I like making the unthinkable thinkable — Misan Rewane
Misan Rewane is the co-founder and CEO of West African Vocational Education (WAVE). A Stanford and Harvard graduate, she is dedicated to transforming young talents into reliable human capital for local business. In this interview by KINGSLEY ALUMONA, she speaks about her passion for skill-based education, Nigeria’s education system, unemployment issues and what she would do if she were the Minister of Education.
Could you briefly tell us something about yourself?
I have always been obsessed with the power of learning and how it can transform lives. Since I was legally (and socio-culturally) able, I’ve dedicated myself to helping young people discover strengths and develop skills that will equip them to succeed in the 21st century. A woman I admire once called me a “human capital evangelist” Even though I hate labels, I proudly wear this one.
It is almost unthinkable for a Nigerian with a Harvard MBA to run an educational NGO like WAVE instead of a multinational company. Why did you decide to setup WAVE and what is it about?
Well, I enjoy challenging paradigms. I like making the unthinkable thinkable. As a kid, I wanted to become a teacher. As I got older, I became more concerned about “fixing” what I consider our broken education system. Why? I have this simple desire to see everyone have the opportunity to become what they imagine, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. I was raised to believe that with an education that taught me how to learn and adapt, I could literally become anything I imagined. Every young person should have that! WAVE tackles the youth unemployment problems from a simple angle. We teach hardworking young people skills—the skills they require to find work and, more importantly, to succeed at work so they can start a career and build a brighter future. Our philosophy is that competencies trump credentials. Our broader aim is to influence educators to replicate the first part of our model: competency-based education driven by market demands. We also influence employers to replicate the second part of our model inclusive hiring that prioritises capabilities over certificates.
WAVE has “West Africa” as part of its name, but it seems to only function in Nigeria. Why is that?
It serves as a reminder that we have aspirations to serve young Africans, educators and employers well beyond Nigeria. In 2018, we delivered corporate training in Ghana and began conversations with a prospective partner looking to replicate our training model in Ethiopia.
Which kinds of people are qualified for the type of services you provide at WAVE?
We serve multiple clients. There are jobseekers who we train to become employable in the 21st century workplace, employers who we partner with to fulfil their recruiting and/or training needs, and organisations who we teach how to replicate our demand-driven training in their target demographics. All we ask of the jobseekers is literacy and numeracy skills and a growth mindset. The employers are only required to align ideologically with our terms and conditions. The organisations simply need to have a willingness to learn our methodology.
Since the inception of WAVE, how many people have benefited from it?
Over 2500 youths have graduated from our academies. Over 350 businesses have recruited junior-level talent or engaged our corporate training services to train over 1,000 existing employees. Through our partnerships with the NYSC, Lagos State’s ‘Ready Set Work program,’ and various social enterprises, over 5,000 secondary and university students have received 21st century employability skills training.
How do you and your team get the funds and the resources to sustain the WAVE initiative?
Our academies aim to cover their costs through a mix of philanthropy, training fees and recruitment fees. Our corporate training also serves to cross-subsidise our training of unemployed youths.
The National Bureau of Statistics recently announced that about 21 million Nigerians, mostly the youth, are unemployed. Would you say there are no jobs because the government has failed to foster job creation or are the youth unemployable and lazy?
There are jobs and there are employable youths but not nearly enough of either. Government’s role is to build enabling infrastructure for businesses to grow and to create jobs. The paramount infrastructure that remains ignored in the majority of these conversations is soft infrastructure like education. So, it’s not buildings—it’s the teachers and curricula. It is healthcare to produce a productive workforce. Let’s say a miracle happened overnight and Nigeria suddenly had enough jobs for its labour force. We would still have the biggest challenge: the mismatch between the competencies required for the existing jobs and the skills our graduates are developing in our educational institutions. Our education-to-employment system would still fail to operate as a connected system in which educators and students communicate with employers/industry and evolve in tandem with market demand. If the existing 30-million-plus SMEs in Nigeria had access to qualified talent, those businesses would grow and create millions more jobs. Sadly, most young people don’t meet these criteria. Of the minority who do, and could succeed at entry-level jobs, they don’t qualify because they do not possess a university degree and don’t have the relevant work experience Nigerian employers require. It’s a vicious cycle which fails everyone.
Nigeria seems to have the highest number of out-of-school children in Africa. What do you think the government could do to improve on this situation?
For parents living hand-to-mouth, there is an economic value in their children being out of school—they can work to add to the household income. So, impoverished families may struggle to connect the dots far enough into the future to see the return on investing in their child’s education. These parents need to be incentivised by the government to keep their children in school through conditional cash transfers, school feeding programs, etc.
If you were the Minister of Education, what would you do to instil industry-driven and skills-based education in Nigeria?
As Minister of Education, I would rewire the education-to-employment system so that government plays the role of a funder, incubator and accelerator of education innovation. That way, they support the private and social sector to innovate, and then they plug these innovations into the broader public education systems and scale them. With how rapidly the world of work is evolving, the most critical skill for young people to develop is the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn (i.e. adapt) throughout life. Our curricula, instructional designs and the skill sets of our teachers need to be redesigned to deliver on this. I would engage industries a lot more aggressively. Business leaders are at the cutting edge of vocational knowledge. So, partnerships with our secondary/vocational schools are not an option. They are essential. Each company can keep building its own training academies or they can collectively collaborate with the vocational and secondary schools to be producers and consumers of skills: prosumers. Simply being consumers hasn’t yet yielded the desired result. They can invest in formal apprenticeships where secondary school students can spend their holidays learning practical skills in companies so that they can develop hard and soft skills by the time they finish secondary education. Then they are equipped to enter the job market, regardless of a university degree.
Apart from WAVE, what other business or work do you do?
Running WAVE has been a fulltime job and a half.
What are the major challenges you and your team face in WAVE?
When your product is people, it makes for very challenging work. You’re selling a variable product on both sides when what each side wants is certainty. A job seeker wants certainty around job placements. An employer wants certainty about the commitment and ability of the candidate to consistently perform on the job through all kinds of ups and downs. Yet, those are factors we can only influence, not fully control. Certainty about employment conditions and candidate commitment is done through vetting, but there is only so much vetting WAVE, the job seeker and the employer can truly do on either end. This is just one of many paradoxes in the work that we do. We initially thought that if we skilled the youth and provided access to employment, our work would be done, and they would thrive on their own happily ever after. Little did we know…
Where do you see yourself and WAVE in the next ten years?
I see WAVE playing an “innovator role” in rewiring education-to-employment systems across the continent, testing/designing new ways to deliver competency-based education in close partnership with industry. I see WAVE influencing the way that employers hire and retain talent to grow their business. Perhaps in the next ten years, I’ll be eating humble pie as Minister of Education and realising that the simplistic answers I gave earlier in this interview are a lot harder to implement than I naively thought way back in 2019.
What advice do you have for young people, especially the female ones, who are aspiring to be like you?
I was fortunate enough to attend the Stanford University commencement where Steve Jobs gave his famous speech in 2005, sharing some of the best advice I ever heard. He said: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”