Sierra Leone: Tackling youth unemployment

man working on shoes
Stricken with polio at age 10, Umaru Kargbo now supports his family as a shoemaker. Photo: UNDP Sierra Leone

The story of Umaru Kargbo, in Sierra Leone’s northern city of Makeni, 113 miles from the capital city of Freetown, is one of resilience and of sheer determination to lift oneself out of poverty. It is also the story of how a country, once riddled by suffering and stagnation caused by years of civil war and gun-toting youth rampaging through the countryside, is slowly managing to include marginalized youth into participating in national development and social transformation.

Youth unemployment is one of the major causes of war in Sierra Leone and a serious threat to the peace that prevails in the country today. An estimated 800,000 youth between the ages of 15 and 35 are actively searching for employment. Some of these youth lack skills and education, but it is even more difficult for those with disabilities and only a basic education to compete for the limited jobs that are available.


  • The income of the 10,299 beneficiaries was increased on average by more than 197 percent, with communities reporting that this improved their food security status and their abilities to pay school fees.
  • Over 70 percent of survey respondents reported that the projects a made significant difference in their lives.
  • The average investment per youth was $394.
  • Some of the more innovative projects helped to strengthen local decentralization committees and/or transform the mindset of communities.

Umaru was one of those young people facing a bleak future, begging on the street and in local markets to make a living. When he was 10 years old, Umaru was stricken by polio, an acute viral infectious disease that is widespread among children in Sierra Leone and leads to infantile paralysis. At age 29, Umaru moved from his small hometown to Makeni, the biggest city in northern Sierra Leone, where he survived by begging on the streets.

But Umaru was selected for training through a UNDP-supported youth employment project in Makeni. He was placed as an apprentice in a workshop where he learned how to make shoes.

“I had decided that I did not want to be a beggar, I want to do something more fruitful and dignified with my life. The training was good,” a smiling Umaru explained. “I was supplied with basic materials like adhesives, leather, nails, a hammer, and I was also given a weekly allowance of about Le 15,000 (US$3.50) for my upkeep while in training.”

A recent independent study of 17 youth employment programmes administered by UNDP and the Government of Sierra Leone shows that the programme that trained Umaru has transformed the lives of 10,000 young people.
UNDP’s Chief Technical Adviser Keith Wright said a recent study on the project demonstrated an immense impact.

“The study showed that there was an average increase in the income of the youth by more than 197 percent. Communities also reported that there was improvement in their food security, and the likelihood that they could afford school fees,” Wright said.

In the past two years, Umaru said he has achieved a lot. He finished the apprenticeship and has started his own small business, which enables him to earn his living without begging.

“I have a family now, and a child. I am responsible for their food and his education. On average I earn about $7 a day. On a good day, I earn even more. Now I am happy and proud,” he said.

UNDP has been working with various local partners – including CAUSE Sierra Leone, a youth-focused agency in Makeni – to support the country and address the issue of youth employment and empowerment. The $2.1 million youth employment and empowerment programme is funded through the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund and the Governments of Ireland and Norway.

The programme is designed to strengthen national policy, strategy and coordination for youth employment as well as sustain the establishment of basic support services for youth, including mentoring for micro and small enterprises and the establishment of career advisory services in the country’s universities. As a result, 5,000 young people have started their own businesses.

For Umaru, the impact of the project is not just that he now has a regular and significant income but that his social status as a dignified member of society has been restored. “The most important thing is that now I have hope for the future,” he said.

By Abdul Karim Bah


The Development Advocate showcases the 12 winning entries of UNDP’s first annual storytelling competition in newspaper-style format.


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