Special report by Iqbal Wahhab: Hope out of Africa

Entrepreneur Iqbal Wahhab watches Y Care International turn around the lives of former prisoners in Togo, and says the charity’s work offers valuable lessons for Britain

“You must come to Togo.” That’s not something you hear every day, but then it’s not every day that you have lunch with Terry Waite. We were at the Cinnamon Club, full of rubber-necking politicians, but everyone noticed this national treasure – though at 6ft 7in, he’s hard to miss.

I was telling him about a social project that I had been working on to promote entrepreneurship among prisoners as a route away from crime. The idea was first mooted in a column I wrote for Director.

Waite told me that the YMCA in Togo, west Africa, runs a programme along these lines. Thirty years ago he helped launch an international aid agency called Y Care International to support the work that YMCAs do globally. It uses effective local practices and sees how they can be successfully exported in ways not dissimilar to how multinational corporations operate. Businesses in the UK could learn important lessons from the way the charity works.

Adam Leach, Y Care International’s chief executive, was also at the lunch and provided more detail. The re-offending rate in Togo for released prisoners is 70 per cent, but for the hundreds of prisoners whom the local YMCA has helped to set up on their own, that figure plummets to one per cent. I thought I needed to see more, so the three of us – along with photographer Hannah Maule-ffinch, who donates her time to help bring such visits to life – packed our bags for a five-day trip to Togo.

Harsh jail regime

I planned to visit some of the businesses that have been started by ex-offenders (or rather detainees as many are better described). But, first, we went inside Lomé prison in the Togolese capital. Despite the briefing we were given beforehand by the governor, I doubt anything could have prepared me for what I saw.

The jail was built to house 600 inmates yet more than 2,000 were sprawled around the building. A space the size of a bedroom in a modern western home served as a health centre used by 54 people. Pleas of “help us, help us” from grown men fed just one meal a day added further to the deafening noise and provided ever more desperate images. We met a group of 20 inmates. Shockingly, many had been locked up for three years or more without having stood trial. YMCA volunteers, including senior lawyers, are given access to inmates and inform them of their legal rights to a hearing, and over many years they have helped more than 1,000 to be released. But in a beleaguered economy, where do freed prisoners go? Step forward entrepreneurship. Y Care International helps those who want to develop skills to prepare them for business and offers financial aid to set up enterprises.

I met many former prisoners-turned-businesspeople, but let me tell you here about Jeanette.

A confident 24-year-old, she served two years before the YMCA took up her case, proving pivotal in her release due to false imprisonment. In jail, she had learnt hairdressing (even in this hell-hole, prisoners are offered skills training that inmates in Britain aren’t) and the charity has helped her to set up a salon on the outskirts of Lomé. It is a modest affair but the support has paid off, with her business now enjoying a strong following. There are two dryers, four chairs and a mirror. The tiny building was built using bags of sand and cement which she collected and stored.

But just as Jeanette was getting into her stride and hiring apprentices, disaster struck. “I came in one morning and the place had been emptied,” she told me. “I thought it was all over. My papers were gone, so I couldn’t even get my savings out. I had to get over it and bounce back. I called some of the apprentices who had trained at the same time as me. They helped me, and I borrowed hair-drying equipment. My clients were sympathetic and supportive, and so they put up with the new conditions I found myself working under.”

Trade not aid

As Director readers know, money doesn’t make an entrepreneur as much as character does – and Jeanette has the latter in bucketloads. She’s winning, and she’s not short of ambition: “I want a big queue of people and then to build another floor on top.” Her plans and enthusiasm include launching her own cosmetic range. “I am determined to make my dreams come true and then go back to the prison to train others in the skills I am learning. When you stumble, you get up and go to where you should have been.”

There could be no better example of ‘trade not aid’. The YMCA didn’t put Jeanette into a refuge for homeless mothers – it helped her set up a meaningful life for herself. Not only could we support such fantastic initiatives, but we could also bring those practices back here. We shouldn’t be too proud to reject learning from a charity, and Togo could offer us useful knowledge.

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Director Magazine

Share this article