Naomi Lucas’ passion for empowering youths in search of job opportunities is epic. In a continent where the youth population is growing and job placements are a big issue, she is spearheading Africa’s biggest book project which could possibly help change the status quo. Solomon Elusoji writes
From 2009 to 2011, Naomi Lucas visited 32 states across Nigeria looking for young people to work with. At first, she was expectant, optimistic about the wide pool of talent she would have at her disposal. But that optimistic expectation was soon replaced with a shocking discovery.
“I needed between 80 and a 100 people for the project I was working on,” she told me. “So, essentially I had jobs. I sent an advance team to go to the different places and shortlist, so I could come and select the people that I want.”
The problem was, virtually all those shortlisted didn’t even have the rudimentary skills she was looking for. “Going to those different cities, spending time that I didn’t have, talking to all of these young people, I realised that I would speak to 40 people and still can’t find one person that I could work with it. It was unbelievable. I kept asking myself, is this for real? Are these the people that are looking for jobs? They are never going to find work.”
She became very concerned at the pathetic situation, but due to the pressures of work and resources, she didn’t get to do anything about it, until 2012 when she set up Graduate Pro, a company designed to bridge the gap between graduates and today’s workplace, using the power of audio-visuals, young people’s attraction to the creative industries and the current pervasiveness of internet and mobile technology.
“I felt that I needed money to do what I wanted to do, but I found out I could start from where I was,” she said. “So I set up a blog where I started talking about the things that I felt young people should know to help them excel in the job market. There was also an email where I encouraged young people to send in their concerns and all that. That email address became like a hub. Looking at all of the issues that young people were dealing with, I realised this was a full time job. That was when I began to think that there has to be a way to just get to this people fast without having to wait for when I have money.”
That thinking led to Naomi launching an audacious audio-book project titled, ‘I’m A Graduate, Now What?’. The book, specifically aimed at addressing unemployment among Africa’s youth population, will feature exemplary Nigerians selected from a wide range of industries across Nigeria. These Nigerians will each narrate a chapter of the book, under the supervision of a Voice Coach and a Creative Director.
Confirmed narrators for the project include Chocolate City’s Audu Maikori, popular actors, OC Ukeje, Chinedu Ikedizie, comedian, Ayo Makun, and motivational coach, Lanre Olusola.
Others include: Segun lawal, Yemi Amusan, Dare Art Alade, Chioma Omeruah, Jane Maduegbuna, Michelle Aisha Bello, Kola Oyeneyin, Nimi Akinkugbe, Japheth Omojuwa, Andre Blaze Hensaw, Moses Siasia, Lydia Idakula Sobogun, Ojoma Ochai, Femi Longe, Dike Chukwumerije, Misan Rewane, Aisha Augie-Kuta, Jimi Tewe, Nuhu Kwajafa, Femi Obong Daniels, Sage Hasson, Jodie Odiete, Amanda Kirby Okoye, Dayo Israel, Alkasim Abdulkadir, and Wana Udobang.
“We didn’t start out for it to be Africa’s biggest book project; it was something that we stumbled upon,” Naomi told me in-between one of the audio-book’s recording sessions. We were outside the studio, on a gravelled driveway, the sun shimmering above.
“Essentially, when I finished the book, I was looking at publishing it traditionally,” she said, “but I was a bit concerned because I know the kind of people I am trying to reach – young people do not read. So, I kept thinking of ways to present the content that will ensure they consume it. Then I realised there is a very strong music culture within Nigeria and Africa: young people are passionate about music. So, if they already had earpieces and earphones jammed in, I might as well plug into the culture. And that’s how the idea for the audio-book came in.”
But why didn’t she read the entire book herself? Why did she decide to bring in eminent Nigerians to do the job?
