Hassan Al-Mulla of Silatech on tackling youth unemployment in the MENA region

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The MENA region is experiencing a confluence of stressors, from continued instability to intensifying climate-related issues like water insecurity. At the recent Doha Forum, Lauren Risi of ECSP sat down with Hassan Al-Mulla, CEO of Silatech, to discuss what his organization, as an international non-profit NGO focused on economic empowerment of young people, made to meet some of these challenges.

Rissi: Could you tell us about the work of Silatech and your leadership within the organization?

Al-Mulla says that to tell the whole history of the organization, you have to go back a few years.

“In 2005, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, our founder and president, was involved in a high-level group on international issues. I believe the focus was on extremism, and one of the main reasons young people join extremism was unemployment.

The unemployment rate in the MENA region was 30% at that time (more than double the global average of 13%) and the rate of population growth exceeded the creation of new jobs. The issue of unemployment in this context caught the attention of Her Highness and in 2008 she announced a global initiative, Silatech.

The organization has two programs: The first initiative connects young people to job opportunities, including through digital matchmaking and job training platforms. The second program, Business Development, supports youth entrepreneurship and is a growing focus of Silatech’s work.

“We are leaning more towards business development as it helps provide young people with tools to become their own employers,” Al-Mulla said. “It’s for those who have a passion for creating their own micro, small and medium enterprises. And by accompanying them, we actually create an ecosystem so that they employ others too, so that there is always an amplifying effect… Some of the young entrepreneurs have hired up to 10 or even 12 people.

Since its launch, Silatech has expanded to 18 countries and, together with its partners, has reached 2 million people. “And we are actually trying to reach a second stage,” Al-Mulla added. “We seek to support 5 million young men and women alongside our partners.”

Rissi: We know that some of the challenges in the MENA region, such as high unemployment and urbanization, can contribute to conflict, displacement, instability and degradation of livelihoods. Can you talk about the role of youth employment in the wider stability of the region and how you are developing programs that link employment and stability?

“Stability is one of the goals we seek,” Al-Mulla said, both in terms of peace and the economy. “We are actually targeting specific countries that have a lot of conflict,” he noted. As young people do not always have many options in these contexts, they may end up turning to extremism. Silatech therefore strives to provide alternative opportunities that empower conflict-affected youth and support their communities.

Stability also means that Silatech focuses on the long-term viability of its projects. On the one hand, they partner with governments to ensure employment programs have the institutional infrastructure to continue beyond Silatech’s involvement, and on the other hand, they build skills and capacities of young entrepreneurs. “I always remember [the saying], ‘If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. But if you teach him to fish, he will eat all his life.


Rissi: Can you give an example of what a business development project might look like?

Al-Mulla said facilitating access to loans – usually through a local financial institution – for young people who would otherwise be unable to obtain them is one of the ways Silatech supports business development. The organization also supports entrepreneurs through grants and training.

“The most recent example is a store that sells chocolate and chocolate products,” he said. Although it was a relatively simple idea, he remarked, “the girl who ran this shop had so much passion that it became a trend.” Silatech partnered with a local MFI in Tunisia, where the project is based, and the institution granted it a loan. “She was able to start the business and repay the loan, and now she continues to support herself and her family. And she hired a few people.

Many places where Silatech works have high youth unemployment. This type of capacity building for entrepreneurs is therefore a way to ensure opportunities for young people in communities where there are few jobs available. “When you look at the labor market, there are not many vacancies, there are not many companies recruiting,” Al-Mulla explained. “So there’s no point in training [youth]forcing them to make efforts and frustrating them when they cannot find a job.

Rissi: One of the words we hear a lot in the US development community is localization, the idea of ​​creating projects that are driven by local actors. Can you talk about your efforts to work with local financial institutions and local groups, and how you are expanding these efforts across the region? How do you envision having a lasting impact on the ground while being effective on a larger scale?

“We are trying to start as a pilot in a specific country [and then] learn from it,” Al-Mulla said. Silatech partners with local organizations so that knowledge and experience on the ground can inform and help “localize” the project. For a new project based in Somalia, for example, Silatech is partnering with the UN and a private fishing company to fund training for young people in the fishing industry.

“It is important to take into account the circumstances of the country itself because not everything works everywhere,” he added. In some contexts, entrepreneurial projects work best, while in others, technical and vocational training is the most successful.

Including larger partners in local efforts is also important to leverage success. “We always like to enter into any project with an international partner, whether it is a United Nations agency or an international NGO, or even multilateral banks and organizations.” Once a project has proven itself, Silatech can work with these partners to implement it elsewhere on a larger scale.

Rissi: We know that the climate is expected to weigh heavily on the MENA region. How do you integrate climate considerations into your work? How do you understand the relationship between tackling the youth unemployment crisis and addressing the region’s sustainability issues?

“It’s an important subject, and everyone needs to understand that [the environment] is relevant to everything,” Al-Mulla said. “We have noticed extreme drought, extreme flooding… And in many countries where we work, [this] has an impact on the projects.

Since many of Silatech’s efforts involve natural resources, he explained, the organization strives to introduce sustainability into its operations. “When it comes to agriculture, we always ask the people who train the beneficiaries to introduce green agriculture, solar energy…how to use the available resources without destroying them in the long term.”

Al-Mulla added that everyone can do something to give back, whether at the individual or institutional level. Silatech reduces travel for its own work by having young people apply for loans online, instead of sending out loan offers to meet recipients in person.

Rissi: You have an interesting background: you were previously at Royal Dutch Shell and worked in a communications infrastructure company. Can you tell us about your own background? What brought you to Silatech?

“It was a very interesting trip,” Al-Mulla said. “I went into communications after graduating and then moved into oil and gas, trade finance and investment in the UK. Then I returned to Qatar, and now I work in an NGO focused on youth economic empowerment.

After earning a degree in business administration from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, Al-Mulla worked with international partners at communications infrastructure company Oridoo. He also held positions at Shell before being approached by Silatech in 2021.

“It’s a huge shift from the private sector to the not-for-profit sector,” he explained. In his current role tackling youth unemployment, he is working to elevate an often underestimated problem. “How do we coordinate with others to create partnerships for a cause that doesn’t get the attention of much of the private sector or funders? »

For Al-Mulla, fostering youth passion is a central part of the effort, alongside institutional support. “I would advise people to follow their passion, to follow their dreams.” “I use passion, not motivation,” he added, “because for me passion is more important than motivation. Motivation comes and goes, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to… exert all the effort you need to perform at your best.

Photo credit: Young workers, otherwise without educational opportunities and of widely varying ages, attend classes at the Marka Social Support Center, east of Amman, Jordan, Courtesy of Jared J. Kohler/ Flickr user International Labor Organization ILO.

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