating millions of jobs in the decade
Tell us about your foundation’s Young Africa Works strategy.
We launched Young Africa Works in 2018 with the goal of enabling 30 million young people, particularly young women, to access dignified and fulfilling jobs by 2030. Young Ethiopians will make up a third of this target. The impetus for this strategy was clear to us; Africa is the youngest and fastest-growing continent in the world. By 2030, the number of young people in our labor force will increase to 375 million and by 2035, there will be more young Africans entering the workforce each year than in the rest of the world combined. So, Africa’s young people represent the workforce not just of the continent, but of the world. With the right investments—in education, skills training, access to financial services, and entrepreneurship—these young people can become a force for economic growth and transformation.
Our strategy aims to unlock this potential. When we were developing it, we consulted a range of stakeholders. We spoke with leaders across sectors and, crucially, to young people themselves. They shared their aspirations and expertise, as well as their knowledge and ideas. They challenged us to be bold. They helped us define our priorities: the sectors we would focus on, the areas in which we would specialize, and the enablers that would make our work possible.
Of course, when the pandemic hit in 2020, it affected all of us. So, in its wake, we asked ourselves, our partners, and our stakeholders: what has changed? What assumptions are no longer relevant? What new opportunities have emerged? What do we need to do differently to drive impact?
Over the last year, we have reimagined our Young Africa Works in Ethiopia strategy but our target in Ethiopia—enabling 10 million young people to access dignified and fulfilling work—remains unchanged.
How are you hoping to deliver Young Africa Works in Ethiopia? Which areas do you plan to focus on?
Young Africa Works in Ethiopia currently focuses on three priority sectors, namely agriculture, manufacturing, and the digital economy. We are also exploring innovations and support for the tourism sector. Let me go through each, in turn.
Agriculture is a sector with cross-cutting relevance across Africa. Our continent has the potential to truly become the food basket of the world. In Ethiopia, we work with our partners to create work opportunities for young women and men across the agri-food value chain—from farm to fork. In the last two years, our partners have enabled more than 100,000 young people to secure work opportunities within the agri-food system. A good example is our partnership with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), which is designed to enable young people to produce quality honey and adjacent products that are then marketed on the Shega online marketplace.
Of course, we know that manufacturing is also an important priority for Ethiopia to drive import substitution. Expanding domestic manufacturing holds tremendous potential for job creation. So, we work with our partners to equip young people with skills and connect them to employers in the sector using digital platforms. Thus far, we’ve enabled over 147,000 young people to access opportunities in manufacturing.
Finally, in the wake of Covid-19, the digital economy grew with the shift to online working, learning, and transacting. We must be extremely intentional in ensuring young people benefit equitably from the potential of this sector. So, at the Mastercard Foundation, we are working both to advance the adoption of digital technologies—in business, education, and to deliver financial products—as well as cultivate digital literacy and skills among young people. As part of our work, we supported the Ministry of Innovation and Technology’s development of Digital Ethiopia 2025—a strategy and blueprint for ensuring the inclusion, efficiency, effectiveness, and scale of Ethiopia’s digital economy.
Now, as I mentioned, we are also exploring the potential of the tourism sector to rebound post-pandemic and drive job creation. In the past, we have done a lot of work in this space. But the sector was among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Yet, even amid the challenges, we saw innovation. For example, last year we supported the launch of Ethiopia’s first travel and leisure platform called Triopia, which is designed to give prospective tourists insight into Ethiopia’s array of product offerings while empowering them to plan their own travel and stay.
So, while there is a road to recovery for the tourism sector, we believe it still has significant potential to be a driver of growth and jobs. Ethiopia boasts a rich cultural and historical heritage and offers a wide range of experiences. That’s why we supported the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and Tourism Ethiopia, to create a National Tourism Roadmap, National Tourism Action Plan, and a Destination Management Information System. And we continue to assess opportunities to enable recovery and growth in the sector.
