How Generation Unlimited is empowering young Kenyan problem solvers
GenU youth challenge is a competitive process which calls on young innovators to design solutions.
I’m a young person working at UNICEF Kenya. I recently had the opportunity to serve as a judge for the Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge in Kenya. This was a great experience for me because I had one on one interaction with the contestants by not only evaluating their submissions but also giving them expert feedback.
Generation Unlimited (GenU) is a global partnership which brings together leaders and young people to develop innovative solutions to the challenges young people face. The GenU youth challenge is a competitive process which calls on young innovators to design solutions to improve education, employment and civic engagement.
Young Kenyans between the ages of 14 and 24 had eight weeks to submit their ideas. We received over 600 submissions. The submissions went through an initial shortlisting by a panel of judges from UNICEF, UNDP, the private sector and government. Almost half the entries were dedicated to creating employment opportunities for youth, followed by ideas that sought to transform the education system and create civic engagement opportunities for young people. In the end, just 15 outstanding submissions were selected to move forward.
Innovation boot camp
Despite challenges posed by COVID-19, the 15 teams went through an innovations boot camp to refine their ideas. “The innovation boot camp allowed the participants to refine, redesign and repackage their ideas through a design thinking process with the help of an experienced pool of mentors and facilitators," says Lucas Odhiambo, another young person working at UNICEF Kenya. “The boot camp was full of eye-opening opportunities and experiences.”
“Most of the applicants were students. I had the responsibility of reaching out to them in their respective homes as schools are closed,” Lucas continued. “The steering committee which I co-lead resorted to doing a virtual boot camp. Mobile applications such as WhatsApp and Zoom came in handy to bridge the geographical distance between the team members, facilitators and mentors. The teams submitted their pitches on YouTube. We supported all the teams to install and connect to the three-day session. Brainstorming went on as late as 3 am as participants tried to refine their ideas. The participants made the best out of their ideas in the spirit of making their communities a better place.”
It was great to see the innovative and deep-thinking participants put into developing their ideas and pitches post the boot camp. Their ideas covered a wide variety of issues affecting young people but aligned with the priorities of Generation Unlimited. From using technology in agriculture, assistive technology for the deaf community, online learning, mobile science laboratories, air conditioning fans for schools in arid areas, menstrual hygiene, mentorship in science and technology to sustainable energy sources, it was challenging to select the final five teams.
But ideas are not enough. The participants had to demonstrate that they exhaustively thought about how it worked, how it could be scaled up and whether it was feasible to impact marginalised people. They also had to describe their sustainability plan and show the judges and the facilitators they would work as a team after the challenge ended. Unfortunately, most finalists struggled with demonstrating what was new or unique about their idea. They had to prove that they had done thorough research and position themselves as the best in the competition.
Winning innovations in Kenya
The five teams that reached the finalist stage will receive a USD 1000 grant and expert advice on how to improve their idea. Finally, the judges nominated two out of five winning teams to proceed to the global level. Judges chose the winner based on several factors such as those who had been motivated, were able to work together and showed they had endurance. At the global level, participants will join with winner teams from across the world. And it won’t be easy. Given the challenges posed by the pandemic, the winning participants did not have enough time to develop their ideas after the boot camp before proceeding.
The Green Project Initiative from Mathare proposed a waste management solution that recycles and uses garbage to make briquettes. This reduces waste and creates employment for youth while promoting environmental conservation. They will proceed to the global level.
UDTech Farm is an agro-tech high school startup that enhances crops harvest by utilising the technology and has the potential to impact millions of families, especially those hit by hunger in arid and semi-arid areas. Safari Lab proposed to initiate mobile science and computer labs as well as mobile libraries services in marginalised areas where access to these facilities are minimal. This will increase access to education for young people. Vijiji proposed to improve the school to work transition. They envision a programme where young people go through mentorship and apprenticeship training from partner entrepreneurs before being connected to Technical Vocational Educational and Training institutions.
“Earlier in the year, I had the chance to mentor a group of students to learn about robotics,” says Elly Savatia from SEKANI, one of the winning teams. “I noticed that some of them were struggling to hear what I was saying. I later realised that they were deaf. As an inventor and technology enthusiast, I thought of how we could incorporate machine learning and AI to communicate with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
“We are so happy about the support we received in developing our ideas, learning how to be open-minded and discovering design thinking,” Elly continues. “Through research and feedback from the public, we were able to come up with a solution that incorporates assistive technology. It is inclusive of both deaf and hearing persons in society to help them communicate easily.”
By Cynthia Nyongesa, UNICEF Kenya.