Helping rural youths with employment

Their concern for youth unemployment in developing countries spurred them to set up a vocational training company specialising in call centre training for rural youths.

Three National University of Singapore (NUS) graduates – Mr Ivan Lau, Mr Lee Zhihan and Mr Ellwyn Tan, all 27 – came up with the idea of setting up BagoSphere in 2010, after being exposed to rural poverty during a Youth Expedition Project in their undergraduate days.

And following a successful pilot test last year, the trio will be getting an additional S$10,000 in seed funding to pursue their plans after coming in as one of four winners at the Singapore International Foundation’s Pitching for Change forum last month, the finale to the foundation’s Youth Social Entrepreneur programme.

The three other winners are online volunteering platform Start Now, I.M. Pad, which seeks to provide affordable and biodegradable sanitary napkins to women in developing countries, and Young Sprout, a tuition agency for students from low-income families.

Based in Bago City, Philippines, BagoSphere offers a two-month course to equip rural youths with the necessary skills to work in a call centre.

The course trains them in English communication, information technology and other skills such as learning how to provide customer service over the phone and handling stressful conditions.

Once they complete their training, the youths, who usually live on US$3 (S$3.70) a day, have the opportunity to join a multi-national company which pays them US$250 (S$310) a month.

“Early on, BagoSphere has identified a huge market need in call centre training,” said Mr Tan, adding that the S$10,000 seed funding, sponsored by Asia Philanthropic Ventures, will be used to purchase the equipment they need for their training and to hire trainers.

The team spent seven months last year in Bago City setting up the facilities for their operations as well as talking to call centres. In the pilot test, they trained 14 rural youths aged 18 to 24 over a period of four months. After the course, 13 were employed at call centres and two were promoted to supervisors.

In the next six months, BagoSphere will prepare its curriculum and build a bigger training centre. Classes are expected to officially start next March, and 525 youths are expected to be trained in the next two years.

Following the pilot, the team said they now have a firm understanding of the market landscape.

Said Mr Tan: “It (the pilot) not only allowed us to clearly understand the ground conditions, but also tested our curriculum and idea, which gives us the confidence that BagoSphere is feasible and has the potential to be successful.”

The Youth Social Entrepreneur programme started in 2010 to encourage young people to embark on social enterprises in Singapore and beyond. Sixty-five teams participated this year, up from 25 teams in 2010 and last year. The teams attended a three-day workshop and at end of March, nine teams were short-listed for the Pitching for Change forum.

For the first time, the final short-listed teams were assigned mentors from McKinsey & Co, and went on study visits to India and Thailand.

This article was first published in TODAY