Last week, I spent time talking and listening to more than 100 women and adolescent girls assisted by the Mastercard Foundation’s partnership with BRAC. This program is scaling access to microfinance as well as education, training and support services across Uganda to help two million people improve their livelihoods. More than 95 percent of microfinance members are women, and about 40 percent of them are young, between the ages of 18 to 30 years. I asked them for ideas about what they need to overcome poverty, and what kind of opportunities they seek. 

The reality is that family and earning responsibilities arrive far too early for adolescent girls in Africa, and continue throughout their lives. Due to economic realities, many are forced to abandon their education in order to support their households. Yet, when opportunities are presented—in the form of education, capital to start or grow a business, training on a skill, and exposure to new ideas—these women have created pathways around the constraints imposed by poverty.

The women I spoke to who are part of BRAC’s programs are economically active.  Many of the younger women expressed a desire to complete their secondary school education.  But, they said they would need child care and education financing to do so. Some would require assistance to keep their businesses going with flexible hours to go to school. They spoke of dreams of becoming secretaries, engineers, and even computer wizards. Regardless of age, the women were keen to acquire new skills and knowledge that would increase their economic options and future earning potential.  Some suggested we develop new products to help them save money or access loans to finance their children’s education.

Our conversations reinforced the importance of enabling disadvantaged populations, particularly young people, to learn, earn and save. This requires the acknowledgement that they are already economically active out of necessity. They want to continue their education and learn how to use financial services and gain market-appropriate skills, while continuing to earn a living.  We need to figure out how to effectively deliver such services.

Our foundation has prioritized the development and testing of such holistic approaches for young people in Africa. We are looking forward to collaborating with organizations to build integrated learning, earning and saving models that bridge the gap between young people’s dreams of finishing school and developing careers, and the opportunities they seek to fulfill those dreams.