Hospitality as a route to resilience in Sub-Saharan Africa

We invited teachers, academics and former students to join us for a panel discussion on how hospitality training can offer a route to resilience for young women in Sub-Saharan Africa, even in times of crisis.

The past year has seen worldwide disruption to women’s education and routes to employment. The hospitality industry in particular has taken an enormous hit, with tourism industries collapsing due to the pandemic. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the hospitality industry provides many young women with opportunities for employment, the contraction of the market (by a staggering 83% in 2020 in Kenya) has led to widespread unemployment and despondency about the future of the industry. 

We invited Dr. Belinda Nwosu, who mentors past and present Wavecrest College students in Nigeria and recently gained her Ph.D. at the University of Southampton, and Lynda Kasina who works at Kimbondeni, our partner in Kenya, to discuss these issues. We focused on the future of the hospitality industry and the ways in which a vocational hospitality education can equip young women with the skills needed to navigate such hardship. 

We were also lucky enough to be joined by Valentine Waithera, a former student of Kibondeni who graduated in 2018, and is now assistant manager at a high-end restaurant in Nairobi, and to hear about the experiences of Mary John, a former student of Wavecrest College of Hospitality who has set up a smoothie-business during the pandemic.

Watch the full panel discussion on-demand:

Women have been particularly affected by COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa

While the pandemic has caused universal suffering, it’s important to analyse the gender implications of such a global catastrophe. Olivia Darby, our panel host for the evening, asked Belinda and Lynda how the challenges posed by COVID-19 differed between men and women. 

The fact that a large proportion of the jobs in the hospitality industry are held by women meant that many women have become unemployed. Moreover, the increase of home care duties such as caring for the sick, childcare or home-schooling, has often been picked up by the women. Consequently, of those women who did not lose their job, many had to voluntarily give up their work to take care of these domestic tasks. 

The pandemic has highlighted the value of resourcefulness 

However, Lynda made the point that among families in lower economic brackets, it is often the women who are more determined to ensure their family’s security. As such, many women have demonstrated resourcefulness and innovative capabilities during the hardships of the pandemic, in order to diversify their sources of income and provide for their families. 

For example, last year in March, all of the educational institutions in Kenya closed. Three months into the closure, one student reported to Lynda that there was a government initiative to help unemployed youth in informal settlements by giving them paid tasks such as repairing roads.

Most of the people working on the roads were young men, so the hospitality students organised themselves into groups and sold food and snacks to these workers. Many of the women became breadwinners in their families.

How Hospitality training can help young women 

What has become clear through examples such as the one given above is that the resilience and resourcefulness required to weather such a disaster comes from a combination of technical skills (cooking, laundry, housekeeping) and human skills (self-belief, motivation, creativity). Hospitality training is somewhat unique in the way it provides young women with precisely this combination of both “technical” and “human” skills.

“Graduates from these schools not only acquire the technical know-how but also the ability to think outside of the box and to create situations where they can feed their family”, observed Belinda.

She also explained how when we refer to these skills as “soft” and “hard” skills, we create a division between the two, as though they are in competition. In reality, these two sets of skills rely upon each other for personal and professional success.

Technical skills

Since the contraction of the formal job market, people need access to skills that will enable them to acquire an “informal” income. This skill-set usually falls along the scale of the vocational area, such as those acquired by young students of the hospitality industry. 

Belinda explained how we’re therefore seeing a change in the value (perceived and actual) of hospitality training: people with technical skills have more of an advantage over those with academic university degrees. They are more likely to be able to capitalise on opportunities for informal income.

For example, a friend of Valentine’s started a bakery during the pandemic. Using her baking skills, she started by selling cakes, and little by little incorporated other items such as pastries. She’s looking to grow the scope of the venture in the future.

Human skills

Crucially, the technical skills outlined above can only be unlocked through the development of human skills, as Lynda explained. The mentoring systems in Kibondeni and Wavecrest are specifically designed to support the young women’s personal development and nurture their self-belief.

Kibondeni, where Lynda works, is a social project; the majority of students come from low-income backgrounds, growing up in informal settlements. This helps to understand the value of mentoring human skills for the young women in this establishment. 

“For these young women, taking up vocational training is not only about acquiring skills. There’s a whole world, which begins in believing in yourself. The sense of initiative shown by women during the pandemic comes from believing in your ability to pull off innovation.” 

Both schools also include courses on topics such as workplace professional development and entrepreneurship. Mary John’s provides a wonderful example of how the creativity fostered by these courses can be life-changing. 

During the start of the lockdown in April to July last year, Mary John was thinking “what can I do?”. Everyone at the hotel where she worked had been laid off. What kicked in for her was what she had learned in school about entrepreneurship and business ideas.

Since she loves fruit, Mary John created a smoothie business. She went beyond the pots and pans to think about how she could use what she knows to create an opportunity for herself. Now she has a business that is up and running and soon to be registered, and she’s selling products at events. She has specifically mentioned that this innovation came from what she learned in school: how to look beyond her practical skills and identify needs and opportunities within the market.

With these stories of young women who have lived experiences, we can demonstrate that hospitality training teaches technical know-how, but also fosters the human skills that allow young women to navigate what’s becoming a very difficult reality. 

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