How vocational schools in Africa can become financially self-sustaining

Many nonprofits, NGOs and donors want to see their projects and schools in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world become financially self-sustaining. They don’t want their efforts to be dependent on outside funding forever.

But vocational training programs can be expensive, especially with the need for costly equipment and large facilities. And few students in poor countries have the money to pay for vocational training programs with high tuition fees that cover the true costs of running the programs.

So what’s the solution?

One way to help vocational schools in Africa become self-sustaining is for them to generate their own revenue by producing products to sell to the community.

The program instructors and the students can work together to fabricate products that are in high demand in the local market. The school then sells the products and the profits go toward funding the vocational school’s operations.

And here’s the added bonus: The students get to experience real-world work!

Our welding department has been commissioned by several schools to make desks. The revenue from these projects helps make the school financially self-sustaining.

In addition, vocational schools in Africa and in other countries with high rates of poverty can work with their instructors and students to carry out infrastructure projects to improve the school’s facilities. This includes building desks, chairs, shelves; or even constructing additional buildings or making other improvements to facilities.

What we’re talking about is essentially a business enterprise embedded within a vocational school. While it’s an exciting idea, it’s not always easy to carry out in real life. If each project is not carefully tracked, the expenses can often be higher than the revenue, which makes it a money-losing operation. So every project must be carefully tracked to ensure the vocational school is seeing a profit from its efforts.

At West African Vocational Schools, which operates in Guinea-Bissau (West Africa), we’ve had a lot of experience running a “production” component within our welding training program. Our instructors and students produce everything from simple products (like grills for cooking fish) to custom jobs (like off-site work installing security bars on a perimeter wall).

Recently, our students built desks that are used at our flagship campus in the capital, Bissau. .

Recently, our students built desks that are used at our flagship campus in the capital, Bissau. (See photo above).

They’re also producing school desks that will be sold to local primary schools.

In addition, they’re fabricating security bars that will be installed on the campus security wall (which reduces capital costs for the vocational school).

If you want to develop a self-sustaining vocational school in Africa by generating revenue through producing products, here are five key lessons we’ve learned over the years.

1. Track expenses and revenue carefully.

This requires establishing a detailed inventorying system where you can track how materials (such as different types of raw steel) are used. To do this well, inventory needs to be taken regularly, and access to the inventory needs to be controlled. This also requires setting up an invoicing and billing system to make sure that what is charged for a product or a custom project will produce a profit (as well as ensuring that clients pay the amount in full).

2. Develop a short list of products that students can produce every year.

Create a list of 3 to 5 products that can be mass-produced every year by each cohort of students. The work of fabricating these products can then be integrated into the training curriculum as a natural way of putting new skills into practice. As a result, the vocational school will be able to reliably and consistently produce products that are readily available to be purchased by the community.

The welding program also makes grills that they sell to the local community.

3. Make sure the incentives are set up right.

WAVS gives its instructors a small cut of the revenue generated by the labor we charge for each project. This way, the instructors are willing and eager to take on these projects and ensure that the school’s clients are happy. These incentives must also be balanced with the need to give adequate training time to students outside of client production work. While client-based work can be an effective part of the training program, you also have to make sure that it doesn’t squeeze out the time needed for other practical training elements of the program.

4. Consider an internship program to help manage projects

At the end of every 11-month WAVS welding training program, our instructors select two or three of the best students to stay on for the next year as interns. The interns get additional training and experience by going through the program again. In addition, they may receive a small stipend or some other incentive. The interns can help train new students, and can also help with carrying out revenue-generating projects (helping ensure that projects are completed consistently and on schedule).

5. Stay flexible and keep adapting your system.

Like any business enterprise, a revenue-generating project must be able to adapt to changing circumstances. Similarly, the first version of the systems used to implement the program won’t be perfect. Keep iterating and improving as you go.