Unexpected learnings from a Covid-19 relief program about the Cameroonian labor market

6 janvier 2021

By UNDP Cameroon Accelerator Lab Team | Jean-Paul Mvogo, Head of Experimentation | Anna Ojong, Head of Solution Mapping | Audrey Moneyang, Head of Exploration

Mapping of interactions between a corporation and its stakeholders during a UNDP financed Covid-19 relief program | Source : Guy Pouokam

4 years. That's the time I spent looking for a job !

Those words came from Arnaud, one of the young participants of a Covid-19 relief program aimed at mitigating the impact of the pandemic on the Cameroonian economy. UNDP Cameroon Accelerator Lab (or AccLab) met him and various other young Cameroonians while providing technical assistance to fasten the implementation of that program.

Those encounters were a great source of learnings for us. Beyond Covid-19 and its impact, they led us to understand that finding a job was a long and tortuous obstacle course for most young Cameroonians. They also represented opportunities to put a face on anonymous unemployment macro data and to meet directly with some of the 95% of young people entering the job market and not capable of finding a descent job. Finally, those stirring meetings bolstered our resolution to work on the first frontier challenge assigned to us: find and assess solutions to reduce mismatches between the skills received by young graduates and the needs of the labor market. This blog post is a summary of our first steps in that discursive journey around that topic.

A Covid-19 relief program as an unexpected entry point in the subtleties of the Cameroonian job market

“Le Grand délestage”. It is hard to find a proper translation from French to English of this expression which was used by Cameroonians to depict the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on their living standards. In Cameroon, “délestage” refers to sudden and long power outages affecting people and, more subtly, to all other negative social and practical consequences. During a random discussion session with the Acc Lab team, some young Cameroonians, trained by UNDP, diverted this expression to characterize the unprecedented and massive hit of the pandemic on their activities, revenues and spending. For them, 2020 was definitely socially the year of the “Grand Délestage”.

As in many African countries, the sanitary impact of the pandemic in Cameroon has been limited so far, yet Covid-19 has acted as a silent economic and social killer for thousands of households, especially in the agricultural sector. Accelerator Lab members, as many city dwellers, discovered early signs of that economic catastrophe as prices of some local perishable products usually on high demand were divided sometimes by 2 to 3 times the actual price, most often remained unbought, and rotted in the markets. Some of the reasons for this market crash were explained by early lockdowns, closure of trade borders and other barrier measures implemented to prevent the spread of the virus. Those measures forced the street food industry, an institution in Cameroon, with most people eating outside for breakfast, lunch or dinner, to close with an immediate impact across all agricultural value chains. 

More than these anecdotal pieces of evidence of the impact of the crisis on the agricultural sector, the Rapid Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 (SEIA) undertaken early this year by UNDP Cameroon highlighted the profound impact of Covid-19 on agriculture, a sector that still employs 56% % of the population. Hence, the decision taken by the Country Office to prioritize interventions in the agricultural sector for its Covid-19 relief funds aimed at supporting economic and social groups affected by the pandemic. The results of the call for applicants launched by UNDP Cameroon to select, train 500 entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector and equip 300 of them revealed the extent of the crisis as 5700 applications were received in 8 days. Given the number of applications, UNDP Cameroon AccLab Team was solicited to help fasten the selection process and training.

Beyond figures, the reading of applications was a revelation for our team of hundreds of micro tragedies affecting farmers and entire value chains. Limited financial assistance and the absence of storage facilities led many farms to shut down their operations. Beyond taking stock of the impact of the crisis, that mission was also for us a source of unexpected learnings and discovery on the unemployment challenge mission assigned to the AccLab Cameroon : finding solutions to reduce the frictions plaguing access to the Cameroonian job market, especially for the young people.

As a matter of fact, informal discussions set in after training sessions with participants focused on employment issues. Some participants like Arnaud told us that they wrote hundreds of applications and looked for a job for years. Despite holding a Master from the renowned Faculty of Agronomy and Agricultural Sciences (FASA) in the University of Dschang Cameroon, he looked for a job all over Cameroon for 4 years, unsuccessfully. He later turned to entrepreneurship. Many had the same story, with entrepreneurship not being a choice but an obligation.

Trying to understand the root causes of the dysfunctional job market

Beyond one-on-one discussions, we decided to better understand factors that may explain dysfunctions in the job market. In Bafoussam, the main city of one of the four different regions of Cameroon in which capacity reinforcement bootcamps were organized, a first focus discussion group and a collective intelligence workshop were organized with 60 participants of our pool of agri business entrepreneurs

Discussions between the AccLab Team and participants, especially young ones, were fruitful, lively and highlighted direct but also indirect and unexpected causes. Among direct causes, many attendants pointed at the narrow size of the formal job market, which is too thin to absorb the number of young people looking for a job. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that 100,000 graduates enter the job market every year in Cameroon but only 5% get a decent job. Participants advocated for policies capable to widen the size of the market either by fostering private sector development and recruitments by SMEs or the civil service. Many of them openly acknowledged that the quality of the training they received was not up to the expectations of corporations, often blaming too theoretical curricula.

