The tragic paradox of Southern Africa’s economy is that there exists simultaneously a great demand for skilled customer service workers on the one hand, and massive unemployment on the other. Umzi Wethu has two parallel ambitions: to close the skills gap that exists within Southern Africa, and to provide hope and employment to some of the region’s most vulnerable people.
The programme, established by the Wilderness Foundation, has achieved initial success within the hospitality and eco-tourism industry, but it has been designed to benefit a far wider spread of industries. By harnessing the economic promise of eco-tourism, the Foundation hopes to help break the cycle of poverty and unemployment that many young people are faced with.
The “Umzi Wethu Training Academy for Vulnerable Youth,” to give the programme its full name, is a dynamic intervention model that offers skills development and job placement to youths who, despite incredibly adverse circumstances, have shown resilience and ambition. Denied opportunities to access training and jobs due to circumstances generally beyond their control, Umzi Wethu transforms these youths, many of whom have been orphaned as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, into highly employable young adults.
The Umzi Wethu model builds on the success of the Wilderness Foundation’s existing social programmes, Pride and Imbewu, which introduce previously disadvantaged people to the power and beauty of nature. Fundamental to all three programmes is the importance of imparting to participants an understanding of the wilderness and wildlands.
The success of Umzi Wethu lies in its holistic approach to training, attending to the development of both soft and hard skills. Offering students the opportunity for personal growth and development of the self is vital as they have been selected from socially vulnerable backgrounds. As such they have very likely gone through many traumatic experiences. Many have also never had strong, consistent role models at home to help them make positive choices and changes in their lives. The Umzi Wethu model seeks to build confidence and maturity, boost self-esteem, create a sense of hope and foster resilience, all of which is needed to help break the cycle of poverty. Umzi Wethu graduates are not only exceptionally skilled in their chosen work field, but they have the mindset and confidence to stay employed for the long-term.
The Umzi Wethu programme was piloted within the food and beverage side of the eco-tourism sector, specifically training junior chefs and waitrons (the first Umzi Wethu Academy was opened in Port Elizabeth in April 2006) and a second, very successful, rural academy was opened in Somerset East in March 2008 to train field guides and field rangers. The future success of Umzi Wethu is in the programme’s flexibility: it can be modified and adapted to suit industries other than eco-tourism. The agriculture, mining and motor sectors can equally benefit from the Umzi Wethu model. The more sectors that adopt the Umzi Wethu model, the wider the path for sustainable poverty alleviation.
"Being at Umzi really changed my life because back home I didn’t know anything about conservation or global warming affecting us. I learned everything about conservation at Umzi Wethu...So my goal is to go home after the program and to teach children about nature and how to conserve it. I have gained knowledge about nature conservation and I don’t want to keep it to myself because I know there are people out there who need this information. Nature conservation is now part of my life." Umzi 6 Student