Delivered. upskills with Bright Jaja
The entrepreneurial Nigerian-born CEO of iCreate Africa explains why he’s on a mission to rebrand vital skills such as welding and plumbing and make them more appealing to young people.
As a 10-year-old growing up in Abuja, Nigeria, Bright Jaja would go to the local market where his mother worked as a trader. “Before I went to school, I’d help arrange her stock,” he says. “Then, after school, I’d go to the market to help her sell. I spent more time there than I did in the classroom.” Plainly, Jaja – who recently appeared on the Forbes Africa 30 under 30 list – was an entrepreneur from a young age. At 20, he set up a dance studio called Redance Africa, then won the Abuja Young Fellowship Award and was the youngest speaker at the first TEDx event in Abuja.
His latest project, however, has really made people sit up and take notice. In 2017, he founded iCreate Africa, a social enterprise that aims to address the challenge of youth unemployment across the continent by championing skills development. “I thought: ‘Why is it that young people aren’t doing jobs that already exist in the labor market?’,” says Jaja. “Jobs like bricklaying and carpentry, for example. It’s because society has defined that technical skills are for people who aren’t ‘educated.’ ‘Educated’ people go to university, get a degree and come out the other end as a lawyer, doctor or accountant. But that’s a stereotype. Education is everywhere.” Jaja is therefore desperate to “rebrand” technical and vocational skills that will be in big demand in Africa in the next 20 years.
One of the ways he’s doing this is via a skills competition called the iCreate Skill Fest, which iCreate Africa has hosted in Abuja, Kaduna, Enugu and Lagos in partnership with companies such as Bosch and Sterling Bank. Competition entrants compete in numerous skill categories – including welding and fabrication, video production and drone piloting. The winners, known as Skills Champions, receive cash prizes, tools and equipment and, most important of all, training. Ideally, Jaja wants to empower Skills Champions to become entrepreneurs and get them to the point where they can each employ five people.
Following on from the success of Skill Fest, Jaja is launching the world’s first technical and vocational skills league in 2020. The iCreate Skills League (ISL) will feature 37 teams picked from technical schools from each state in Nigeria. “The teams are going to be made up of – for example – the best tilers, bricklayers, barbers and plumbers from each school,” reveals Jaja, who wants to replicate the idea across the continent.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, iCreate Africa has recently launched a digital platform, www.Skillers.ng, to support the seamless operation of skilled professionals and service businesses amid the global pandemic, connecting them to clients, training and business resources. “The platform creates a digital representation of their skills and services, and allows clients to schedule services and transact through an interactive payment system,” explains Jaja.
Despite the pandemic, he believes this is an exciting time for Africa. “I want to create a solution that the next generation can benefit from,” says Jaja. “Africa is the future of the world, and we need to empower and upskill our young people so they can be ready for the amazing opportunities becoming available.”
The number of young people who participated in iCreate Skills Fest events in 2019
The number of jobs Bright Jaja wants to create over five years by bridging the skills gap in Nigeria
When did you get the idea for iCreate Africa?
I used to go into a school to teach skills to kids. Also, I looked at how the ministry of education was tackling the skills gap and unemployment problem and realized it didn’t have any new, innovative ideas. Times are changing, and you can’t fall back on the same old system you used five years ago.
How does iCreate Africa work?
When we started, the idea was to create a hub for skills that will be required in the labor market in the next 10 to 20 years, including construction, fashion, arts, beauty and technology. We do have a Skill Hub (based in Abuja), which serves as center for skills services, and where young people can get together, display their work and collaborate. But that wasn’t enough. I knew we had to make people understand that their skills are a global currency.
Why has Skills Fest been successful?
One of the biggest problems we had in Nigeria is that people weren’t proud of their skills. Instead, they thought of their skills as something they had to do in order to survive. Now, at Skills Fest, everyone is paying more attention to sharpening their skills because there are lots of opportunities. Skills Champions can even become brand ambassadors for companies, which, in Nigeria, is something that traditionally only happens to celebrities. For example, Bosch signed an iCreate bricklayer as a brand ambassador. So everybody wants to get to the final – and that helps create interest in the skills they have.
How do you reach young people to get them involved?
Through media and videos. We’re also developing a mobile phone app to highlight all the skilled trades available and the opportunities they offer. Plus we publish a skills magazine called iCreate that showcases the Skills Fest winners – and we’re planning a Skills Park, an environment where young people can work together and be inspired by each other. My message to young people is: “Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. You are the solution.” — Tony Greenway
Published: October 2020
Image: Ejionueme Ngozi