Sometimes you set your own audacious goal and sometimes your hand is forced by a once-in-a-100-year pandemic.

The goal? Within one month, transition 300 young work-seekers across Rwanda and South Africa from in-person work readiness programmes to mobile learning. Create a curriculum that can be delivered on a standard smartphone, but sensitive to the cost of data. Prepare youth for work in the new COVID-19 reality, while designing for an audience that lacks fluency in English.

Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator has been on a nine-year mission to help marginalised youth into earning opportunities. We didn’t want them held back further by the pandemic, so we were ready for the challenge presented by the lockdowns in South Africa and Rwanda.

Over a four-week period, we pivoted from a face-to-face intervention by designing, developing and implementing a completely online (mobile) solution. And, in doing so, we learnt six key lessons.

Lesson 1: Put young people at the centre. Listen to feedback.

“Good solutions are unlikely to come from within the comforts of a fancy glass office, far removed from the problem at hand. The best social entrepreneurs start by understanding their customers. This means being proximate, a dose of humility, and lots of listening” says Ann Mei Chang, in Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good.

Years of face-to-face interventions meant we had a huge advantage in this respect. We knew our learners well. We understood smartphone penetration and we were aware of their daily struggles with connectivity. We also had a good understanding of our learners’ levels of English.

While this accelerated the initial design of a mobile learning programme, we knew we had to stay proximate. And we had to do this virtually.

We decided to use simple surveys administered immediately on completion of each module. We supplemented this with phone calls to gather more qualitative data about our learners’ experience of mobile learning.

We asked learners variations of the questions “how did you experience that?” and “did we get that right?”

Some learners told us they would like more practice writing professional emails. Many of our learners asked us to extend the English Acceleration curriculum to include more of an emphasis on vocabulary acquisition.

These were just two examples of how being proximate [and listening] paid off. Learner feedback throughout the course meant we could constantly assess the programme’s impact, levels of engagement, ideal curriculum length and preferred learning styles.

Lesson 2: Start small. Iterate.

Harambee subscribes to lean impact design principles when innovating. Central to this methodology is the notion of quick cycles of testing and iterating. The idea being that rapid success and failure allows you to learn in real time, ultimately leading to greater impact.

And in terms of this methodology, the innovation journey starts with a minimum viable product (MVP). The MVP is essentially the quickest prototype released to market for testing and experimentation.

We released our first MVP a week after taking the decision to move to mobile learning. Our MVP got us going, then built momentum and created the space for us to learn from failure instead of fear failure.

Our MVP was a curriculum that spanned one week. It taught our learners how to write professional emails and was loaded onto a learner management system that could be accessed from a mobile phone.

Lesson 3: Design for agility. Listen for feedback.

At Harambee we spend a lot of time reminding each other of Ann Mei Chang’s quote: “fall in love with the problem and not the solution.” And this keeps us agile.

Again, we listened, and we heard some of our learners struggled to sign up to the Learner Management System (LMS). We found out that our learners had vastly different levels of digital literacy in using phone applications. We had instant feedback that our on-boarding of learners required rethinking.

We also kept agile in the space of curriculum design. When our learners told us they liked variety in learning from audio clips, to polls, to quizzes and videos, we made sure we kept designing for this.

But when we tried to maximise the benefits of social learning for millennials by including a lot of discussion forums, our learners responded with “too much and too often”. So we reduced these discussion forums and are on the hunt for new and varied approaches to social learning.

By listening to our users, we learnt that we needed to move away from our first-choice LMS, towards a more engaging platform, one that also allowed for gamification and customized reporting. We have redoubled our efforts to identify and pilot new learner management systems all while aiming to be nimble and responsive.

Lesson 4: Creatively redeploying resources can reap benefits

On-line learning programmes are famously criticised for low completion rates. A study cited by Sarah Cordiner, in her blog entitled “9 ways to increase completion rates online”, found that “students were working individually only 2% completed their course; whereas when there was a mentor present a massive 44% completed their course.”

Our skilled face-to-face facilitators were readily available — and we could re-imagine their role in driving engagement. So we took the decision to pivot the responsibilities of our in-person facilitators to assume a new role which we called an “accountability coach”.