“It was driven by the need grasp young people’s attention, because I believe what I am trying to say is very important,” she told me. “And if I’m going to grasp their attention, I had to look for people that young Nigerians respect, look up to, want to be like? Who are the people who have done stuffs, and are doing stuffs? So, that’s how we came up with our list. Then we wrote the letters and began to talk to all of these people. It took us about three to four months of relentless pursuing to get them committed to the project.”
The book project will not just be limited to Nigeria or audio-media.
“My overall objective is to take this global, but we are starting with Nigeria and, of course, Africa. In every single country where we are able to make an inroad, we would get the same number of professionals in that country to read the book. So, this is the Nigerian edition. Ghana is on standby, Zambia is on standby, Ethiopia is on standby.
“The book will explore the entire trans-media spectrum. For the print version, I’m working very strongly with a couple of my commonwealth colleagues, to see how we can incorporate workbooks into it. And I would like for it to be illustrated as well.
“One British-Nigerian movie director has approached me saying she would like to shoot a movie, using the contents. We are releasing as an e-book. I’m hoping we can use the content to generate a web series. I’m hoping that we can use it on radio as drama, because most of the chapters start with skits, very hilarious skits.
“Why all of these components are important to me is because I know how young people work, I know that learning styles have evolved. I know that for one person radio may appeal, for another person it might be a book; so, I just want to make sure that I reach as many young people as possible.”
Interestingly, Naomi’s book project is simply a means to an end. She wants to use sales of the audio-books and other media- related products to raise funds and execute boot-camps across Africa, because she feels that the concerns that young people are dealing with “cannot be solved with one-day workshops. We have some serious skill issues, and they need to be addressed.”
“The book is just first-aid,” she said, underlining the need to set up boot-camps across Africa. But, “It is everything you need to know, to be able to understand how the African marketplace works; so that you don’t go out looking clueless and acting clueless. And, of course, we peppered it with a lot of real-life experiences, so that when you pick up the book and finish, you will know what to do.”
For Naomi, there are two ways the African continent can solve unemployment. One is short term, and includes skilling up the population, while the other is long term, restructuring the entire educational system.
“What we need to do now is to tell the honest truth: the young people that we have are not suitable for the workplace. That’s the reality. We need intensive skills acquisition strategies. We just need to cluster young people by interest, by the things that they want to do, and make sure that they have the necessary skills to function. Employers have made very specific demands, but the ones on ground can’t supply,” she said.
“Then the long term: we need to fix the curriculum to reflect the realities of today’s marketplace. My lecturer taught me with his lesson notes. We need to do intensive teacher training. The lecturers and facilitators are not prepared for today’s environment. Computer literacy amongst teacher is still a problem till today. How can you relate with a young person when you don’t even know how to use the tools that he’s conversant with?”
She argued that there are jobs, but the required skills to fill them are lacking. “It’s not a popular thing to say, but that’s the truth,” she mused when I pointed out that not a few persons would disagree with her.
According to her, there is unemployment in Africa because “there are no people to help businesses grow, so the capacity of businesses to employ people is very limited. If I have three fantastic sales people and the business expands, and we need to open a new branch, what do you think will happen? Who’s going to run the new branch? People. But if I’m managing one very exasperating sales person that does not know how to use an excel sheet, I’m going to be struggling with him until I fire him. I won’t have the capacity to recruit someone else.
“In a sense, it looks like I’m anti-entrepreneurship, but that’s not true. I heard the story of a lady who started a business with ten million naira from YouWin. Three months into the business, she had fired and recruited three batches of staff, and the business was going downhill. She had money, but she didn’t have manpower.
“I’m saying that entrepreneurship schemes are compounding a problem. It is like washing the leaves of a diseased tree. The tree is still diseased; and what is this disease: we don’t have skills. So, if you empower 50,000 entrepreneurs, who is going to do the work? Entrepreneurs need a workforce. The first place to start is to skill-up. When you do that, businesses will expand, accommodate more people, who will learn, grow through the process, spin-off, and then do their own thing.”