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Backing young entrepreneurs in Malawi helps reduce HIV risk

How an ILO programme in Malawi supports hundreds of young people facing high risks of HIV infection to become entrepreneurs.

Feature | 12 July 2013

Karonga district, Malawi (ILO News) – Alice Mboma is a 28 year-old sex worker living in the northern Karonga district of Malawi. Her clients sometimes refuse to pay, or threaten her with violence, and she hardly makes enough to get by. With few skills and little education, Alice is supporting herself and her elderly parents, while facing high risks of HIV infection.

Her situation is not unusual. The majority of Malawi’s predominantly youthful population ekes out a living in the informal sector, with few opportunities to do otherwise. They are frequently neglected in the national HIV response, partly because they are often hard to reach. To try and fill this gap the ILO has launched an initiative targeting young people with an approach that looks beyond traditional HIV prevention efforts.

“We believe that if young men and women are economically empowered it will reduce their vulnerability to HIV,” explains Patrick Makondesa, ILO/AIDS National Project Coordinator based in Malawi. “There is a need to tackle the underlying factors that lead to risk-taking behaviour and to incorporate HIV prevention efforts into a wider approach.”

We believe that if young men and women are economically empowered it will reduce their vulnerability to HIV."
In 2010 the ILO made contact with the Karonga Cargo Association (KACA), a group representing about 4000 mostly young bicycle taxi riders, who operate in the busy M1 highway border area between northern Malawi and Tanzania. Bicycles are the main form of transport for informal workers in the area, but their work puts the taxi riders at risk because many customers (including sex workers) often want to pay with sex rather than cash, to save the little they have.

With Swedish government cooperation (Sida) funding, the project used ILO training tools to help KACA improve its organization and to enhance the business development skills of its members. Over a two year period, the project has so far trained a cadre of 54 master trainers who have in turn taught business skills to 500 young bicycle taxi drivers. HIV messages encouraging changes in behaviour are incorporated in all training.

Because the sex workers use the bicycle taxis so frequently, the KACA members decided to invite them to join their association. “We are partners in business,” explains Billy Mwaisangu, chair of KACA. “We interact so often with them and wanted to reach out to them; we felt if we can talk of HIV together it will have an impact on both parties. For instance we can talk about condom use together.”

Alice Mboma seized the opportunity to get involved and her commitment was quickly rewarded with a leadership role representing the sex workers in KACA. She participated in an ILO training session on business development skills that included budgeting and planning, and has become a trainer herself.

Fired up with entrepreneurial ideas, she saved money to start a small business trading pots and rice with village farmers. She made enough profit to open her own savings account at the bank – something she had never dreamed would be possible. “I am so proud of this,” she says.

Rodgers Simwanza is a bicycle taxi driver and secretary of KACA. He explains how he now has less trouble dealing with passengers who try to offer sex instead of paying their fare. “I stick to my point that I need money and not sex and am no longer accepting these offers,” he says. He has lost customers but says the ILO training about business development has given him more scope and he has started selling second hand clothes in addition to taxi work.

“The ILO programme has changed the way I think, plan and my general outlook on life,” says Billy Mwaisangu. “What struck me the most in the training was that I needed a business plan.” Mwaisangu decided to sell one of his two bicycles and used the money to open a small tuck shop in his village which he now runs with his wife.

The ILO/Sida project has helped to realize enormous untapped potential among the youth in the area: “If it was not for the ILO I could not be where I am today, without this programme I would be stuck with no thought of further development,” says Mwaisangu.

In 2013 the ILO is planning to set up a small loan fund for all KACA members who have been trained and developed an acceptable business plan, so more people can become entrepreneurs.

KACA is one of four informal sector associations being targeted by the ILO/Sida project, which is reaching 10 000 people in four major southern African transport corridors. The association has an active HIV/AIDS peer education programme and a drama group that has reached over 1560 people with prevention messages. Its membership has increased by 3000 to 7000, as young people see the benefits of belonging to the association.

“This programme is helping to give young people skills and opportunities to become more self reliant, while at the same time reducing their HIV vulnerability,” says the ILO’s Makondesa. “It is inspiring to see the way they are taking control of their lives.”

Tags: sex industry, HIV/AIDS

Regions and countries covered: Malawi

Unit responsible: Department of Communication (DCOMM)

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