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Africa Yoga Project: Inspiring Youth to Achieve Greatness360°ANALYSIS

Using the practice of yoga, AYP aims to create opportunities for African youth to become leaders in their communities.

Paige Elenson, Ashoka Fellow and founder of Africa Yoga Project, is committed to creating the future market leaders of Africa’s currently untapped wellness industry. Using the transformational practice of yoga, she is persuading African youth to discover their passion, translate this into employment opportunities and to become leaders in their communities.

In this interview with Ashoka, she challenges us to play a role in enabling youth all over East Africa to do the same.

Ashoka: Tell us about some of the young people who are drawn to Africa Yoga Project: Where do they come from? What are their families like? What are their aspirations?

Paige Elenson: The youth that are drawn to Africa Yoga Project (AYP) are dynamic and creative young leaders, who sense there is more available to them personally and professionally than the current status quo. Some of these young people come from Nairobi’s informal settlements, where their way of life consisted of carjacking and robbing on a daily basis to feed their families. Others come from rural Rwanda, where they have been traumatized by war and are still facing sleepless nights. And some young people are drawn to AYP in hope of relieving back pain, sleeping better at night or losing weight. Yoga helps with all of these things but through AYP’s full range of programs, they also gain a greater sense of purpose, productivity and inner peacefulness.

We see an evolution in young people who participate. They find their excitement and passion and often this turns into a job opportunity, when they translate their enthusiasm into skills and use these skills to secure or create employment opportunities. They also share their skills with their peers, which begins to change their communities. They become true social entrepreneurs.

I want to tell you the story of one such social entrepreneur — her name is Margaret and she is a graduate of Africa Yoga Project. She was married at 12 years old and was repeatedly abused until she ran away. She began pickpocketing on the streets and was trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty that so many youth in Kenya who we work with go through. She would spend her days doing things that she felt ashamed about in order to survive, and then try and numb the inner pain through drugs, alcohol and reckless behavior. She completed AYP’s three-year yoga teacher certification training. She talks about the process of finding herself — slowly taking care of her body and making decisions that allowed her to regain confidence and self-worth. Now she teaches yoga to corporate clients like Nokia and the United Nations, and is a part-time receptionist at a yoga studio. She also teaches yoga to HIV-positive women in Langata Women’s Prison. Margaret is passionate about educating and giving back to prisons, because she feels that this is easily where she could have ended up.

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Ashoka: Can you share more about AYP and the organization and programs you have created?

Elenson: Africa Yoga Project’s mission is to educate, empower, elevate and employ youth from Africa, using the transformational practice of yoga. Our vision is to create opportunities for youth to step into their greatness and become self-sustaining leaders in their communities.

People wonder what yoga has to do with solving Kenya’s youth unemployment crisis. Yoga is an evidence-based practice that empowers a healthy lifestyle. Coupled with a curriculum of teacher training, self-growth, mentorship and business development skills, Africa Yoga Project’s model creates a new source of jobs for Kenya’s unemployed youth.

AYP has two programs. The first is a three-year certification program, which includes Africa’s only accredited yoga teacher training, international mentorship and job placement for free. The second is a two-year business development program that focus on creating wellness-inspired enterprises like a yoga studio, a retreat business, or a clothing or yoga mat company. In both programs, youth participate in a professional development curriculum that focuses on self-discovery. AYP also perpetuates a culture of community activism, health and empowerment by employing these youth to teach yoga to communities that lack access to preventative medicine and health care practices. We offer 350 free yoga classes a week to these communities, reaching over 6,000 people. Our program capitalizes on the global yoga market to generate sustainable income through “voluntourism” programs, which ensure earned income for Kenya’s youth and inspire a new generation of global advocates for a diverse and active community.

Africa’s ability to unlock the potential in undeveloped local industries could shift millions of unemployed youth into formal employment. AYP provides meaningful employment opportunities by unlocking the market potential of a new and untapped wellness industry in Africa. In its full scope, including yoga-related products, yoga is a global multi-billion dollar industry that has barely taken root in Africa. By tapping into this market, we offer youth productive roles in their communities, leadership training, education and skills that guide them to well-paying jobs.

So far, we have trained over 200 teachers through our program. They teach over 6,000 people a week. Over 80% of our teachers are employed by the wellness industry and have moved from below the poverty line to what Kenya considers middle income earners. Each teacher supports approximately five people with their salary. Yoga is a $27 billion business in the United States. International wellness tourism is directly responsible for $12 million global jobs, which delivers $1.3 trillion in global economic impact. I believe the African wellness market can be a billion dollar market in the next five years. Africa Yoga Project is on a mission to make this happen by creating the future market leaders of this industry.

Ashoka: How does youth unemployment affect the lives of AYP participants? What does youth unemployment look like at a national scale — at a societal, economic and cultural level?

Elenson: Youth unemployment can been seen as Kenya’s biggest problem or its greatest potential. Youth unemployment affects the lives of AYP participants in so many ways: poor health, safety, lack of possibility and hope, and a loss in purpose and integrity. AYP works primarily in Nairobi, where 78% of Kenya’s population is younger than 35 years, with over 70% of these people currently unemployed [Kenya Census]. Research shows that there are about 800,000 young people being released into the job market annually, with only a fraction of these getting jobs. It has also been noted that most crimes are committed by youth from urban slums, as idleness — especially in the absence of formal education — breeds restlessness.

People wonder what yoga has to do with solving Kenya’s youth unemployment crisis. Yoga is an evidence-based practice that empowers a healthy lifestyle. Coupled with a curriculum of teacher training, self-growth, mentorship and business development skills, Africa Yoga Project’s model creates a new source of jobs for Kenya’s unemployed youth.

Moreover, Nairobi’s urban slums showcase the link between poverty, inequality, disease and crime. Oxfam reports that 50% of Nairobi’s population consists of youth living in urban slums. As a result of this extreme chronic poverty, there is a 30% increase of engagement in high-risk livelihoods in these communities, according to Oxfam.

It is like a bomb ready to explode. If these youth are not given an opportunity to become formal members of society, they will ultimately form the population from which terrorists, gang members and criminals are recruited.

Ashoka: Whose role is it to address youth unemployment? And whose job is it to create and ensure employment opportunities for (East) African youth?

If there are youth at-risk, then we are all at risk. Poverty and unemployment are key drivers of crime, and each of us has a stake in these twin problems and in their solutions. We cannot continue to look the other way and assume it is the government’s role alone to address these issues. The citizen sector, the private sector, governments, educators and parents must join hands to create solutions and enable youth to push new markets forward.

I believe it is everyone’s job to participate in the solutions. Each of us, in our communities, households and workplaces, has the opportunity to mentor, train and share the skills and knowledge that we use to earn income with young people. Can you imagine the outcome if each person in East Africa could enable one young person to pursue their passion and secure a meaningful livelihood? If every person in East Africa believed it is their responsibility to create or enable one job for just one young person, there would be no crisis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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