Insufficient or poor professional training opportunities have contributed to high levels of youth unemployment in Southern Africa. Dorien Beurskens, together with her partner and co-founder Raj A. Joseph, has developed an affordable way to provide vocational education and training to young people in this region. She has established training centers that are both learning spaces for students and business hubs for entrepreneurs in the community. Dorien has developed a creative model in which the centers’ spaces, equipment and the Young Africa brand are rented out to local entrepreneurs who, in turn, train students in their respective fields.

This profile below was prepared when Dorien Beurskens was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Insufficient or poor professional training opportunities have contributed to high levels of youth unemployment in Southern Africa. Dorien Beurskens, together with her partner and co-founder Raj A. Joseph, has developed an affordable way to provide vocational education and training to young people in this region. She has established training centers that are both learning spaces for students and business hubs for entrepreneurs in the community. Dorien has developed a creative model in which the centers’ spaces, equipment and the Young Africa brand are rented out to local entrepreneurs who, in turn, train students in their respective fields.


Dorien founded Young Africa (YA) to empower underprivileged youth in Southern Africa with marketable skills so that they can pursue self-employment or access opportunities in the job market. She has established YA centers in Zimbabwe and Mozambique that offer vocational education and training programs at affordable prices and serve as business and social hubs for the community.
The mutually beneficial relationship among the students, the entrepreneurs and YA is central to Dorien’s model. The centers’ spaces, capital equipment and the YA brand are rented out to local entrepreneurs, who use them to sell products and provide services to the community. In addition, the entrepreneurs are responsible for training students in their respective fields. Since the training programs are predominantly practical in nature, the students have the opportunity to “learn on the job” through apprenticeships, and the entrepreneurs have access to skilled labor and a pool of potential employees for the future. In effect, YA licenses out various skills training departments to local entrepreneurs, which allows it to cover its costs and boost the efforts of local entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs also have access to business facilities in the YA centers. These resources elevate the otherwise informal ventures of the entrepreneurs into well-established businesses. The synergies between the roles of the students, the entrepreneurs and the YA centers are essential to the success of this model.
Dorien is convinced that economic, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual empowerment need to go hand-in-hand in order for young people to feel empowered to make a decent living and, therefore, she has designed the YA model around this. YA offers “skills of hands” to provide young people with marketable skills, and “skills of heart and mind” to enable them to live with dignity, purpose and responsibility. Unlike other vocational education and training providers, YA’s training programs and resources are designed in alignment with current skills gaps and needs in the job market. The departments include motor vehicle mechanics, welding, plumbing, catering, computing, sewing and music production and entertainment All students are also offered a course in business management in order to ensure that they are equipped to pursue self-employment, if they should choose to do so. Students also have the option to borrow start‐up capital and tools to establish their own businesses. Life skills education is an essential and compulsory part of the training programs to build students’ self-esteem and help them develop purpose and a sense of responsibility for themselves and towards their communities. Thus, YA’s students are empowered to improve their lives and pursue employment (or self-employment) upon graduation through a combination of vocational education and training, business management skills, life skills education and access to additional resources.
In less than 10 years, Dorien has set up four YA training centers, two in Mozambique and two in Zimbabwe, at which more than 26,000 young people have received vocational and management training. YA evaluations in Zimbabwe have shown that 80 percent of the educated youngsters feel economically and socially enriched after their training; and that 83 percent of the graduates in Mozambique have found a job or an apprenticeship, or have started their own business.
The establishment of a new YA center targeted towards agricultural jobs in Mozambique is currently underway. Dorien is also working towards the establishment of the first YA center in Namibia. She also expects to expand into the rural areas of Zimbabwe and, in the next ten years, envisions YA Centers in more countries in Southern Africa, such as Zambia, Malawi, Angola, and Botswana.


Africa has the youngest population in the world, with some 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 years old. This number is estimated to double by 2045. This trend offers a reservoir of young human capital that can be channeled towards the productive sectors of the continent’s economy. However, African countries have yet to create sufficient employment opportunities for this group. Young people make up 60 percent of Africa’s unemployed, and youth unemployment rates are double those of adult unemployment in most African countries. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there were 73 million jobs created in Africa between 2000 and 2008 but that only 16 million of these were for young people aged between 15 and 24 years old. As a result, many young Africans find themselves unemployed or underemployed in informal, low productivity jobs and very few opportunities for further development.
Youth unemployment is a consequence of both the lack of job opportunities, and insufficient or poor professional training opportunities—challenges that the continent has not yet addressed. The vocational education sector occupies a marginal position in Sub-Saharan Africa’s school systems and this sector, compared to other developing regions, is shrinking over time. The low proportion of students enrolled in technical or vocational programs signals stagnation and overall poor public training capacity. In addition, many young people do not have the financial means to access formal vocational education that is provided by private entities. In addition, the public sector does not invest much in such training due to the high costs of machinery, qualified teachers and maintaining the schools and professional centers. Consequently, vocational education and training is seriously underfunded; and the poor quality of equipment and the weak managerial capacity of these institutions significantly affect the quality of training programs available to youth.

Even when some sort of professional training system is in place, these rarely offer programs that include practical “on the job” training, and the job market fails to absorb many of these schools’ graduates. Low enrolment is partly due to the perception that vocational training only leads to low-status occupations (“blue-collar” workers) and forecloses access to higher levels of education. Students who enroll in this kind of education are considered to be those who have failed in general education, and many prefer to learn a trade while working rather than in a classroom setting. This is not likely to change while there is no link between vocational education provided by institutions and informal “on-the-job” training. Students who drop out of school to learn a trade have no opportunity to re-enter the formal school system and upgrade the skills that they acquired on the job. In addition, this system does not allow students who enter the vocational track to pursue or complete their academic studies. In turn, even students who managed to complete their studies and are now in vocational training tend to feel demotivated because they rarely acquire relevant, practical on-the-job skills, whether in the formal or informal sectors. Consequentially, vocational education and training centers tend to be negatively perceived by the general public despite the strategic role that these institutions could play in economic and social development.


