According to a state report released in February 2013, Uganda has the youngest population in the world. The proportion of young people in the country has swollen to 78 percent of the population, and the number of youths is only expected to rise. In August 2013, speaking on International Youth Day, President Yoweri Museveni acknowledged youth unemployment as one of the country’s most pressing issues.
During her years in Uganda working with War Child, Ans de Jager was particularly bothered by youth unemployment in the northern region of the country, an area that has been plagued by instability.
“Youth have been seriously affected by conflict in northern Uganda. There are very few businesses in the north and the young people there have limited skills. Some of them have literally grown up in IDP camps,” she explained.
Tackling the Topic of Youth Unemployment
When friends of de Jager, Mieke and Arnold Zwart, came to Uganda in 2011, they were confronted with the same issue. The topic of youth unemployment consumed their conversations with de Jager, until the threesome decided to found Flock of Birds, a social enterprise designed to support business opportunities for youth in Uganda. Arnold, with his experience in software development and business know-how, combined with Mieke and Ans’ creativity and passion for social issues, formed a dynamic team.
The organization chose a flock of birds flying through the air as both their symbol and their guiding philosophy.
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“Like a flock of birds, we fly together, we explore together. There is flexibility – others can be grafted in, and you can fly in and out of the group,” de Jager said.
Still in its early stages, Flock of Birds is currently training 10 young people in Gulu — a district in northern Uganda. These young men and women are between the ages of 17 and 24; many of them are already parents themselves. During their time of training, the participants are provided with a daily stipend.
They are later evaluated based on their commitment to excellence and quality, and then they begin earning money according to their production. At the same time, they continue to take courses to develop their skills. After their internship, participants who perform according to the quality standards are guaranteed employment with Flock of Birds for at least one year.
Creative Product Design
In March 2013 the Flock of Birds shop was opened in Kampala, alongside the production center in Gulu. The shop in Kampala is a creative hub where designs are formulated and products are sold and tested.
One of the problems standing in the way of creative design, according to de Jager, is the national education system’s focus on rote learning and memorization. Coupled with a lack of opportunity, this mindset squelches entrepreneurial imagination.
“Creativity and inspiration are often blocked by the education here,” de Jager said. “We wanted to stimulate creative thinking, to push people to think outside the box. Different materials will inspire them to create different things.”
An experienced felt maker, de Jager uses the material for most Flock of Birds product designs. The result? Fresh, trendy felt designs for cell phone covers, iPad cases and household decorations — just some of the many unique products that the Flock of Birds line shelves.
These designs are then taken north to Gulu, where young people there are taught by de Jager — through the art of felt making — how to replicate them.
Alongside felt making, program participants also learn carpentry, painting and sewing. Through their training courses, Flock of Birds hopes to set young people up for success in both international and local markets.
“You won’t believe how many things are imported here,” de Jager said, shaking her head. “The most ridiculous products are being purchased from China. It’s such a shame, because Uganda has a wealth of raw products.”