Out to make vocational education attractive

Helene Budliger Artieda

Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs Helene Budliger Artieda engages with plumbing apprentices at Don Bosco Boys Technical Institute in Karen, Nairobi, on Thursday. The project is run by Swisscontact and provides youth with vocational skills to address the shortage of tradesmen in the country.

Photo credit: Pool

Lillian Mwai-Ndegwa, the country director of Swisscontact in Kenya, finds her current role quite exciting. While her previous jobs largely involved fundraising and implementing projects, at the Swiss non-profit organisation she now has latitude to help make a bigger impact and create change.

 “As a country director, everything that happens there (in your country) is on your shoulders. And so that level of responsibility is big but it’s also exciting,” she says. “It’s interesting to be able to influence, especially if you have the drive to steer an organisation and really want to impact the society.”

Swisscontact is a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to reduce unemployment and improve the livelihoods of the youth, refugees, smallholders and micro, small and medium enterprises. It, for example, strengthens their prospects of gainful employment by facilitating technical skills training, promoting financial literacy, and offering linkages to formal financial institutions. The organisation also plays a role in alleviating poverty through increasing access to financial products and services.

Through inclusive finance programmes, Ms Ndegwa says, micro-enterprises, subsistence farmers and low-income households have increased their economic activities.


One of the latest projects her organisation is involved in is known as PropelA, which provides young people with competitive skills for self-employment, makes vocational training appealing to the youth and addresses unemployment and the shortage of technical skills. She hopes that an event held in Nairobi on Thursday will help smoothen the journey to impact thousands of lives in Kenya.

Ms Ndegwa always knew she wanted to be in a position to influence and shape lives. She just did not know when and how to jumpstart her career. But what began by chance hugely shaped her life in ways she never imagined. Like all fresh graduates, while scouring for job opportunities, she stumbled upon an opportunity to work with KPMG as an auditor. She applied and, to her surprise, she landed the job.

 “I feel like I’ve had a mix of both good and not-so-great moments in my career. I’m convinced that the beginning of my career was something that was a highlight for me and something that has carried me through the years. In short, being accepted into the graduate recruitment programme at KPMG was the game-changer,” she told Lifestyle.

Lillian Mwai-Ndegwa

Lillian Mwai-Ndegwa, the Swisscontact country director.

Ms Ndegwa added: “That was the only job I actually applied for when I got out of campus. I wanted to solve Africa’s problems. I knew it in my heart but I did not know when and where I was going to begin. During the job-hunting and determining where and what direction I would take, I came across a link that KPMG were recruiting and it was online. I gave it a shot. To have been selected out of the many fresh graduates was a highlight for me.”

Her stars quickly aligned, seeing her witness a steady rise in the career ladder. After working for five years as an auditor – including flagging a mismatch between funds and projects – she says she felt that she quite understood what results funders desired to achieve. She knew that coming with the auditing experience, implementing projects to completion was something she was prepared to handle.

She wandered a little into agriculture – and had a stint at One Acre Fund – and last year she tried a new challenge with more added responsibility upon being headhunted. That’s how she ended up at Swisscontact.

The mother of four – three girls and a boy – has worked in diverse countries across the continent including Somaliland, Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, and South Africa. That has enabled her to hone her skills and adapt to a wide range of working environments.

Ms Ndegwa says the experience has given her a unique perspective on the needs of communities and the various challenges that they face, making her an asset in the field of international development.

She graduated with a degree in actuarial science from the University of Nairobi (UoN) in 2009 and holds a Master’s of Business Administration (international business) from the same university.

Young family

Her day begins at 5am when she wakes up to prepare her young family before she leaves for work. She is always in the office by 8am “because I am a morning person”. And, just like she begins the day with her family, she always strives to be home early enough to do the homework with her children.

But, however busy her days are, she spares time for the gym. And inside her purse will always be a novel, which she reads as a pastime whenever she can within the day.

“I’ve learnt that it is about quality over quantity, whether it is time for gym or reading novels. Basically, quality over quantity is a principle that cuts across several disciplines in life,” she says.

Ms Ndegwa attributes the feature of being a quick learner to her meteoric rise in her career.

 “If you need anything done, I can always learn fast and get it done to perfection,” she says.

While it may take excruciatingly long for people to reach their desired goals, she calls for patience. She has advice for young people in particular: “Do not take shortcuts in life if you hope to make it. If you aspire to excel, you really have to work hard.”

On PropelA, Ms Ndegwa is excited by her oganisation’s involvement in changing lives.

“We are pleased to have both male and female plumbers as part of the first cohort, especially as we work towards breaking gender norms. Only three per cent of Kenyan construction artisans are women. We are looking to empower more of them to get into the industry,” says Ms Ndegwa, adding that those involved have seen the opportunities available. The first cohort in the programme being implemented by SwissContact has 62 male and 22 female apprentices.

Completing college studies, graduating, and finding a job immediately is every person’s dream. But things hardly go this way for many. For some, even making it to the campus is never a given. Many dreams, therefore, end up snuffed in between, resulting in a high number of jobless youth, the country director says. And this is exactly what the project targets.

It seeks to empower young men and women above 18 years who have completed secondary school through apprenticeship by giving them technical skills and hands-on experience as plumbers and electricians.

Borrowing heavily from the dual learning approach in Switzerland – which has been hailed for being effective in reducing the rate of unemployment in the European country – Swisscontact’s PropelA project is working with various stakeholders to reduce youth unemployment.

In the dual approach, the students learn 25 percent of the skills in class while 75 percent is based in a company for on-the-job training, Ms Ndegwa explains. While at it, they are paid, and she hopes the stipend is further motivation to the youth to consider TVET courses and see the skills acquired as a pathway to wealth creation.

On Thursday, the visiting Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs, Ms Helene Budliger Artieda; Swiss Ambassador to Kenya Valentin Zellweger; and Kenya’s TVET Director Joyce Mwale, together with private sector leaders, toured the Don Bosco Technical Institute in Nairobi’s Karen. The institution’s vocational training programme provides market-driven skills to young men and women.

Skilled for Life

Other projects that Swisscontact has been involved in include Skilled for Life that was implemented in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana County and was hailed for impacting thousands of livelihoods despite the difficult conditions faced by those who had fled their countries.

Ms Ndegwa explains that if successful, the PropelA project will also address their working attitude towards safety standards, time management and the efficient and sustainable use of materials and resources.

Through public-private partnerships with Kenyan and select multinational enterprises, an apprenticeship offer for plumbing and electrical installations will also eventually be co-created. On the one hand, the project will enable newly skilled young Kenyan workers to access decent jobs in safe workplaces and earn higher living incomes.

On the other hand, employers and the public will benefit from the services of more skilled and productive workers. Making this a success is a challenge Ms Ndegwa says she relishes.

This week, Swisscontact brought together stakeholders to examine the place of vocational training as a means to reducing joblessness among the youth in an event that was also attended by high-level delegations from Kenya and Switzerland.

The private sector, according to the World Bank, offers 90 per cent of employment opportunities in developing countries. In Kenya, says Ms Ndegwa, “that means that if our solutions would work, then we cannot ignore the private sector. Because we really want to work towards economic empowerment”.