A fundamental element of Dorien’s strategy is linking the design of YA centers and their training programs to specific skills gaps and opportunities in the job market. The various training departments are chosen based on the opportunities highlighted by a careful analysis of the region’s economy and job market. For example, this analysis includes efforts to understand the region’s burgeoning industries and the human capital required to propel them further. In this way, Dorien is intentionally aligning training programs on offer with industries that offer the most promising employment opportunities in the region

YA’s model of licensing out the various training departments to local entrepreneurs provides students with practical “on the job” training, The entrepreneurs (the licensees) actually set up their businesses within the YA center and have access to the campus’ infrastructure, business facilities and networks. In return, they pay monthly rentals to YA that are used to cover operational expenses for the vocational education and training programs. The entrepreneurs provide young students (between the ages of 16 and 24 years old) with on-the-job training, thereby equipping them with skills, knowledge and experience relevant to their specific field. The students pay a minimal contribution for their training and the entrepreneurs also make money through their normal business entities. The licensees are required to have qualified training officers who oversee the training of the student in a ratio of 30 percent theory and 70 percent practical experience for each course. Courses include carpentry, welding, plumbing, motor vehicle mechanics, electric and electronic engineering, tailoring and sewing, catering, computing, music and entertainment. In addition, other commercial courses like secretarial studies, business administration, human resource management, accounting and computer literacy skills are provided.

Dorien also ensures that all graduates are equipped with business development knowledge to assist them in establishing their own businesses. This is done to ensure that the graduates from YA do not get frustrated with searching for jobs in a difficult market, which would ultimately render the training useless. Rather, they should also be able to set up their own small business ventures and provide much-needed employment to other people in their communities. To this extent, YA provides entrepreneurship development as a compulsory course to ensure that students are able to establish their own businesses. Furthermore, the graduates are linked to various micro credit organizations to access start-up capital in case they need to become entrepreneurs. YA graduates from the centers in Zimbabwe actually have a good loan repayment record of above 90 percent from micro credit institutions. In addition, YA just guaranteed funding from partners in the Netherlands to give out loans at 0 percent interest rate to the most committed young businesses incubated in their centers.

Dorien recognizes that most of the youth from disadvantaged backgrounds are actually high school dropouts with no formal education qualifications. For this reason, Dorien also set up an adult education department to ensure that students have a chance to bridge their qualifications and finish their high school education while completing their vocational training. The YA centers also provide various services to the communities around them through the licensing of local small businesses. These include a day care (a licensed business itself that like all of them, also trains and employs youth as child care assistants), a meeting place for youth clubs and other community associations, a community library, restaurants, mechanics, sport facilities, and supervised environment for those who want to study for exams at night,YA’s licensing model has also been the key force behind its sustainability and regional spread. The operations of YA are funded by these rentals and through a solid network of international donors channeled through Young Africa USA and Young Africa Netherlands. It is set up in such a manner that full administration of the center is handed over to local staff, many of which were once their students. Both centers in Zimbabwe became independently run and fully sustainable just eight years after their inception. Today, Dorien and her leadership team play only an advising and non-controlling role so as not to compromise the local staff’s creativity and innovation and also to give her the freedom to set up new centers. This is how the first YA center was established beyond Zimbabwe, in Beira, Mozambique.

The licensing model has been so effective for YA’s training centers that many government and non-governmental organizations in Mozambique and Zimbabwe are replicating the framework in public vocational schools. To date, 26,000 youth have graduated from YA in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. About 83 percent of the graduates in Mozambique have managed to secure employment either in the formal sector of the economy or through self-employment. YA has received accreditation from local governments to formalize and gain credibility for their training programs.

Over the years, Dorien has succeeded in attracting various stakeholders to YA while creating capacity for local management to run the centers. It was after a visit by the Mozambican Ambassador to Zimbabwe to a YA’s skills center that an invitation to replicate in Beira was extended. In 2011 in Beira, she also learned that only 5 percent of the land in Mozambique is actively used for agriculture and new investors on land had difficulty finding skilled people in the agricultural sector. Consequentially, Dorien has now included plans to include agricultural training in her programs and is now building the second center in rural Mozambique for young farmers. In addition, with support from Dutch funders, the very first YA center is being launched in Namibia. In the coming years, Dorien expects to establish YA Centers across the region and to influence local policy and public vocational training centers with the ideas set forth by YA in Southern Africa.


A Dutch national, Dorien was raised in a culture of volunteerism under the guidance of her parents through their contribution at local Don Bosco Centers for young people. Catholic Priest Don Bosco founded these international centers in the late nineteenth century in an attempt to care for the young and poor children of the industrial revolution through works of charity. It is at these centers that Dorien learned the value of self-confidence, leadership and taking initiative through participating in various extra-mural activities such as choir and drama.

Later as a young woman pursuing her formal studies, she felt how hard it was to choose a career path so early on and struggled to identify with one specific field. Yet she kept up with her Don Bosco volunteer work contributing as one of the organizers of annual summer camps for disadvantaged kids in The Netherlands. At the end of her university studies in 1995, she seized the opportunity to travel by volunteering for the Don Bosco project in Kenya, working with street kids and she has never looked back since. She met and fell in love with her YA co-founder Raj, making the African continent her new home. Dorien then gathered the bit of money she had saved and with just US$ 1,500, a few belongings, Raj and she set off south for Zimbabwe to realize their dream.