How USAID Sparks Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship through Partnerships
Naria A. Willis
Naria Willis serves as a Youth Engagement and Partnerships Specialist with USAID, working on the Youth Development Team in USAID's Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation in the Inclusive Development Hub.
Today’s youth have grown up in a rapidly changing world, interacting with technology throughout their formative years, accessing a vast amount of information, and persevering through a global pandemic. The skills, passions, and vision youth hold from these experiences in their own communities elevate them as critical partners for USAID. USAID believes young people should be viewed as agents of their own development, and many youth-led organizations have accepted this challenge to impact USAID and partner organizations through new ideas and innovations.
Young people are often not regarded as “real entrepreneurs” due to a number of age-related barriers. Though opportunities for learning and experience may arise, for many young individuals they are hard to access because of a lack of support, mentorship, and availability.
Yet, evidence continues to show that youth, particularly in developing countries, have much to gain in their exploration of and participation in entrepreneurship, including livelihood improvement and turning unmet needs into viable businesses. USAID is striving to find more opportunities to support youth-led entrepreneurial ideas.
One USAID partner, Generation Unlimited, a public-private youth partnership, is a key player in creating opportunities for large organizations to impact and support youth-led development and entrepreneurship. Generation Unlimited recognizes young people’s untapped potential and knows that youth need support systems that allow them to grow.
Generation Unlimited has had almost six years to establish a group of influential partners. Since its launch at the 2018 United Nations (UN) General Assembly by the UN Secretary General, it has placed young people alongside global organizations, UN agencies, private corporations, and civil society to deliver innovation on a global scale. These partners come together through the imaGen Ventures program, where USAID, alongside the UN Development Programme, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Microsoft, Plan International, and many more entities, breaks down barriers to supporting young people.
The imaGen Ventures program supports millions of young people globally to build “growth-oriented and socially motivated enterprises” that are entirely youth-led. Through imaGen Ventures, Generation Unlimited has reached more than 15 million young people in over 60 countries, and in 2022, it awarded 12 winning ventures with mentoring and seed funding of up to $16,000, allowing them to further scale their impacts.
Generation Unlimited provides a unique space for different entities to collaborate with young people, which has historically been difficult for USAID and many other large partners.
All of imaGen Ventures’ partner organizations provide support through a combination of funding, mentorship, and more. USAID has provided financial and technical support to the program. The Agency funds the project through a public international organization (PIO) agreement with UNICEF, allowing for a more creative route to provide support where standard funding streams may not exist. USAID also supports the global judging process to help determine the winners. Together with Generation Unlimited and partners, imaGen Ventures is a model for a healthy system providing resources, mentorship, expertise, and consulting to entrepreneurial youth.
One of the winning teams—Soigel, a youth team based in Egypt with the aim of “solving the problems that face the world and being an icon for the youth around the world”—created a high-efficiency organic fertilizer made of recycled sugarcane waste that absorbs carbon dioxide, increases productivity, and decreases water usage. Before being awarded first place at imaGen Ventures, Soigel participated in the Youth Challenge, an initiative through the USAID-funded Creating an Enabling Environment for Adolescent Girls in Egypt program as a stepping stone to imaGen Ventures.
Soigel’s success is one example of what young people can accomplish when they have the skills and support systems needed to make change.
USAID knows just how important and impactful it is to fund young people. Youth are powerful agents of change when they are connected with the systems that provide them support and allow them to grow.
Several practical actions can increase youth participation in entrepreneurship. First, USAID must improve youth’s access to relevant information and training to build the necessary entrepreneurship skills needed to be successful. Second, the Agency must invest in youth by providing access to finance and mentorship to build and sustain youth-led innovations and enterprises. And third, USAID must work with partners to build systems where young people, in all of their diversity, are taking the lead in defining their needs and priorities in their communities.
USAID and its partner organizations have a breadth of information to learn from these bright, passionate minds, and one of the actions is providing more direct funding to youth-led innovations, programs, and organizations.
Review the WorkwithUSAID.org Resource Library to access youth-focused tools for organizations and projects. You can also interact with youth-focused organizations in the Partner Directory by searching the keyword “Youth” to filter through organizations.