Ultimately, however, we recognize that the recovery of this sector is contingent on vaccinating a critical mass of Ethiopia’s—and Africa’s—population. Since last year, we have been working at the regional level, in partnership with the Africa Centers for Disease Control (CDC), to drive progress towards the African Union’s goal of vaccinating 70Pct of Africa’s population by the end of 2022. In June 2021, we jointly launched the Saving Lives and Livelihoods initiative—a USD1.5 billion partnership designed to purchase vaccines for at least 65 million people, support the delivery and administration of vaccines, develop a workforce for continental vaccine manufacturing, and strengthen Africa CDC.
How realistic are the goals considering Covid-19 and the security situation in Ethiopia?
When the pandemic hit in 2020, we knew it could set back economic development. At the time, the African Development Bank (AfDB) was predicting that it would drive more than 39 million people into extreme poverty. So, we quickly launched the Mastercard Foundation Covid-19 Recovery and Resilience Program to respond to urgent needs for personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits, learning continuity, and business support.
Last year, we built on that response by launching our Saving Lives and Livelihoods initiative—a USD1.5 billion partnership with the Africa CDC designed to drive Covid-19 vaccinations in Africa while building capacity for continental vaccine manufacturing and strengthening Africa CDC. We know that enabling vaccination is crucial to helping economies remain open so that different sectors can recover, and citizens can be safe and productive.
As we continue to move this initiative forward, we’re committed to advancing our Young Africa Works strategy in Ethiopia and our target remains unchanged. We will continue to work across our three areas of focus—Agriculture, Manufacturing, and the Digital Economy—enabling businesses to access the resources and markets they need to scale and create opportunity, supporting new business models, equipping young people with relevant skills, and connecting them to new opportunities. Already, even amid the pandemic, we have enabled hundreds of thousands of young people to access dignified and fulfilling work. This work is more important than ever—so we must be ambitious.
Our partners have also challenged us to be bold and to stay the course. They have demonstrated remarkable commitment and agility in the face of dynamic circumstances. They feel a deep sense of responsibility to the young people they serve who are eager for an opportunity. In many ways, the foundation is simply trying to reflect the ambition Ethiopians have for themselves.
Your goal is creating dignified and fulfilling jobs. Realizing this is much more difficult than basic jobs.
That is a great question. Yes, we do emphasize the idea of dignified and fulfilling work. That speaks to several important ideas. One is the principle that work shouldn’t be exploitative. That’s critical—especially when we’re thinking about young women and other vulnerable populations. Second, is the idea of listening to young people and aligning with the aspirations they have for themselves. Because ‘dignified and fulfilling’ is also subjective to every young person.
Listening to young people has always been important to us. When we were designing Young Africa Works, we spent a lot of time consulting with young people. They made it clear that they wanted us to be bold. They wanted opportunities not just to work but to be job creators. And, when we asked young people what dignified and fulfilling work meant to them, they didn’t just talk about income. For them, it was about earning the respect of their families and communities. It was about having the freedom and ability to plan their lives, serve their families, and dream even bigger.
How much money does the foundation invest in these programs and projects annually?
To date, the foundation has committed USD6 billion to advance access to education, deepening financial inclusion, and responding to the pandemic, primarily in Africa. In our first decade of work, we invested approximately USD70 million in Ethiopia alone. Today, under Young Africa Works, we are deploying an initial USD300 million over the course of the decade, to enable 10 million young Ethiopians to access dignified and fulfilling work.
What is the working modality with the government in Ethiopia? What have you achieved and learned together thus far?
In every country where we work, we start by listening. We speak to a variety of stakeholders across the public, private, and non-profit sectors to get their perspectives and feedback. That’s how we developed Young Africa Works.
Invariably, governments play an important role in shaping how we think about and implement our work. We align closely with national and policy priorities. That said, the foundation does not fund governments.
