One young person with an idea can impact lives of hundreds, says DOT founder Janet Longmore

Janet Longmore is the president, founder and chief executive of Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT), a global social interprise that focuses on empowering the youth. The New Times’ Allan Brian Ssenyonga caught up with Longmore on her recent visit to Rwanda for the World Economic Forum on Africa, where she spoke about DOT’s works in youth empowerment in the digital era.

Excerpts;

Tell us about DOT and its work in Rwanda?

Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) is an international non-profit organisation. We are transforming the way that young people can connect their socially responsible and innovative ideas to opportunities in their community, ensuring communities are socially and economically productive.

We’re doing this by mobilising a talented network of young leaders who have passion for change. We build their leadership skills and facilitation skills, and they work with multiple numbers of their peers in their own communities.

Globally, we operate in 14 countries around the world, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. DOT-Rwanda was launched in 2010, and is one of the outstanding stars in the network. Our team here is led by the highly talented Violette Uwamutara. Through DOT-Rwanda, more than 300 young leaders of change have impacted nearly 40,000 community members across the country.

DOT-Rwanda has partnerships with Ministry of Youth and ICT, and we work through Yego centres throughout the country. Rwanda’s commitment to inclusiveness and leveraging digital resources has really helped DOT-Rwanda flourish.

You have spoken about the ripple effect young people can have through social innovation. Tell us more about that.

There are two kinds of ripple effect that we see young people having in their community.

Here in Rwanda, more than 300 of DOT’s young leaders have facilitated programs and passed on their knowledge and skills in their communities – to hundreds of community members each. Those community members have families and friends that they then pass on their knowledge to – that is one form of a ripple effect that can be quite powerful.

The second form of ripple effect is when a young person sets up a social enterprise (a business that does social good) or creates a sustainable social innovation that meets a need in their community. This could be an entrepreneurial idea or an innovation that solves a social problem. It only takes one young person with an innovation that solves a need in their community to impact the lives of hundreds, creating lasting positive change.

In the communities where we operate now, DOT’s young leaders are known as effective change agents. They are transforming the lives of many of their peers and neighbours as they delivery DOT programs, but they also have their own social enterprises and initiatives that do social good. The impact of this really begins to grow - it is like throwing a stone into the water and causing a massive ripple effect.

Canadian Prime Minister recently announced $15.3m in funding for DOT’s work with youth in Africa. What does this mean for the youth in Rwanda and DOT-Rwanda activities?

At DOT, we are thrilled that we were selected to work with the Government of Canada in this partnership. It will allow us to deepen and expand our work here in Rwanda, and we will be supporting young people to be daring social innovators in their communities. We will support youth to leverage digital technology to solve pressing issues and challenges in communities and create social enterprises.

Our work in Rwanda will serve as a model for new countries that DOT is expanding into in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. This grant from the Government of Canada has an expansion and sustainability focus, and will help us foster more social innovation among young people and create a network of support throughout the continent.

The last time you visited, DOT-Rwanda had just signed a partnership with The MasterCard Foundation. Could you provide an overview of what that has been achieved?

Our partnership with The MasterCard Foundation continues to be a tremendous benefit. Because of this partnership, DOT-Rwanda has really been able to showcase what is possible when you support people and provide them with workforce, ICT skills, and entrepreneurship skills. The results have been significant.

The MasterCard Foundation has recently made a ten year commitment to Rwanda, and they are going to be working on a large-scale partnerships with the government of Rwanda and the network of enterprises here that serve young people.

What does participation in the World Economic Forum on Africa mean for you and DOT-Rwanda?

The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum on Africa was “Connecting Africa’s Resources through Digital Transformation.” In my mind, Africa’s biggest resource is its own young people, who are digitally savvy, passionate, and want to make a difference.

During meetings at WEF, I brought forth examples of young people and the difference they make using technology and how they transform their communities both here in Rwanda and in other countries where DOT operates. I sit on the Internet for All steering committee, which is looking at how we can make sure that the four billion people in the world who are still unconnected can get connected. But it is more than connection – it is how to build digital skills, digital literacy, and local content. This is an area where DOT-Rwanda has contributed a great deal, and our experience is what we have to share with the committee and at WEF.

Young people are sometimes perceived to be complicated. As your programmes are youth-led, how does this play into your work in communities?

DOT-Rwanda offers a unique approach. When we recruit young people who work in their communities with us, they go through a learning programme that teaches them strong communication, advocacy, facilitation, and problem solving skills. Once DOT’s young leaders are deployed in their communities, they have a very positive and influential local presence.

DOT-Rwanda’s work is helping to shift attitudes towardyoung people so that communities see them as assets. The population is young, so let’s engage young people using a positive and inclusive approach.

How do you tackle the attitude of young people using digital platforms merely as consumers and not creators of content?

We do a lot of work in this area – one of the things we do with young people is supporting them to use social media and digital tools for personal branding, digital storytelling, and championing causes they care about. For us, being digitally savvy means being in control and driving the narrative. Whether you are on Facebook or using WhatsApp to market your business, we see many examples of young people who are creating content that is locally relevant and leads to more people adopting digital tools and services.

Given the ever increasing demand for DOT programmes, what kind of young person does DOT lookout for and how do these young people reach you?

Well, we have a popular Facebook group that offers opportunity and support to any young person (http://facebook.com/groups/DigitalOppTrust). DOT Rwanda is also on Facebook

(http://facebook.com/DOTRwanda) and our brand in Rwanda is well known. It is easy to get to us through social media, or through the network of young people we have built across the country.

We are looking for young leaders who are passionate about building their communities, their own lives, and contributing to social and economic development. We want young people who are committed, are frustrated with sitting idle, and have ideas that they want to build on.

And what we want to do is to make sure that as many young people as possible can get engaged in the DOT network.

In brief, what would you say to a young person seeking opportunities today?

I would say: don’t isolate yourself. Find out what your friends and family are doing because this will help you grow your ideas. You also have to think about a purpose for your life and share it with your network. Learn how to use digital tools to find and open up opportunities for yourself.