Yemen

Distance education: Overcoming all challenges to build business skills and a brighter future

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Alawi, 32, charges his mobile phone using solar energy, as he participates in business skills training. © UNDP Yemen/2020

These Yemenis remained committed to improve their livelihoods, despite limited electricity, telecommunications and internet.

In the remote, mountainous region of Sarar, 75km north-east of Aden, 471 Yemeni men and women wave their mobile phones in the air, chasing connection as they wait for the familiar ping of the message tone to signal the start of class.

“Coverage is not stable. It comes and goes. One has to wait for the signal to make a call,” explains Alawi, 32, a father of three and day labourer living in Sarar. “Electricity, telecommunications and internet coverage is very poor here.”

Sarar is only accessible over rough, mountain terrain. Roads are almost impassable for merchants who sell their goods at heavily increased prices. People rely on harvesting rainwater from the roof and storing it in tanks. The ground water has almost dried up in these areas, and electricity, supplied by small local providers, can be off for up to a month at a time.

Alawi once worked abroad, but when he returned to be with his family in Sarar, he struggled to find stable work, sometimes taking day labour as an electrician or carpenter.

“My family depends on my daily income, which is not regular. Sometimes I find a job, sometimes I don't. Our consumption is greater than my income,” Alawi describes, as he wanders up a dirt path, toward an area of better mobile coverage.

Alawi was one of the 471 selected to participate in business skills training in Sarar. Supported by UNDP, For all Foundation (FAF) selected community members that were able to demonstrate an enthusiasm and drive to improve their livelihoods.

But the rapid spread of COVID-19 presented new challenges in these already remote areas. How could we deliver training to these isolated communities in a safe and healthy environment?

Why not use WhatsApp? An application most individuals are likely to have on their phones and confidently navigate. “It’s easy to use, popular and doesn’t require a strong internet connection to function,” explains Rabab, UNDP business skills trainer. What was born, was a hybrid face-to-face and online learning experience, that ensured continuous, safe support to the Yemeni people.

For many like Majdi, a 34-year-old casual teacher, this was a new experience, but he quickly recognised its value. “The moment that will stick in my mind forever, is when we applied social distancing. It was the first time I came to know about this as a preventive measure against the transmission of disease, including COVID-19. I will never forget this life-saving measure that is applied around the world.”

After completing 7 days of face-to-face learning, participants turned to their mobile phone. What proceeded was a 7-day training course, delivered via video, voice and text message, that enabled flexibility in time and location for each participant. Women were able to safely participate from home, whilst caring for their children, and participants with lower literacy were supported to use voice messages, so they too could continue their learning journey.

“The training was conducted during Ramadan, a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging. However, we still completed it successfully, despite the difficulties,” explains Majdi, now a true believer of online learning. “We resorted to online training as a precautionary measure to save lives in light of the risk of coronavirus.”

Some days were easier than others, but each participant demonstrated enduring commitment, motivated by the idea of one day owning their own successful business. “Unfortunately, the first day was rainy, with lightning, and we could not attend the lecture because the internet was shut down. But the lecturer was cooperative and changed the timing,” says Majdi. The trainers also sent materials for the participants to read offline, to ensure that even without a connection, they could continue learning.

Charging mobile phones was also a hurdle for households that relied on unstable power, “We needed mobile solar power systems to recharge our smart phones and be able to attend the online training,” explains Alawi. “We had to move to the areas where there is internet coverage to stay connected and actively participate in the group - whether sitting outdoors or indoors,” he continues, as he sets up his portable solar power system beside him.

Like their classmates, Alawi and Majdi developed a business plan at the conclusion of their training. Trainers, like Rabab, provided feedback and worked with participants to maximise their ideas. “We learned new economic terms and concepts and how to run small businesses,” explains Alawi. “My business idea is beekeeping. I will harvest and sell honey. Now with this training, I can apply my business skills to beekeeping.”

Majdi aims to open a small store in the middle of his village, “I consider training as the roadmap to running one's own business. My idea is to open a shop. The financial grant provided by UNDP, will enable me to buy a refrigerator and sell cold drinks and ice cream for the residents,” he explains. “This will not only benefit me and my family, but I will provide services for the residents. They will not need to travel three kilometres to the next closest store.”

Tailored training was offered to participants, designed to support the project they chose. Some were trained on solar power, some on beekeeping, while others on small business management. Once their plan was approved, small grants were distributed to enable purchase of required tools and resources.

“I was very excited about the training and I felt very happy when they approved my project. Now I hope I will succeed. I was given a financial grant to start my project and I hope next year, my capital will be three times more,” says Alawi. “I will sell honey inside the district, and the whole community will benefit.”

In total, more than 900 Yemeni women and men received business skills training – 471 using WhatsApp and the remaining through face-to-face classes – across Abyan, Lahj and Taiz Governorates.

These activities were implemented as a part of the Supporting Resilient Livelihoods and Food Security in Yemen Joint Programme (ERRYJP II) in partnership with For All Foundation, CARE International and Oxfam. The Programme aims to strengthen the resilience capacity of crisis-affected communities through the creation of sustainable livelihoods and access to basic services. The joint programme implements labour-intensive emergency employment activities – or cash-for-work – that enables the rehabilitation of community assets. With renewed access to livelihood opportunities for conflict-affected Yemenis, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and the marginalized, they have improved purchasing power and can now buy food and essentials while contributing to the local economy.