The accountability coach was required to track data on learner performance, assist with learner remediation, check-in with learners and “mark or give feedback” on assignments. And all this support was rendered virtually.

To test the success of this experiment, we collected data from students on their levels of engagement. We also asked students why they felt engaged. We achieved a staggering 95% average engagement score for our learning modules across the mobile learning programme. Learners attributed this to 1) support and access to an accountability coach, 2) feeling part of a cohort and 3) learning with colleagues or social learning. We’re excited about this and hope to build on these findings.

Lesson 5: Flexible learning arrangements can particularly benefit young women

Ernestine Turabayo, a leaner in Kigali, had this to say about her mobile learning experience: “I am so grateful to Harambee, especially for initiating this on-line programme. Now I can follow the courses and still get many new skills, and also take care of my two men. I mean my husband and my son. I am also enjoying the on-line learning because I am not spending as much money in transport”.

In Rwanda, like many other countries, the burden of housework and child care falls on women. We were pleasantly surprised that our mobile learning programme offered a an opportunity for some of our female learners to learn both at convenient times and at a suitable pace.

Ernestine’s story has us thinking differently about our second iteration of the programme. We intend to offer different time slots for live on-line lessons thereby providing for a more gender inclusive learning approach.

Lesson 6: To bridge the digital divide in Africa, we need data light programs

Rwanda has made impressive strides in ensuring cheap connectivity for all — a 1GB of data costs roughly $1 USD, making it one of the cheapest on the African continent. While cheap, this is still not enough to fully engage in online learning.

Our learners loved the engaging content of our videos and podcasts, but complained about the data-heavy content — 30 minutes of video streaming can easily take 1 GB, and a single learning module could demand up to 2GB to complete. Data bundles could take up to 10% of monthly spending — all while earnings are scarce, and the internet is viewed as a luxury and not an essential good.

Again, we listened. Young Rwandans told us they chose to work after 10pm at night because that is when data is considerably cheaper, and in some cases free on certain networks.

A few weeks into the mobile learning programme, our accountability coaches began to spot another trend with some learners in Kigali. Learners seemed to access the online content for short bursts of time repeatedly throughout the day. The reason? They were not used to spending extended periods of time using costly data on their phones.

In response to this, we started a radio broadcast on employability skills as part of our Tuzatsinda campaign, launched to provide reliable information on COVID-19 to young people. Going forward, Harambee plans to use radio as a channel to increase learning and respond to accessibility challenges.

#Datamustfall for young people, and Harambee is keen to support the Rwandan government’s plans for digital inclusion in the years ahead.

So what happens next?

These six lessons have given us much food for thought. Our “v2.0” will be more than just a second iteration of a design for a mobile learning programme.

As Harambee, we have now seen first-hand just some of the benefits of mobile learning . These include scale, replicability, gender inclusivity and the democratisation of learning.

What started as one big and necessary experiment may well become Harambee’s future response to closing young people’s gaps across the African continent.


This article was written by Helen Smith, Learning Solutions Design Lead at Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. The article was originally published on 26 June 2020 on the Website. Access the original article here:

Other Interesting Articles

Harambee in the News

Accenture Development Partnerships collaborates with Harambee to build a tool to measure the ‘S’ in ESG

22 Feb 2024

Read More >


Harambee in the News

Sharmi Surianarain discusses the “Right to Work or not to Work” on “Beyond a Declaration – What Rights Can Do” with Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung

29 Jan 2024

In Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the right to work is clearly declared. It encompasses free choice of employment, just and favorable conditions, and protection against unemployment. But do these rights truly manifest in people’s lives? If not, how can we bridge the gap between declaration and reality?

Read More >


Cape Town's Tourism Boost: Youth Employment Surges at V&A Waterfront

Harambee in the News

Cape Town’s Tourism Boost: Youth Employment Surges at V&A Waterfront

07 Dec 2023

In a recent article, Busisiwe Mavuso, CEO of Business Leadership SA, highlights the critical issue of youth unemployment in South Africa and emphasizes the need for collaboration between business and government to address this pressing challenge. Mavuso points out that while businesses face various economic challenges, youth unemployment poses the most significant risk to social stability.

Read More >