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Youth disrupt the society; Shujaaz media disrupt youth

Anastasia Mirzoyants-McKnight

“Sometimes going against the grain, and bucking conventional wisdom, can be the right move.”
Alex Hisaka

In the past 2-3 years the “demographic dividend” has become the buzzword, the “viral” movement, a journey and a prize for the international development campaigns globally, and even more so in Africa – and to nobody’s surprise. Today, over a half of the African population are younger than 15. As this generation enters their adulthood – and simultaneously a labor market – they will either bust-open the “demographic window” in their respective countries or “lock” it down for another decade.

The story of the successful “leap” of the Asian Tigers taught us that, for the demographic window to “open” to its full capacity, state interventions for attractive/favorable business environment are essential. Yet, they only serve the purpose when aligned with the ability of the population to make the “leap” en masse.  This ability rests on the working-age group (a) having skills and knowledge to earn income; (b) having access to formal and informal job markets; and most important, (c) enjoying low dependency ratios, i.e., smaller and healthier families due to fewer/planned pregnancies, better nutrition, preventive (as opposed to crisis-driven) approach to health-risks, etc. With 30% of the working-age group in Africa consisting of youth, we want all youth eligible and willing to work to be able to do so, to earn enough to provide for their small nuclear families, and have leftover money to save, buy assets or otherwise invest in the state economy.

This knowledge is nothing new – even before the MDGs, the international development community has been working on reducing poverty, promoting skill acquisition, fighting morbidity and mortality, etc. With some progress achieved, the success remains far-removed. Part of the challenge is in a siloed and top-down approach to development interventions, which (a) challenge existing socio-cultural norms, and (b) compete with each other for the place on the youth’s list of priorities. The result? Resentment from the youth (Don’t they know its my life?) and confusion (So, what should I spend my little money on – education or contraception?).

With each new intervention, youth become more resentful, confused and disruptive – until they encounter our media! Shujaaz is a public-interest media platform established in 2010 in Kenya, seeking to help young people to form a community, where they can discuss pressing issues, especially sensitive or taboo topics, such as money, sex, governance and accountability, agriculture, etc. Shujaaz uses an integrated omni-channel design that includes a free-of-charge nationally distributed comic targeting youth (705,000 copies a month), a weekly syndicated radio show, and digital media (Facebook, SMS, Twitter, WhatsApp) to tell stories of fictional characters and real people representative of youth from different parts of Kenya as they encounter and resolve challenging life issues.

The positive disruption we offer youth is grounded in integration – of topics, channels, traditions and innovations, producers and users. We talk to humans in the way they talk to each other: If youth talk about sex and money in the same sentence, why should we separate them? If youth follow their favorite celebrities from TV to newspaper to social media, why should we use one channel at a time? If we want stories about youth be authentic stories, why should we stop youth from being the narrators of their stories?

We decide we should not. That is why, for example, Shujaaz sexual and reproductive health (SRH) stories targeting youth talk about money before they talk about sex. We create motivation to use contraception as a means to protect one’s improving livelihood – Shujaaz also builds financial and business skills among its fans while explicitly linking financial success to good planning, including for financial stability, marriage and parenthood. This strategy is set within the 360-degree integrated media space, where Shujaaz fans engage with fictional characters and with each other through their preferred media channels, discuss difficult issues, share ideas, and provide support.  The main goal of this strategy is to demonstrate to youth that the real solution and real social change come from them, not from an external support group.

The outcomes? Shujaaz has been successful in engaging youth. Currently, Shujaaz audience is over 6 million youth in Kenya and Tanzania; more than 1 million youth follow Shujaaz heroes’ Facebook pages; total digital audience is approaching 2 million. But that’s not all:  several longitudinal studies have proven that the Shujaaz media stimulate large-scale positive changes among youth; Shujaaz fans are significantly more likely than non-users to delay sexual debut, use contraceptives, delay childbirth, have independent income, earn $250 more a year (double of what youth earn on average). Most important – they also develop agency, i.e., the confidence to disrupt their “predefined” path by transferring their ability to make independent decisions to other spheres of their lives – from saying “no” to tobacco and drugs to holding elected leaders accountable for the welfare of their communities. Shujaaz has empowered youth and build their confidence so that they can deliver the demographic dividend and become agents of change.


For more information on Shujaaz media research and practices, visit our website at www.welltoldstory.com.


About the Author

Dr. Anastasia Mirzoyants-McKnight leads the Knowledge and Learning team at Well Told Story Anastasia is a globally recognized research expert with over 15 years of experience implementing high-impact research projects in challenging environments and with hard-to-reach populations across the world. For the last 6 years, Anastasia has been living in Africa, working across the continent in partnerships with NGOs, commercial organizations, private foundations and government agencies on projects delivering normative and behavioral change. Her most recent work involved designing and overseeing the implementation of over 20 quantitative and qualitative studies per year for the Shujaaz– the largest East African media house reaching over 6 million youth. Previously, Anastasia served as a Director of Research and Operations at InterMedia Africa, where she designed and led a 13-country syndicated Financial Inclusion Insights research program for the Gates Foundation, World Bank/CGap and the UN Capital Development Fund. Anastasia She holds a Doctoral Degree in Educational Sociology with a Minor in Research and Management from the University of Toledo, Ohio.
                   

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