Here’s a shocking statistic: around 46% of South Africa’s youth are unemployed. That’s not only an economic disaster; it’s a social one, too – which is why Kasthuri Soni, CEO of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, is determined to help find solutions; a goal her organisation is achieving by working with an ecosystem of other change leaders.
Kasthuri is clear on the fact that the scale and depth of the youth unemployment challenge means that solving this crisis requires partnership with several stakeholders, including government, the private sector and civil society. She’s both humbled and proud that Harambee is one of those stakeholders.
‘Success has always been important to me, but it also means uplifting others as I rise,’ she says, adding that her passion for social development has its roots in her upbringing in a working-class family in Durban. ‘I was the first person in my family to qualify as a professional. I still remember greeting my father in the driveway, screaming “I did it!”, the day I passed my board exams.’
Interestingly, it was Kasthuri’s qualification as a CA(SA) – which she studied because, as a young adult, she viewed the accounting profession as an excitingly prestigious career – that led her to a path in social development. ‘I started my post-articles career conducting audits for clients in the social development sector at Deloitte,’ Kasthuri explains. She later shifted focus to the advisory space, and was subsequently headhunted by Soul City, one of her clients. She joined the organisation as head of finance, but her portfolio grew to include operations and human resources – which prepared her for seizing the challenge of transitioning into the role of chief executive when the founding CEO resigned.
It was a baptism by fire, Kasthuri says – but one which left her well prepared for Harambee. ‘My training as a CA equipped me to be a problem solver and helped me develop a tireless work ethic, while my years at Soul City and Harambee honed my approach: I view finance as an enabler of a business rather than a set of rules, and I like to integrate it with strategy. Over time, I learnt the art of using numbers to tell a story and aligning that story to a company’s strategy to make it understandable – important, because many people get flummoxed by figures.’
Kasthuri joined Harambee following three years at Soul City and a short sabbatical, while the organisation was still in its infancy, having been established by its founder, Yellowwoods. She worked as finance director for 10 years before she was appointed CEO 18 months ago.
Her years with the organisation have been exceptionally fulfilling. ‘It’s work that feeds my soul,’ she says. That sense of reward isn’t surprising, given the hard work that goes into helping young South Africans remain productively engaged in the labour market. ‘The past 12 years have shown us that our young people face a number of obstacles even before entering the job market: for example, high data costs impact their ability to find jobs online, while the cost of transport to and from work is yet another barrier.’ Add to this the fact that although there has been significant investment in the development of skilling programmes, most are not responsive to market needs. This means that participants are not workplace ready, even after graduating. ‘This is what differentiates Harambee. Our skilling innovations are demand based and are tailored to impart functional and behavioural skills that help young people adjust socially as well as improve their employability.’
Exclusionary recruitment practices are yet another challenge. Kasthuri points out that most organisations place heavy emphasis on assessments and qualifications that have traditionally been thought to indicate future success in the workplace, such as numeracy, when learning potential is, in fact, a far more accurate predictor. By the same token, employers consider prior employment in the formal sector important, although youngsters are just as likely to develop key skills working in volunteer positions in, say, their church. To this end, Harambee is working towards the development of inclusive signals of employability and an inclusionary skills framework.
Focus on pathway management
We need to understand and appreciate the fact that an individual’s pathway through the job market is not necessarily linear, or permanent,’ Kasthuri says. ‘In most cases, work is short-term, and people zig zag through the labour market.’ With this in mind, it’s most effective to help them plot their pathway, identifying the next best step once one opportunity has ended, so that they remain engaged in the labour market.
This is precisely what Harambee’s omnichannel platform, SA Youth (sayouth.mobi), aims to do, providing free access to earning and learning opportunities in a single place. ‘Because it is zero rated, we address the issue of data costs. We also solve the problem of transport costs by matching people to work opportunities nearby,’ Kasthuri says. Plus, for those who do not have access to the Internet, the platform’s services are also available through a toll-free inbound call centre.
Kasthuri informs that SA Youth currently supports a network of 3,6 million young job seekers.
The organisation’s efforts have seen it globally recognised as a leading innovator of youth unemployment solutions and earned it the role of National Pathway Manager in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Presidential Youth Employment Intervention, making it the anchor partner in a network of stakeholders working to solve youth unemployment. Kasthuri is proud of Harambee’s ability to mobilise the ecosystem and forge partnerships with key role players. She is also inspired by the organisation’s work to dismantle systemic barriers to employment, so that Harambee is able to have a transformative impact on young work-seekers and shift the prospects of a future generation.
However, Harambee is not about to rest on its laurels. ‘With nine million young people still unemployed, the need for our services is greater than ever – which is why we have developed our Vision 2026,’ Kasthuri says. The goals laid out in this vision are ambitious: Together with its partners, Harambee aims to enable one million new earning opportunities across the economy in the next three years, a target that it previously reached within 12 years. It also intends to keep three million more SA Youth users engaged in the job market, and to remain focused on breaking down systemic barriers to youth economic inclusion. Further priorities include innovating training solutions for workplace readiness and advocating for employers to adopt inclusive hiring practices. And, because Harambee cannot succeed if it operates alone, it will continue to build large-scale public-private change coalitions.
Organisations can partner with Harambee by sharing their earning opportunities on https://partners.sayouth.org.za/.
How to make yourself more employable
- Have a growth mindset: be curious and embrace every opportunity to learn.
- Grow your employability skills. Upgrade your English (because it’s the primary business language), keep your digital skills up to date, and develop professional behaviours like punctuality.
- Amass work experience, even if it’s in a volunteer position. This socialises you into the world of work.
- Accept that there aren’t enough jobs, so you will have to hustle to make money. Participate in whatever earning opportunities you can find so that you remain engaged in the workforce.
- Remain hopeful, believe in yourself and back yourself with an exceptional work ethic.
- Visit sayouth.mobi for opportunities and work-seeker support.