The Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee (ARC) took a look at some daunting statistics in Somalia: 66 percent unemployment and 70 percent of the population under age 30.
The ARC thinks it has a solution. If there are no jobs for young people, help them create the jobs for themselves.
Last week the ARC unveiled a program using microloans and social media to help young people in Somalia develop small businesses. ARC and its partners hope to have it operating early next year and to involve as many as 50,000 entrepreneurs in as few as three years.
For the time being, the group will start small, with 5,000 participants. Each will be eligible for a $250 loan. Daniel Wordsworth, president and CEO of the organization, explained the plan to a group that included local Somali business leaders. It makes sense to reveal the concept in Minnesota, home to the largest Somali community in the United States.
Those interested in participating would apply for a loan and propose a business concept: fixing cellphones, a small fishing operation, repairing bikes.
Participants could get information about how to apply and how to run their business from YouTube videos, with explanations about how to purchase equipment, how much to expect in expenses and how much to save to make the business grow.
The money would be distributed through the extensive network of money exchanges that are the lifeblood in a country with few functioning economic resources. After paying the initial investment back with 4 percent interest, an entrepreneur would then be eligible for a larger loan.
The prospect of a loan program in Somalia, struggling under 20 years of civil war with no functioning government to speak of, might seem Pollyannaish. Yet ARC has developed similar programs elsewhere in similarly austere conditions. More than 75 percent of its recipients have been women, and 95 percent of its microloans are repaid in full by loan recipients — a far higher rate than U.S. banks enjoy.
“The smaller the loan, the more likely it has been shown to work,” Wordsworth said.