Upgraded educational facilities in Burkina Faso will help the workforce prepare to join the country's growing economy. Courtesy of Plan International Canada

Iamgold, Plan Canada, and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) have pooled their resources to support the development and strengthening of the educational and employment sectors in Burkina Faso. The three organizations have contributed $1 million, $900,000 and $5.6 million, respectively, to a project that has so far seen 11 pre-vocational centres rehabilitated and two completely rebuilt. Though the project has faced criticism that the Canadian government is funding CSR projects for mining companies, “the results have been extremely positive so far,” said Iamgold’s director of corporate social responsibility (CSR), Aaron Steeghs.

The Burkina Faso workforce is presently ill-prepared to take on the country’s industrial output, which is growing at about 6.5 per cent. Education levels and literacy rates are poor: children can expect only about eight years of schooling in total and consequently only about 29 per cent of people over 15 years old can read and write. It is with that in mind that the six-year pilot project is meant to develop educational and training opportunities for youth, and help create a steady flow of workers with transferable skills.

The idea grew out of a 2007 workshop led by the University of Toronto that examined cross-sector partnerships through a case study of the Kimberley process for conflict diamonds. After the initial workshop, it took close to three years of relationship building before the Burkina Faso project proposal was drawn up and executed.

“We have a lot of CSR projects around the mine site to support local communities, but this is a national-level initiative,” Steeghs said. “At a national level, almost all companies make some contributions to philanthropy. We thought this would be a lot more meaningful and impactful, in an area where we can really add value beyond writing a cheque. That’s been the fun part; this project is about a lot more than just making a financial contribution.”

Renovations boost enrolment

The centres getting help are pre-professional vocational schools for youth aged between 13 and 18. The facilities, located in the southwest and north-central regions of the country, were long-neglected and offered little value in terms of employment preparation.

Nadine Grant, director of programs for Plan Canada, explained that before the renovations were completed, classrooms were missing necessary equipment like motorcycle parts for the motorcycle mechanic program. The centres had poor attendance rates and reputations. Grant also noted that parents were not proud to send their teens there to study.

“Now that we have renovated them, we’ve made the curriculum easier to understand for the young people,” she said, pointing out that the revamped curricula were informed by market research surveys. “We actually have tools that they can use so that they leave with very marketable skills,” she continued. “Exam scores have really increased and the enrolment rate has increased.”

There are now several programs being offered – sewing, welding, carpentry, and electrical maintenance, for example – that generally take four years to complete. Plan Canada ­re­­trained 101 Burkinabé teachers, and the facilities are run by the Burkina Faso Ministry of Education. As of September 2014, DFATD reported that 2,867 students had enrolled in technical, vocational and educational training centres since the project began. “The Ministry of Education loves this project because it reignites something they had that wasn’t performing strongly,” Grant said.

A window into the mining workplace

Neither Grant nor Steeghs could confirm how many youth have succeeded in finding a job upon graduation, due primarily to data tracking challenges in that context. However, both emphasized that none have been employed at Iamgold’s Essakane mine, located in the northeastern part of the country. That is not a goal of the project, and Essakane leads mining-specific training in the region of operation.

Iamgold’s mine, however, plays a critical role in offering students real-world learning opportunities.

For the past three years, Iamgold has been sending Essakane employees – always Burkinabé and often women in non-­traditional roles – to give presentations and workshops at the centres. The presenters offer students the chance to pick their brains and gather insight into what it would be like to work in their field and to hold a job in a professional environment.

One of the workshops evolved into an internship program where students gain experience with local businesses, Iamgold, and other mining companies across the country. Iamgold, in particular, has hosted more than 100 students annually for the past two years, usually in cohorts of 20 or so.

“These students have never really seen a work environment that resembles a large-scale industrial mine,” Steeghs said, explaining that the internship is “an intense crash course in the life skills that are a little bit harder to teach in a school environment, as well as a look at what you can do with vocational training and the opportunities that are out there.”

Iamgold buses in the students from as far away as a few hundred kilometres to spend one week touring the mine, asking questions and testing their practical skills.

Looking toward a prosperous future

The project’s overall goal is to leverage the renovated centres to enroll 3,390 in pre-vocational centres and 6,400 in professional training centres, and to create 525 internships. The partners want to ensure that a minimum of 525 graduates become either employed or self-employed by 2017.

In the meantime, Iamgold and Plan Canada have spent the last two years building a CSR forum in Burkina Faso that will pull mining companies and NGOs together to discuss critical issues and to bring in external expertise.

“Formal mining is not that old in Burkina Faso,” Grant said. “As a result, we’re only just starting to unpack issues like CSR. This network is trying to increase the understanding of some of these concepts across the mining community, the NGO community and the private sector, so that we can get on board in terms of a responsible approach to mining.”