State Leaders in Nigeria Offer Skills Trainings to Combat High Illiteracy and Unemployment

While applying to university, Isabella Anna Anzolo, 20, enrolled in a free computer literacy training offered by a local organization in Lafia, the capital of Nigeria’s Nasarawa state. Anzolo says she wanted to gather new skills to make her marketable for a job in case she does not receive acceptance to university.

“As a young girl or a young person, the best you can ever achieve is education,” she says. “That is the best you can do to your youthful age. It is a legacy you can never regret.”

During the six-month course, Anzolo learned about computers as well as gained administrative skills. She completed the program in December 2012 and will participate in a graduation ceremony in June.

She took the course through the Mother and Child Care Enhancement Foundation, a nongovernmental organization founded by the first lady of Nasarawa. It aims to empower youth and women through free vocational and entrepreneurial training.

The organization is among various private institutions and government agencies in Nasarawa offering free skill-acquisition classes to combat high rates of illiteracy and unemployment in the state.

Hajia Salamatu Tanko Al-Makura, the first lady of Nasarawa, emphasized her organization’s commitment to boosting literacy rates in an event to promote literacy that it hosted on April 24.

The UNESCO delegation in the Nigerian capital of Abuja gave Al-Makura an ambassadorial award in 2013 to recognize her efforts to advance literacy, vocational skills and entrepreneurship.

Established in 2011, the organization has already trained more than 625 women and young adults through its literacy program, says Audu Blackgold Sanni, the organization’s technical adviser. Its courses are free, though participants must pay for materials as well as 500 naira ($3) to apply.

The Nasarawa State Agency for Adult and Non-formal Education also offers literacy and vocational skills training at 300 centers in the state, says Williams Ebuga, executive director of the governmental agency. The trainings are free in order to make them accessible to all.

“The literacy centers are where we teach those people who did not have the opportunity to go to school when they were young,” he says.

Under the state’s current administration, the agency has aimed to modernize the equipment and trainings that the centers offer, including basic reading and writing in the local Hausa language, computer literacy and vocational education for women, Ebuga says. Women learn skills such as sewing, knitting and baking.

“Through those skills, they are able to take care of themselves and have some little independence where they can earn some income,” he says. “And through that, they can contribute to the welfare of the family and also to the society.”

The centers also offer skills training to men and young people, including those who have dropped out of school.

During the May 1 commemoration of International Workers’ Day in Lafia, Gov. Alhaji Umaru Tanko Al-Makura pledged his administration’s commitment to tackling unemployment and increasing self-reliance through these trainings. The state administration does not have the resources to create more jobs and does not want to hire employees only to underpay them, he said.

“There are no jobs to give these youths,” he said. “If the jobs are there, money is not there to correspond with the amount of work they will do.”

Formal education has not provided young adults with the job opportunities they expected, and a diploma is no guarantee of employment, he said. So his administration is promoting trainings to encourage self-employment and to decrease restlessness and social instability.

“The only way out is to go the skill-acquisition way,” he said.

Approximately half of Nasarawa’s population is illiterate, Ebuga said at the April literacy event organized by the first lady’s organization. The national literacy rate in 2011 was 67 percent, according to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics.

Nasarawa also faces high unemployment rates. In 2011, the state’s unemployment rate was 36.5 percent, according to the bureau. This was higher than the national unemployment rate of nearly 24 percent for 2011.

Participants say they are benefiting from the free trainings.

Maiwaazi Rahila, 23, learned how to create and to embroider beaded bags during a three-month training offered by the Mother and Child Care Enhancement Foundation. She now sells the bags to her peers at Nasarawa State University, Keffi, where she studies psychology.

The training has empowered her, has made her self-reliant and has eased the financial burden on her parents.

“Nobody is poor unless you are not using what you have in your life,” she says.

Stephen Usman says that young graduates who struggle to find employment should embrace trainings to acquire skills that will help them become self-reliant. He uses his own experience as an example.

When Usman could not find a job in agriculture after graduating with a degree in this field in 2005, he taught himself photography skills. He now runs a commercial photography business as his main source of income.

“I am encouraging the young graduates to engage themselves in any business to sustain their living,” he says.

And trainings are not just for young people.

“I have seen people going into business because of this program,” Anzolo says of her course. “It is really affecting the lives of especially older women.”

But others say skill-acquisition trainings are not a panacea for illiteracy and unemployment in Nasarawa.

The formal education system is flawed, says Luka Iliya Zhekaba, a member of the Academic Staff Union of Secondary Schools, which represents secondary school staff in Nigeria. But adults and children must still embrace formal education because it provides consistent and continuous schooling, unlike skills trainings.

Ebuga says the trainings increase young people’s ability to obtain formal education.

“There is no way you can develop a nation effectively without education, without educating the citizenry,” he says. “The nonformal is to lift them up to a level whereby at a point they may stream into the formal one.”

Usman asks the government to increase both entrepreneurial and formal employment opportunities. Although he was able to start his own business, he says that self-employment is not easy. Even after acquiring skills through trainings, it is difficult to launch a business without startup capital.

“If you don’t have a source of income, there is no way you want to establish that business,” he says.

The government should provide small loans to participants of the skill-acquisition trainings, he says. It also must not lose focus on creating formal jobs for young adults because people tend to respect government employment more than self-employment.

Zhekaba recommends that the federal government increase job opportunities for young graduates by enforcing the federal retirement requirement for public sector employees after 35 years of work.

“They should allow them to go to give room to the younger ones coming behind,” he says. “If they can do that, I think the issue of unemployment will not be too much.”

Meanwhile, state agencies and development organizations plan to expand their literacy and vocational trainings to promote education and employment in Nasarawa.

Although the Mother and Child Care Enhancement Foundation is based in Lafia, the organization plans to bring trainings to rural areas of the state, Sanni says.

“We want to scale up the program to the whole 13 local government areas and development areas,” he says, referring to the local administrations that constitute Nasarawa.

The governor continues to publicly prioritize improving literacy and employment through the state centers. Despite the state’s current unemployment rate, Nasarawa will soon lead Nigeria with its skilled workforce, he said during his speech on International Workers’ Day.

The governor said that his administration recently sponsored a pioneer team of trainers to travel to Singapore for skill-acquisition trainings. Upon its return, the team will provide trainings to the citizens of Nasarawa.

Although other states in Nigeria have similar skills-training programs, the governor said Nasarawa was leading the way.

“Very soon, you will see people from other states asking for graduates from Nasarawa state skill-acquisition centers to come and help in adding value to their own services,” he said.

Jennifer Ehidiamen is a tech-savvy journalist based in Lagos. She reports on global health and development issues in Africa for Voice of America (VOA News). Jennifer also serves as a photojournalist and communications consultant. A 2013 Innovative Young Journalist Award recipient, 2013 New Media fellow for International Reporting Project, 2010 LEAP Africa award recipient and a 2009 Atlas Service Corps Fellow, Jennifer recently founded the Rural Reports project [http://www.ruralreporters.com], a news portal dedicated to grassroots citizen-reporting. She serves as an Advisory Council member for Washington DC-based One World Youth Project (OWYP). She has published three books: "In Days to Come" (2004), "Preserve my Saltiness" (2011) and "Half A Loaf And A Bakery" (2013). Jennifer graduated from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism with a degree in Mass Communication. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @Disgeneration