Building Young Futures: Jimmy Phiri’s story

Jimmy happily holds a packet of his crackers  © Unicef UK 2014Jimmy happily holds a packet of his crackers from hi snack-making business, Best Crackers © Unicef UK 2014

The work that we do through Building Young Futures, a global partnership between Unicef and Barclays, often reminds me of a quote from economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen who said, “poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realise one’s full potential.”  The goal of development work, he suggests, should be to empower people to lead the kind of life they value and have reason to value.  

I think this view of development and its purpose underpins what we hope to achieve through our partnership, and it is why our investment in the livelihoods of young people is so important. Together Unicef, Barclays and governments in six countries aim to help 74,000 disadvantaged young people to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to fulfil their potential and mature into economically empowered adults.

Building Young Futures has been benefitting young people in Zambia for over six years, and since 2012 our efforts have been focused on providing youth with the particular skills they need to find a job or start their own business; skills like budgeting, saving, marketing, negotiating, communicating, and business plan writing. We also teach soft skills, or ‘life skills’, that help young people understand their rights, improve their leadership skills, take responsibility for themselves and their actions, set goals for their future, and build their self-confidence. 

On a recent visit to Zambia I was able to see this work first-hand and meet some of the inspirational young people the programme is benefitting. At the start of one of our training sessions in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, I listened as an instructor explained the gravity of the situation faced by young people in Zambia: 63 percent of Zambians who are between the ages of fifteen and nineteen are out of school and are unemployed, and the situation is only getting worse.  

“It doesn’t matter if you left school,” she said, “or if you have a school certificate, a college degree, a Master’s degree or a PhD. What are you all looking for? Jobs. But who is going to give it to you?”  The thirty or so young trainees filling the room were unable to give an answer. Afterwards a young man in attendance told me, “This [programme] is our last hope. If this doesn’t work I don’t know what we will do.”

The situation seems daunting, but I take encouragement from the achievements made by so many of our previous beneficiaries – young people I met who have already finished their training and are being supported as they set up successful small businesses. People like Jimmy Phiri, who was trained through Building Young Futures in July 2013 and has since started a snack making business – which he named Best Snacks – on the outskirts of Lusaka. One afternoon Jimmy and I sat down outside of his shop, opened a pack of his surprisingly addictive crackers, and talked about his journey. “My name is Jimmy. I am a business man,” he began with a smile.

“Before starting my own business, I did odd jobs selling crackers …I had the ambition of starting my own business, but I didn’t have the knowledge. I started the training run by Unicef and Barclays. It helps young people; they teach us how to run a business and how to save and how to market – skills you want to be an entrepreneur. Honestly it motivated me a lot.”

I learned that it was more than an entrepreneurial spirit that was driving Jimmy to succeed, he was also pushed by a desire to better support himself and his family. His young nephews needed help with school fees, his brother was unemployed and struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, and his mother was suffering from stress-related heart problems that she couldn’t afford to treat. He knew that starting his own business would allow him to make a difference to his whole family.

I asked Jimmy to tell me about the skills he learned and how it helped him get Best Snacks started. The biggest lesson, he said, was how to save. “It helped me to excel because the more you save the bigger chance you have of doing more business, the more you can improve your business.”

It didn’t take long for Jimmy to establish his business and start selling his snacks across Lusaka – in local markets as well as schools, local eateries and even in major grocery stores. He then set his sights on finding new markets across Zambia. “The other thing which I learnt from the training…was how to move a lot – to not just market in Lusaka, but to move out of Lusaka. We will be able to have markets elsewhere.”  You can now buy Best Snacks crackers as far north as Kitwe, a city in Zambia’s copper belt region that is nearly 400 km north from Jimmy’s shop, and throughout the country’s southern province.

Every day, Monday to Friday, Jimmy and his young employees make about 900 packets of crackers; this equates to 4,500 packets each week. It’s a major production, which creates new challenges for the business. “One of the challenges we have is how to manage the payments. We have customers who don’t pay cash when we supply: some they pay after thirty days, some after three weeks, some after a week. The training helped a lot in terms of how to manage those kinds of customers, whereby you need to know how to balance out your payments so you can keep on working.”

It was clear that Jimmy’s business was doing well, but I also wanted to know about the effect it had on his personal life. Did the training make a genuine difference? That is, was it helping Jimmy realise his potential, better support himself and his family, and create a life he valued? When I asked Jimmy about the impact the training has had on his life, his eyes lit up.

“Building Young Futures has helped a lot. I am able to help my nephews. They can continue going to school and when they finish, they can decide to work or to start their own business as well.”  Jimmy also made his brother one of Best Snack’s first employees. The job not only helped him earn an income – it also taught him to use his time wisely, become more disciplined, and ultimately beat his addiction. Just a couple weeks before my visit, Jimmy’s brother successfully applied for a full time job with the police force – an achievement very few people believed was possible less than a year ago.

Jimmy is even able to help his mother: the change the business has brought to her sons’ lives has relieved much of her stress, and Jimmy is able to pay for her heart medication. She says that she doesn’t know what she or the family would have done without him, and his success has even inspired her to take business courses on her own. Jimmy also recognises that the benefits of the business extend to the employees he has hired. “Even the people who are doing production – they get something and then they help their families as well,” he said.

It’s an incredible accomplishment for a young man. There’s no doubt that Jimmy is well on his way to realising his full potential and he is actively living a life he values, and I trust that our other beneficiaries will follow in his footsteps.

Before leaving Jimmy and his shop I bought a big bag of his crackers and asked one last question: “So how does all of this make you feel, Jimmy? To own your own business and help so many people?” He looked away sheepishly and smiled. “You know…’ he said with a laugh, ‘it is really good. I am very happy.”

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