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Untapped Potential, Enormous Opportunities

By Allison Kooser

Nestled along the Atlantic coast in West Africa, Ghana is a diverse and vibrant country. It’s home to farmers and families; merchants and makers; dreamers and doers. And, like much of sub-Saharan Africa, it struggles with economic poverty. 

Nearly 30% of Ghanaians rely upon agriculture to survive, and some 13% live on less than $1.90. It’s a beautiful country with more than its fair share of challenges. 

And it’s also a country with incredible potential. 

The untapped potential of today

When Felicia was 19 years old, she looked around her community near Accra, Ghana, and knew she had to do something. 

The women around her were at an incredible disadvantage. Despite successful legislation that fought for gender equality, the reality outside Felicia’s front door looked much different. Nearly 20% of young women got married before they turned 18. And as they began to build homes for their new families, women spent more than 10 times the hours on domestic responsibilities than men did.

Young women like Felicia regularly dropped out of school—having children when they were still children themselves. In fact, the adolescent birth rate in Ghana increased from 2015-2018—up to 78 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19. 

As a result, “women [in Ghana] have relatively low rates of literacy; low participation in tertiary education; and low participation in professional occupations.” And these inequalities extend all the way up to the national level, where “women make up only 13.1% of the members of the legislature—lagging behind other sub-Saharan countries.

For too long, women and girls have been held back from reaching their full potential. Legal, social, cultural, and economic inequalities disproportionately exclude women from full and equal participation in their communities and economies, leaving their voices unheard and their opportunities stunted.

But when women are equipped with resources and opportunities, everyone benefits.

It’s why Felicia started a Women’s Empowerment Program to train her neighbors to develop their own livelihoods. 

And it’s why Opportunity International launched the Financial Inclusion for Enterprise Development program to increase access to financing, financial literacy, business training, and gender-equality strategies for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Ghana owned by women.

In January 2020, Opportunity’s partner in Ghana matched 103 emerging women entrepreneurs with 52 female mentors. A successful pilot, the program is now growing to serve even more women—and in 2021, it received Opportunity’s annual WeGO (Women and Girls Opportunity) Award. 

It’s one tangible step toward gender equality and women’s empowerment—a shared goal of the international development community—and it’s one of the most powerful investments we can make in building a better future. 

Statistically, the UN reports that “investing in programs improving income-generating activities for women can return $7 for every dollar spent.” The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation added, “When women have the same opportunities as men, families, and societies thrive.” And Sheryl WuDunn, in her powerful book, Half the Sky, noted, “When you educate a girl, there is a ripple effect that goes beyond what you would get from a normal investment…When you educate a girl, you educate a village.” 


The untapped potential of tomorrow 

Juliet Amankura and Monica Amanfo knew that they faced an uphill battle as they began looking for good jobs in Kumasi, Ghana. Like so many of their peers, they were full of ability but lacked opportunity. Juliet made ends meet by selling small items on the street; Monica helped her mother, a single parent raising six children, run a small shop from the front of their home.  


Monica and Juliet
Monica and Juliet

Jobs were few and far between—and these two girls faced two huge demographic hurdles: first, they were women; and second, they were young. 

In addition to the challenges women face in Ghana, the country also struggles with extremely high youth unemployment rates. More than 50% of young people are underemployed, and about 12% are unemployed entirely. Like much of sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana has a growing youth population—but its economy and job market cannot keep up. 

In 2016, experts estimated that the country would need to create 300,000 new jobs each year to absorb those aging into the workforce. But in reality, the economy has not changed much. In addition, the World Bank notes that “most jobs are low skill, requiring limited cognitive or technology know-how, reflected in low earnings and work of lower quality.” 

In response to this challenge Opportunity International piloted its Youth Apprenticeship Program in Ghana in 2014. Providing business training, technical assistance, bereavement counseling, and start-up capital, the program first empowered AIDS orphans and vulnerable youth with the tools critical to succeeding in the workforce, before expanding to serve an even wider group of young people.

Juliet and Monica heard about the program on the radio. This crackling advertisement would change the course of their futures. 

It was a lifeline—an opportunity for something bigger and brighter in a place where so much felt impossible. They enrolled and chose to pursue apprenticeships as hairdressers. Partnered with an experienced stylist, they learned hands-on lessons about customer care and business management, in addition to health education, social skills, and more. When they graduated, they were ready to go—equipped with the skills they needed to work, run a business, and succeed.  

Youth apprentice hairdressers in Kumasi, Ghana
Youth apprentice hairdressers in Kumasi, Ghana

They were products of the very thing the World Bank has cited as the key to addressing youth unemployment in Ghana: “More investments in career guidance and counseling, work-based learning, coaching, and mentoring to equip young people with the skills needed for work.”

In 2018, the Youth Apprenticeship Program won first prize in the Women and Girls Opportunity (WeGO) Awards. This initiative highlights and honors Opportunity International’s partners around the world who work selflessly in challenging environments to implement projects that improve the livelihoods and financial opportunities of women and girls around the world. Over 3,000 apprentices—80% of whom are young women—have completed the program, and a 2018 survey showed that 97% of program graduates were still employed one year after graduation.

It turns out that investing in women unlocks a flood of opportunity. They are an often untapped resource with the potential to improve livelihoods, economic outputs, and productivity—today. And when we invest in education and training for this generation, we unlock this same potential for tomorrow.

Employing and empowering women and youth present difficult challenges for Ghana—but also enormous opportunities. When everyone—regardless of age or gender—has the opportunity to work and contribute, everyone wins.  

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