Much time was also spent discussing the issues surrounding employment of young graduates, as young people described the vicious circle around professional experience. Many participants stressed that only a minority were  able to get an internship and how difficult the journey to employment was for the majority who did not have that opportunity as employers focus on the need for work experience. Explanations for the lack of internships ranged from the weak internship culture in many corporations to limited financial resources available to pay interns for SMEs and public bodies.  

As confidence grew between participants and AccLab Team members, we were also able to explore some indirect and hidden factors plaguing the access to the job markets. 

An overview of the collective thinking mapping of the root causes plaguing the Cameroonian labor market | Source: UNDP

Participants at the end of a training for farmers during a UNDP financed Covid-19 relief program | Source: Guy Pouokam

Participants train before pitch sessions during a UNDP financed Covid-19 relief program | Source: Guy Pouokam


For most participants in the training, the functioning of the job market suffers from weak information mechanisms around job opportunities. They demanded that more efforts would be placed around platforms disseminating job market opportunities in a transparent manner while denouncing some malpractices of the job market.

For a majority of those attending the training, recruitment processes were often too tricky, not transparent, mired with off-market and informal arrangements or relied on identitary factors. Women mentioned biases limiting their access to the job market ranging from doubts over the capacity to perform certain tasks to off-work solicitations. Finally, the functioning of the market was definitely not judged to be pro-poor but even more to widen inequalities. As a matter of fact, scarce resources limit from birth the level of qualifications that children from poor households may attain, therefore restricting their choices on the job market one decade later. Lack of resources also limits the capacity of poor young seekers to extend their job search and to accept low or unpaid internships as they are unable to afford transport costs from home to work. Many participants also explained that their access to the job market was doomed from their school years as their career orientation was mostly based on parents and relatives and did not include any information about promising sectors. 


What do the data tell us and our next steps

Through talking and discussions with participants, we received a lot of insights on the functioning of the job market and its issues. However, those pieces of information were mostly qualitative. Hence our decision to administer a survey on those topics on a pool of 500 people selected for the final training, with finally responses obtained from 216 people. That sample of the population must be qualified as it surely presents some biases. Participants are indeed more educated and more tech friendly than the average Cameroonian as the selection for the Covid-19 relief program required minimum technological awareness to fill the online form. As a matter of fact, 78 % of the respondents had an academic level beyond the Cameroon Advanced Level Certificate (High School certificate). However, some of the answers represent avenues for our work in the next months.

Long-term unemployment | weak career guidance mechanisms | poor information on job opportunities | gender biases and non transparent process plague access to jobs

Source: UNDP Accelerator Lab Cameroon Survey on 216 participants to a Covid-19 relief program focused on agriculture

Finding # 1 : long term unemployement is a plague

42.1 % of respondents spent more than two years looking for a job and 9 out of 10 people interviewed declared that their search had been difficult or very difficult. Long term unemployment and job market facilitation represents therefore major issues and sources of work for the AccLab Cameroon.

Finding # 2 : access to employment is not always transparent

Participants highlighted the need for a more transparent job market. As an illustration, ¾ of them considered that identity factors were a major determinant of access to employment. They also gave a poor assessment of information mechanisms aimed at disseminating job opportunities. Those findings represent a second avenue for AccLab Cameroon efforts to remove frictions in the job market.

Finding # 3 : more internships and sandwich courses are needed

Finally, responses to open questions on the adequation between curricula and job markets or the main issues of the job market and their solutions represent an inestimable source of knowledge that we intend to share and exploit with UNDP Cameroon partners. In that realm, participants pleaded for curricula aligned with employers' needs, more internships and sandwich courses, better academic orientation mechanisms,  but also the intervention of more professional experts inside academic institutions. The Ministry in charge of Higher Education has recently launched reflections in that area and AccLab is currently considering experiments to be carried out to support that initiative.

Additional results will be published in the realm of another blog post and a new version of the questionnaire will be administered through UNDP Cameroon Facebook page and through other channels in 2021. As far as solutions are concerned, AccLab Cameroon has started preparing an Academic Orientation Fair scheduled to take place in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, in February. It will be an opportunity for pupils and students to ask universities and corporations the best advice for their studies and build career. The Lab will also leverage that event to test solutions able to improve career counseling and information sharing around job opportunities. We hope that those solutions will help students to avoid the long, complex and unsuccesful job search that Arnaud, our participant, had to face a few years ago.

All our thanks to Euphrasie Kouame, our Accelerator Lab focal point, who provided invaluable contributions to this piece. Editing and layout benefited from the assistance of Gaëlle Bruneau (Web specialist) and Joseph Fajong (Cameroon Communication Specialist).