“Nutten nah gwan fuh we Mr. Minister.” “Is a wuk me uh look.” “Garcan mwen vle travay.” are the cries heard from our youth today. Youth in the OECS face several challenges like crime, violence; unemployment; and limited access to continuing education opportunities. OECS youth unemployment rates range from 19.9% in Antigua and Barbuda to 33.8% in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines where many young persons are forced to remain in temporary or low-productivity jobs. Despite this reality, a range of entrepreneurship opportunities can be made available to our young people that will relieve unemployment, especially if provisions are made to empower them to take the initiative and seize opportunities by embracing cottage industries; transferring theoretical skills to real life; approaching businesses to offer their insight; and collaborating with other youths to form stronger businesses. What is key, is that youth should be given maximum opportunities to help shape and develop relevant programs that will be supported by governments and organizations that encourage youth entrepreneurship.

An OECS Youth Entrepreneurship Program largely designed by youth and for youth would not only provide a much-needed holistic approach towards youth employment but would also reinvigorate the Region’s economies. This holistic approach is being taken with the development of the OECS Youth Strategy, through the use of focus group discussions, allowing youth to drive and shape the Strategy in a direction that best suits their needs. This Strategy will focus on initiatives such as “Bank on Me”; OECS Youth Talk and an Adopt a Block/School Programme.

There is vast potential and a plethora of novel ideas among the youth, but what is needed is firm planning and financing with the youth themselves being integrally involved. Businesses such as fashion, music and audio visual should be firmly tapped into, to expose hidden and untapped potentials. Developing the entrepreneurial potential of our youth would create innovative alternatives to public sector employment, while at the same time teaching them the values of self-motivation and self-dependency. The program will be vibrant, meeting the needs of the youth where they are. It will be a collaborative and highly inclusive effort with the support of various parties including government agencies, the Chambers of Commerce, financial institutions, schools, NGOs and local businesses. Developing buy-in from and forging partnerships with the local community are key factors to success, which will help to ground the initiative in the needs and demands of the community. Maintaining a broad network of stakeholders will create a useful and diverse network of support for program participants; thereby providing organizers with a natural advocacy network.

In shaping an appropriate OECS Youth Entrepreneurship Programme, there will be need to take a good look at what presently exist in individual Members States with a view to seeing what works and converging those best practices to get a more targeted and integrated Regional programme. There will be a need to tap into un-touched markets, letting the creative juices flow in order to provide a product or service which has not already flooded the market as well as expand or upgrade what presently exists. Cottage industries can generate income and employment for young people while costing very little to start-up and can be operated right out of the home. If, for instance, there is an innovative and viable idea with limited start-up funds, then this initiative will be integrated into the regional Program.

There are some success stories within the region in cottage industries. Caribbean youth have branched out in the sector of health/wellness producing skin treatments, insect repellants, massage oils, perfumes and soaps using local natural products. Grenadian owned, Caribbean Naturals, is a cottage industry which blossomed into an online store offering a range of high quality natural products, promoting good health, well-being and personal enjoyment. Owner Debra Mason seized an opportunity and is now reaping the economic benefits. Even greater potential can be found in creating hair products for black women and their natural hair. Shampoos, conditioners, hair treatments, pomades and gels are on the increase in foreign markets for tightly coiled hair. Many of these products either do not meet consumer needs or those that work disappear quickly from local shelves. Investments can be made in this market in a sustainable way, using the natural ingredients from our backyard. Another potential area is the export of breadfruit and carambola and their by-products. Breadfruits can be used whole or to make breadfruit chips; fudge; and flour. There is much revenue to be gained from exporting this starchy fruit which is plentiful in the Region. The growing use of hydroponics farming also needs to be explored where farmers can grow a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables, such as cucumber, strawberries, blueberries and other fruits normally grown on the international fields, selling to local restaurants and supermarkets while contributing to the reduction of the food import bill. Another emerging business opportunity is that of care of the elderly. There is a growing aging population and consideration should be given to services like running errands to the banks, food shops/restaurants for the elderly, security, taking them for health care when family are not available.

The recipe for a successful Youth Entrepreneurship Program for the OECS region is one that is developed with the integral involvement of youth and will consider the unique qualities of the Region while promoting and fostering quality businesses, offering unique products and services that could be sold at higher prices, on the regional international markets.

About the Author: Kim Clarke holds an MSc. Degree in Economic Development Policy and is employed at the OECS Commission as a Research Officer in the Social Development Unit.