Diptesh Soni '03
Diptesh Soni with his fiancée, Anna, at Mount Bisoke, a dormant volcano in Rwanda
Pine Point School Class of 2003
Associate Consultant, Dalberg Global Development Advisors
As I write this I am eating breakfast in a hotel in rural Rwanda. My first meeting of the day is with a large tungsten mining company, and my objective is to understand some of the challenges the business faces in employing youth in the region. Over 60% of the Rwandan population is under the age of 25, and with a steadily increasing population, the country’s strong economic growth has not been sufficient to provide these young men and women with decent work. The company I work for, Dalberg Global Development Advisors, has been tasked by a large foundation in partnership with the Rwandan government to understand the skills gap in the country, and to assess how small and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurial youth can be supported to improve economic conditions for the young.
Our research has been showing that there is somewhat of a skills gap for rural youth related to technical skills (e.g. mechanics, engineers, etc.) and soft skills (communication, customer care, problem-solving, teamwork and other traits quite relevant but relatively untaught). The technical skills gap may affect their ability to find jobs in more technical fields (machine operation, manufacturing, construction, mining, energy etc.). The soft skills gap affects their ability to better perform and remain in the workplace, and their capacity to find jobs in the hospitality sector, retail sector and any other customer-facing subsector.
The major constraint, however, is not the skills gap but the lack of opportunities─even if youth were better trained there would still not be enough jobs for them to apply their skills. As such, we have also been looking at barriers to the growth of micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), which employ the bulk of people in both developed but especially developing economies such as Rwanda. As well, we’re investigating the barriers to youth entrepreneurship for enterprising youth who may want to make ends meet without joining another company, whether small or large. Our research on this front shows that many small firms are capital constrained, and find it difficult to access the financing required to grow their businesses. Some also lack reliable electricity, which impedes their ability to continuously run machinery, keep the lights on, etc. Others also lack adequate access to infrastructure, since roads in the rural areas are often in poor shape, which makes transporting goods to and from markets more difficult.
In terms of how our work will change the reality, our client, The MasterCard Foundation, will likely develop programming to support the government in increasing economic opportunities for youth which may take many forms. They could support improved access to finance for MSMEs by utilizing alternative credit scoring technology to better assess the risk of small businesses (as opposed to high collateral requirements at the moment). They may support training institutions to develop skills in specific regions and economic sectors that have promising growth potential and currently are experiencing a skills gap. They might also provide direct training to farmers and agricultural co-operatives to increase the yields on farms and teach them how to better access and utilize financing for agricultural production and processing. We are still synthesizing the research and developing the recommendations in conjunction with the client and the stakeholders in Rwanda, but considering that MasterCard Foundation is one of the largest foundations, if not the largest foundation dedicated to issues of youth employment and education, the potential for impact is considerable.
While it is a generalization, life as a whole is still very difficult for the majority of people living across the African continent. Most countries still rely on small-scale agriculture to support peoples’ livelihoods and many places are still plagued by violence, disease, and political instability.
Despite these challenges the broader development of the continent cannot be ignored. In recent decades great strides have been made in reducing poverty, and this has provided the stability upon which African governments and their people have further developed.
Moving forward, putting large numbers of young and under-educated people into productive employment will be Africa’s biggest challenge.
I’d urge people to do their own research─most good news in Africa doesn’t make it through the US media, so if you go by what you hear on the news you’d think you’d get kidnapped, caught in a civil war, or at the very least mugged wherever you go. If you want to take advantage of the beauty or wealth of the continent, whether as a tourist or businessperson, you have to make up your own mind. While I’ve only been to around six countries in Africa at this point, I have every intention of exploring further.
I don’t see myself only trying to bring about change in Africa. Considering my background and the current scale of poverty in Africa, for now I want to focus my efforts in the region. More generally, though, I think finding the right approach to a social issue or a new innovation often has broader applicability to both developing and developed countries. I’m not sure where I plan to be in five to ten years. Most likely I would like to either work for a small company looking to grow, or start my own company. There are a lot of new and exciting firms currently being launched or growing. A lot of them are either already applying their products/services to social issues or have the potential to do so. I see myself working in this space down the line, but that could change depending on the opportunities that arise.
Part of the reason for my move back to South Africa is to do projects like the one in Rwanda.
Both professionally and personally, I have sought to understand global inequities and find ways of enabling those less privileged to reach their full potential.
My work at Dalberg allows me to understand this phenomenon in a hands-on, empirical way, alongside people who are the current and future leaders of global development. Since joining the firm and moving to South Africa in June of last year, I have worked with regional governing bodies, large multinational corporations, and major foundations on projects related to financial access, technology, global health, and small business development. I worked with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to develop a strategy for financial inclusion for the region. I supported a major Japanese corporation’s understanding of the landscape of digital financial services across Africa. I helped the foundation of a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company design a pilot project to address the growth of hypertension in developing countries. The skills I continue to hone through such experiences will help me build the platform upon which I hope to make bring about change in the world.
More personally, South Africa is my original home. Although many of the projects and challenges I tackle at work are global or continental, living and working in Joburg [Johannesburg] has given me a much keener understanding of the country I left, and allowed me to spend much more time with my family. My two living grandparents are in Joburg, and as they get on in years, I increasingly cherish the time I spend with them. My cousins, aunts, and uncles also live in South Africa. Having them in Joburg, or even Durban, a one-hour flight away, has been great.
If you’ve never been to South Africa, you should make a visit. Along with the vibrant urban setting of Johannesburg, the country is rich in natural beauty─from Table Mountain in Cape Town, to the beaches of Durban, rivers and forests of Mpumlanga, and the game parks in Limpopo. The wine is also cheap and delicious. You really can’t go wrong.
Both my fiancée, Anna, who moved with me, and I share this drive for social impact. We both studied international affairs and economic development at Columbia University, where we met. Having worked in the community development arm of a major financial institution and then a boutique development consulting firm in New York, in Johannesburg she has since worked with the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and will soon start working as a business coach at a startup accelerator supporting black-owned small business owners in South Africa as they grow and strengthen their businesses. This desire to tangibly create and see social impact in emerging economies was something we could not do at a distance from New York.
There is no doubt that South Africa continues to nurse the wounds of apartheid. Inequality is glaring, crime is an ever-present danger, and racial tensions and divisions are visible to even the most untrained eye. Despite the difficulties the nation has faced in the past and the challenges it continues to face today, the country is buzzing. Joburg especially so. No matter the challenges of living in South Africa, each day is a new adventure and both Anna and I are glad to be living and working in a setting that challenges us constantly and rewards us equally.
So far we have no regrets.