Sierra Leone project aims to educate, create entrepreneurs

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Several years ago during a meeting at the office of United Methodist Bishop John K.Yambasu in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the bishop challenged participants to find ways to “put this country at work.”

Over the next few years, a pilot project will be making that challenge a reality through Taiama Enterprise Academy, a proposed school in the Moyamba District of southern Sierra Leone.

Operation Classroom, a United Methodist organization supported by U.S. conferences in Indiana and Minnesota, granted scholarships to needy students in Liberia and Sierra Leone for nearly three decades. Operation Classroom is shifting its focus to creating entrepreneurs at Taiama Enterprise Academy, which will be on land and facilities owned by The United Methodist Church and Taiama Junior and Senior Secondary School.

“For 28 years, Operation Classroom has collaborated with the United Methodist Churches in Liberia and Sierra Leone to improve secondary education,” said Bob Coolman, chief executive officer of Operation Classroom and a member of the executive team working on the project. “Schools have been built, libraries have been stocked, science labs have been equipped, and hospitals have been developed.”

Coolman was at the meeting in Bishop Yambasu’s office when the bishop posed the challenge. “We looked out of the window at the number of young men just standing around with nothing to do,” Coolman said. The World Factbook lists Sierra Leone’s population at almost 5.9 million, of which 60 percent is 24 or younger and the median age is 19. Unemployment in the country was at 50 percent before the recent Ebola crisis, which decimated many industries.

Best way out of poverty

Coolman went on to explain that the leadership team came to believe entrepreneurship is the best way out of poverty because when people use their hands to create wealth for themselves and their community, it is more sustainable than when they are offered services.

That is why the pilot project will use the “African Village” campus model to train students in hands-on careers in agriculture, construction, vehicle mechanics, accounting, emerging technologies and other life-transforming subjects as an economic opportunity to create wealth for themselves and their communities — a true means out of poverty, he said. If the project works, plans are to replicate the school in other districts across the country.

An Operation Classroom executive team of three — Karen Gould, chairman of Operation Classroom Indiana chapter; Kay Hess, also from the Indiana Conference, who has worked and supported OC for more than 25 years, and Coolman went to  Sierra Leone to work on the project.

“We understand that within the Sierra Leone educational system, it is the normal practice for students who cannot pass the West Africa Examination Council exams to get into Senior Secondary School to be relegated to technical school. While we understand that to be the normal practice, those are not students that we want at the TEA Pilot Project,” Coolman told a meeting of United Methodists, local authorities and potential partners of the academy on Oct. 19, the first day of the two-day consultation at Taiama Secondary School.

Re-education of educators

For this “Entrepreneurial Model” of education to work, planners believe it will be necessary to re-educate educators to send students of high potential to the Taiama Enterprise Academy.

The challenge is not only changing the mindset of students and the public in Sierra Leone, who perceive vocational education as business for academic dropouts. The challenge will also be renegotiating the curriculum with the education ministry to find a grade level that will give the advance level certificates needed for academy graduates so they can further their education or compete for jobs.

Under the Sierra Leone 6-3-3-4 educational system (six years of primary, three years of junior secondary, three years of senior secondary and four years of university education) is that in the Sierra Leone system, the students graduating from junior high with lower grades go to the vocational institutions. In the TEA concept, the higher-performing students are the ones targeted to develop their entrepreneurial skills after graduating from junior high.

The project involves a partnership with Njala University, Sierra Leone’s primary undergraduate school for agriculture, agronomy, environmental science, education and health sciences to develop “farmers and fixers.” The goal is equipping students to become entrepreneurs in a variety of fields.

Joe Pormai, Sierra Leone Conference education secretary for secondary education, says details of the degree programs must be worked out with education ministry officials. 

“Weak students do not become good entrepreneurs because entrepreneurship involves a lot of critical thinking, innovation, a lot of analyzing your environment and being able to respond to emerging issues. So it has to be somebody above average to be an entrepreneur. It does not matter the title you have. It is the ability to look at real life issues and being able to respond to them,” said Adolphus Johnson, senior lecturer at the Department of Agricultural Extension in Njala University at the close of the two-day meeting.

Johnson said that Njala University, which is about 7 miles from the campus of the proposed school, is interested in the new model and would want to be in partnership with the academy’s board. The university’s deputy vice chancellor, Professor Ernest Ndomahina, earlier pledged that the university would support the agriculture faculty of the academy.

Concept paper

A concept paper developed for the discussions made these points:

  • The traditional approach to development has been to provide things for people. If people lack education, we build them schools. If they are unhealthy, we build them hospitals and provide doctors, or we drill a freshwater well. If their small businesses are stagnant, we provide micro credit so they can borrow. While each of these interventions can be helpful in the right context, mere provision fails to address root causes – the behaviors, social systems, and mindset that are created by poverty.
  • Indeed, every time something is provided for someone in need (that they could provide for themselves), it sends a subtle message to them that they are incapable of providing for themselves. “In effect, when we ‘provide,’ we’re stealing from the very people we’re attempting to help. We’re stealing their dignity; we’re stealing their initiative; and we’re stealing their self-worth. By making ourselves feel good by doing something nice, we run the risk of harming the very people we’re trying to help. The key to ending poverty resides in the capacity of human beings(and their view of their own capacity) to facilitate positive change, and engage in productive enterprise,” the paper said.

Bishop Yambasu hopes this project will help more Sierra Leoneans to realize their potential.

"There exists a huge gap in the middle-level manpower supply in Sierra Leone. In addition, many of our potentially useful young men and women who complete high school with the required qualification to enter university hardly do get there because of the limited space available in our institutions of higher learning. These unskilled, unemployed and certainly frustrated young people roam the streets of our nation like a time bomb waiting to explode,” the bishop said. “The Taiama Enterprise Academy will address these major challenges in Sierra Leone. I do not only envision a vibrant Sierra Leone economy, but a transformed cadre of equipped and empowered young people becoming agents of change in the country.”

Coolman pointed out that teaching young people to learn professional skills and graduate as enterpreneurs engaging in productive enterprise will help them create wealth.

“Governments don’t produce wealth. Institutions don’t produce wealth. Not-for-profits don’t produce wealth. Mission programs don’t produce wealth. The truth is that only entrepreneurs produce wealth, by engaging in productive enterprise,” he said.

Jusu is director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone. 

News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected] 

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