Workforce Development and Mobile Learning: Our Dakar Survey


Reports about global poverty often start with grim statistics about youth unemployment. While such statistics routinely fail to capture the mitigating influence of the informal economy, the fact remains that young people in developing countries struggle to find stable employment—let alone employment that actually interests them personally.

For decades, educational institutions have shown themselves rather unimaginative when it comes to workforce development and career education: Career Day, anyone? Most people learn about jobs from their friends, their family members and, if they’re lucky, from their employers. In developing countries, where many young people work (if at all) as petty merchants or manual laborers, the particular culture of the office workplace—as dominated by western-educated management level employees—can seem completely inscrutable, if not downright unwelcoming.

Code Innovation is committed to decoding the norms and expectations of the workplace for the aspiring young would-be-professionals who currently fill the ranks of the world’s unemployed. We are keen to leverage mobile technologies to help prepare young people to surmount the barriers to entry level positions in organizations and enterprises that will allow them to grow and become more prosperous.

For years now, we've been thinking about and working on workforce development with at-risk and low-income youth. A few years ago, we started a youth workforce survey in and around Dakar, Senegal. We had the guidance of a Peace Corps Volunteer who was working with us for the year, and the almost full-time attention of our young Senegalese assistant. From the survey, we learned a great deal about youth, mobile education and workforce development and we are excited to inform our new projects with the perspective that these findings gave us (more on that in the future).

We found that doing firsthand market research in our African, urban context provided rich data for decision-making around our innovations and education work. We hope that others can use this write-up of how we put together our survey useful in their own technology for education work.

About the Survey

We sought to interview 2,000 young people in and around Dakar about their use of technology in preparing for and finding a job. Because of confusion about interview responses that could've been solved with closer supervision, we ended up with 500 interviews in French from university and vocational students, out-of-work youth and entry-level professionals. We surveyed both men and women from around West Africa who are living, working or studying in and around the greater Dakar metropolitan area.

Our research assistant asked each survey respondent 35 questions. Some of the questions were open-ended, but the majority were yes/no answers. Because we hadn't codified "prefer not to answer" and "don't know/haven't thought about it," we found our data wasn't as rich as we had wanted it to be.

All the same, we shared our data sets with our research partners at a U.S. business university in the northeast of the country, where PhD students are running independent analysis. We'll publish what we found in the future, but for now, we want to tell the story of the survey. We hope that others hear our story and decide to use this stakeholder analysis method too.

How We Did Our Youth Workforce Development and Mobile Learning Survey in Senegal:

1. We had a compelling reason for young people to participate.

When our research assistant was still very new to his job, he felt shy approaching and interviewing respondents because he was not telling them what we were doing and why it was important to them.

This is a classic case of the "features vs. benefits" sales mistake that goes something like this. Our research assistant would approach a young person in the late afternoon outside the university and tell them about our survey. "It was 35 questions and I'm from Code Innovation, a local tech company," he would say. "Can I interview you?" Most people would look at him blankly and, when learning that they weren't going to be compensated directly in any way, say no. This happened a lot and he began to get discouraged. Our assistant was focused on the "features" of the thing he was doing, in other words, what it was and how it worked.

When we began to work with him on the "why" of the story, people started to respond. By focusing on the benefits to them, people had a clear reason to say "yes" and get involved.

"Hi," our assistant would say, usually in Wolof, before asking the questions in French, "I'm working with a company that is building a free mobile app to help young people get a job. Would you answer some questions to help us with our project?"

The clearer our assistant was about communicating that benefit to respondents, the better things went.

2. What kind of data did we need to build our product?

Our idea for this survey was based on an observable and measurable need. As African economies and African cities grow over the next decades, young people need to know how to identify jobs that suit them and get the skills they need to negotiate their careers.

In our other start-up businesses, we'd seen the skill gap between where we wanted our new hires to be and where they actually were. The first few months of any new project would involve extensive step-by-step training and norming around professional and organization culture. This isn't something that's taught in career workshops, university or secondary school, but as an employer in Africa, it's a big 'X' factor in building a team and hiring.

We wanted to solve for it with an app that taught young African professionals how to enter the workplace and negotiate their careers.

3. What were we trying to build in the first place?

When we started the survey in 2012, most of Code's experience was in computer and Internet projects around e-mentoring and e-learning with at-risk and low-income secondary students around the world. We did not have experience building mobile apps, but we saw their potential for our demographic of young, urban, educated Africans.

We wanted to get enough data to know the following:

1) How were young people already using technology in their searches and along their career paths?

2) Were their strategies working or not working in terms of moving them towards their career goals?

4. What did the survey look like?

You can see a copy of the survey we used here in English and here in French. We had our Peace Corps Volunteer with a background in social science develop the questions with us, and train our research assistant in his first round of interviews.

What We Learned from Doing the Survey on Youth and Mobile Workforce Development:

1. This was easier to do than we thought and provided a good way of getting data for decision-making before we developed our project.

2. We didn't need as many respondents as we thought. Even though we only surveyed a quarter of the people we initially thought we would, we still had more than enough data for our analysis. In retrospect, we could've stopped at around 100, as long as those respondents were exactly within the required demographic and gender-balanced.

3. Inviting U.S. research universities to do our data analysis took the work off our hands and made our analysis verifiably independent. Also, we like to think that it was interesting for the students involved to learn a bit about African research contexts. We found the partnership to be very rewarding and highly recommend that other teams like us reach out to and work more closely with universities.

Thanks for reading this far! If you're interested in learning more about this, please feel free to get in touch ( We love to have conversations about technology for education and with others building in the African tech space.