Why Entrepreneurship Education is Critical for Zimbabwe’s Youth: An Interview with Phil Mlambo

Q: What motivated you to join Junior Achievement?

PM: It was the opportunity to work with young people. Having spent time working with youth with HIV/AIDS, and in livelihoods development I saw that entrepreneurship development was a gap in the field.

My first job after college was with Streets Ahead, an organization that rehabilitated street children. We got them into schools, we provided skills training, taught them how to perform household chores, delivered incubation programs, introduced them to musical bands, football teams, gymnastics, all this in an effort to win their confidence so that we could approach them about returning home. Many came from broken homes and chose to be in the streets because it was more convenient that being at home. I believe entrepreneurship development cuts across all aspects of youth development.


Q: What is your interpretation of JA’s work?

PM: My interpretation has shifted. It started as giving young people exposure to business – to start them dreaming big and set up their own future. But things in Zimbabwe have shifted and it’s no longer for the future. It’s about something to do now – to address unemployment and underemployment. In Zimbabwe, we have lots of young people leaving school by design and by default, graduates leave by design and dropouts by default. Dropouts leave because of affordability challenges, others coming from universities are still ill-prepared for employment. Over 80% face unemployment. With hyperinflation in our economy (until 2008)and being in a country that doesn’t have its own currency (since 2009) – we had to learn words like trillion and quintillion. People lost money. Young people don’t fully understand what happened, why their parents lost money. Young people need financial literacy education. People think the problems we face are political but teaching business helps people understand the fundamentals and macroeconomics of the context so we can start rebuilding their confidence in the potential of the economy.


Q: What are the challenges for youth in Zimbabwe?

PM: We have a lot of social challenges. We have 4 million (?) people in the diaspora- in the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia. Not all of them took their families with them. So we have a generation of “diaspora orphans”; children who were left behind by their parents. Parents in the diaspora send money back to their children. What that breeds is an extra layer of kids who are parented by money from abroad. But we cannot parent children with money.

We have child-headed households because relatives are not available to head the households. Kids are vulnerable to abuse by those in the community who have the means. We also have girls who are heads of households because parents have died of HIV/AIDS. Girls become available for social abuses. Early marriage becomes prevalent because it gives the illusion of security for them. Boys become available for drugs abuse. We need children who understand enterprise and financial literacy to cope with the vulnerabilities they face.


Q: So what are the opportunities?

PM: The opportunities are all over the place. If you look at life and what makes life, look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If its food – growing food, packaging food, cooking food, processing food, preserving food. People will always need food. People will always want to eat. So for me, that is a big opportunity for young people. When I was in school agriculture was a form of punishment; if you spoke in class or came late to class the punishment was time on the farm. You had to water the garden or weed the crops. Being smart was not associated with agriculture. We have the weather and the soils that are conducive for agriculture. We can mechanize agriculture and make it more profitable and attractive to young people.

Outside of agriculture, IT is appealing. We have over 90% penetration of cell phones in this country, so almost anything phone-based can become business. But it is underemployment for a young educated person to be selling airtime on the roadside. ICT is best as an enabler for business.

Our schools are overpopulated. Every young person in this country needs uniforms, school supplies, stationery, books. We need producers and distributors. Young people can leverage technology for education; creating cartoons, simulations, curricula for business.


Q: Where should stakeholders be investing their energy for youth development?

PM: I think it’s about the economy. The investment should be in creating jobs for youth so they can be gainfully employed and stop being abused politically, or stop being sexually vulnerable. The investment should not be in sport alone; not everyone has that talent. The investment should not be in HIV alone; not everyone is infected. If we rebuild the economy we rebuild lives. How many people are HIV positive, but because they are enterprise-minded they can look forward? How many people in sports make loads of money but because they are financially illiterate they don’t know how to manage it? For me, it’s about enterprise. That’s my prescription.


Q: What do you consider JA Zimbabwe’s greatest success(es)?

PM: I don’t think we have succeeded yet. We’ve done a lot in 17 years. What we were promoting was not initially in tune with government. We promoted free enterprise when the government was doing price-controls. So for us to now have gotten the confidence of the ministries, and for the government to respect what we are doing to the extent that we are now being invited to be part of the decision-making process is an accomplishment. The three MetLife Awards we won over the past 10 years and the over 250,000 lives we have directly reached are only energizers for us to push towards success.


Q: Tell us about your own path to success. Was it a matter of design or was it luck?

PM: There was both. I matured fast because of my family circumstances; I am the first born of my family and the only boy. My father worked in the mines in South Africa, so I had to care for my mother and sisters at an early age. Being in leadership in the church also influenced me greatly. It was less of a spiritual thing and more about having a constituency to please/serve. When I became a leader in the church it gave me loads of responsibility. The experience of being a lay leader forced me to mature quickly. I am now more comfortable as a leader than as a manager.


Q:What advice would you offer to a younger version of yourself? What would you say to young Phil?

PM: I’m overly driven by passion and sometimes I lose myself. Sometimes I get too attached. I have a strong will, which can end up being distractive. I’d tell my younger self that it’s good to use reason.


Q: What advice would you or do you give to young people today?

PM: Allow yourself to get dirty. Do the difficult task. Don’t just rush to the top. Success is a road. Earlier in my life I volunteered to work with street kids. It was not ‘clean’ work, but it was fulfilling. Be comfortable doing that kind of work. Young people should have traceable footsteps to the top. They have the luxury of technology so things can happen faster than they did in the past. Connections are easily made, markets open faster, tables are set for them. It’s one thing to run with emotion, but they have to have discipline. Passion without discipline is chaos.



Phil Mlambo is the Executive Director of JA Zimbabwe, where he has worked for over 11 years. He has vast expertise in youth development and experience working with young people in varying contexts in Zimbabwe. Phil holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a masters in public and development management. A WK Kellogg Leadership Fellow who also participated in the Coca Cola Africa Foundation Leadership Fellowship. He is the father of three young Africans.


About JA Africa

JA Africa is a member of Junior Achievement Worldwide (JAWW). JA is the world’s largest organization dedicated to youth empowerment. JA helps youth own their economic futures through programming in entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial literacy.


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