In Ethiopia, we have collaborated with several ministries—including the Ministry of Labor and Skills (former Jobs Creation Commission), the Ministry of Tourism, and the Ministry of Innovation and Technology—as they have developed a number of important national frameworks such as the first National Plan for Job Creation (2020-2025), a national tourism roadmap, a national tourism action plan, a national digital transformation strategy (2025), and a national sericulture (silk farming) strategy—which are already being implemented.
We have also worked closely with several government agencies. The Federal Micro and Small Enterprise Development Agency, National Bank of Ethiopia, Industrial Parks Development Corporation, and Ethiopian Investment Commission—to name a few. We are supporting their enterprise development efforts and public-private partnerships that drive forward the youth employment agenda.
We have learned a lot from these engagements. It’s clear that there is a strong desire in both sectors—public and private—to interface more effectively. We’ve also seen that providing systems-level support is important to driving impact in both sectors.
Tell us more about your work with the private sector, in general.
Ultimately, the private sector is the engine of economic growth. So, enterprise development is key to Ethiopia’s economic transformation. Private sector actors bring efficiency, innovation, expertise, and project implementation capabilities to drive at-scale implementation of programs with young people and micro and small enterprises.
Our private-sector partners are implementing programs in agribusiness, employment readiness, e-commerce, and micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) support, among others. In just over a year, they enabled 317,000 young people to secure employment. Nearly 60Pct of these were young women.
As part of the foundation’s 2020 Covid-19 Recovery and Resilience Program, we worked with financial service providers to deliver grants and affordable loans to 20,000 women-led businesses, enabling over 50,000 people to maintain their jobs and livelihoods. We also worked with private financial institutions to avail USD34 million for businesses in the form of soft loans.
We are committed to continuing to support the private sector and enabling small and medium businesses to thrive and grow.
One of your areas of focus is education. How do you work with academic institutions and what has your work in Ethiopia achieved thus far?
One of the foundation’s largest programs in Africa is the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, which was launched in 2012 to develop the next generation of African leaders. It enables talented young people from economically constrained backgrounds to pursue higher education while developing their leadership abilities. It especially targets young women, forcibly displaced young people, and young people with disabilities.
In Ethiopia, we are working with the University of Gondar (UoG), under the Scholars Program, to support the higher education of 450 young people with disabilities. Under this partnership, UoG is also collaborating with Queen’s University in Canada, another Scholars Program partner, to enable 60 faculty members to pursue their PhD and masters-level studies, which will strengthen the university’s learning and research practice.
And they are establishing an occupational therapy department, which will be the first of its kind in the country, making the university a center of excellence in community-based rehabilitation programming.
Within the Scholars Program, we are also launching an e-learning initiative designed to prepare and enable higher learning institutions across the continent to deliver online education. The University of Gondar is a part of this initiative, which will ultimately democratize access to higher education and benefit thousands of students.
You recently planned a very large career expo in Addis Ababa. What drove that decision and how did it go?
With our support, one of our partners, Info Mind Solutions, organized a two-day career expo—the biggest event of its kind in Ethiopia. And the goal of the event was simple: to connect recent graduates to employers. To serve as a recruitment platform. It also allowed young people to connect with one another, gain a better understanding of what employers are looking for, and learn about the job market so they can position themselves effectively. The expo took place in January 2022 and brought together over 5,000 young people from across the country and 100 organizations from different sectors.
Ethiopia ranks high in terms of foreign aid recipients. Critics say it is not reliable or sustainable. What’s different about the Mastercard Foundation’s approach?
When the Mastercard Foundation launched our Young Africa Works strategy, we made a bold parallel commitment to ensure that 75Pct of our partnerships in Africa be with African organizations. We believe these organizations are best placed to understand and solve challenges and seize opportunities, on the continent. And we want to ensure that our work helps to build a generation of strong, inclusive, and responsive institutions on the continent that outlives our funding and can sustain their impact in the long term.EBR
10th Year • May 2022 • No. 107