It was exciting when the four young people from the Kombo East district in The Gambia traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, for the inaugural Africa Region Junior Achievement (JA) Company of the Year Competition Oct. 6-9. It was even more exciting when the company they had built landed the Most Valuable Enterprise award out of the 13 companies that had participated, from 11 sub-Saharan countries.
But most exciting of all was the reasons these young people won the award. The short explanation is that the company created by the four youths, the Lawol Welli JA Company, had a much greater purpose than to simply make money.
The Company of the Year competition exists to celebrate the achievements of 15- to 19-year-old students, who have completed the JA Company curriculum, which provides economic education for youth by taking them through the process of creating and running their own businesses.
The four Gambian teenagers — Omar (sales and marketing manager), Kaddy (director), Mam (accountant) and Lamin (human resources manager) — all took advantage of the 11-session JA Company program through the ChildFund affiliate in their community. They also participated in another JA program, My Money Business (17 sessions), which further equipped them for success with Lawol Welli, the company they built that produces batik and tie-dyed bags and table runners.
One thing about the Gambians was unique in the competition: They were all school dropouts. In fact, ChildFund’s JA program in The Gambia is specifically designed to empower youths who have dropped out of school.
“I am a school dropout due to circumstances beyond my control,” says Lamin, Lawol Welli’s HR manager. “I was frustrated since then I thought that I would not be able to make it in life. I was living in the ghettos, thinking of all sorts of things I can never do. I kept blaming people for my failure, and I became very aggressive.”
When ChildFund staff found him on a football field and encouraged him to join the JA program, Lamin thought hard about leaving his friends. But he’s glad he did: “I can say it has given me hope, because it has inspired me to be a leader and a role model and, most importantly, a successful entrepreneur.”
The JA Company of the Year competition sets personal growth on an equal footing with successful entrepreneurship. According to contest guidelines, “The goal is to balance the business achievements of each team as a whole with members’ individual personal development.”
This goal is in line with ChildFund’s focus on capacity building in its programs. What made Lawol Welli particularly special among its competitors was the fact that the company’s impact extended beyond its four founders, empowering other youth around them.
Mustapha Kebbeh, national youth coordinator for ChildFund The Gambia, says that the Lawol Welli entrepreneurs recruited other young people to undergo the JA trainings. “Furthermore, they are leading other young people’s groups in their communities to campaign against drug and substance abuse, teenage pregnancy and other vices affecting the lives of young people.” And, he adds, the Lawol Welli group also has trained and employs several other young people.
The three-day competition was rigorous, requiring four qualifying rounds that included submitting a detailed report, an oral presentation before an audience, a trade booth display with interviews on the floor, and a one-on-one interview with the panel of judges.
As Omar, Mam, Kaddy and Lamin went through their paces, both audience and judges found their story compelling. Although other teams ultimately earned first, second and third places with greater point totals, the group from The Gambia clearly had something that extended beyond the parameters JA had set for judging the competition — a value that exceeded the panel’s expectations.
This value merited special recognition: the Most Valuable Enterprise award, which had not been planned for and was created specifically to honor Lawol Welli.
Speaking at the award ceremony, JA President Sean Rush said, “This is an opportunity to learn in a way they have never done before. So I urge them to keep their eyes and ears open for whatever they learn during the competition.”
If all the youth from those 11 countries were listening to what Rush was telling them, they did well to take a careful look at the impact of the Lawol Welli JA Company. Mam, Lamin, Omar and Kaddy — and all those whose lives they have already touched — are exactly what ChildFund aims for in seeking to empower children to become leaders of enduring change.