Nairobi, Kenya/Mumbai, India
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Kenyan Pastor Robert Olunga counts himself as one of the lucky ones.

Growing up in an informal settlement in Nairobi, Olunga says he could easily have ended up like many other jobless young men - trapped in poverty with no opportunities to better his life.

"In the slums, you feel that you don't deserve to dream. But when you are given exposure, it changes your outlook and you realise it's OK to want more," said Olunga, 34, who leads a congregation of about 400 people at a local evangelical church.

"The Duke of Edinburgh awards gave me that exposure. It changed my outlook on life and gave me the confidence to break beyond the barriers I was faced with. If I had not have been part of the scheme, my alternative was drugs and crime."

Duke of Edinburgh International Awards Robert Olunga

Kenyan national Robert Olunga who participated in the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award scheme in this undated photo. PICTURE: Robert Olunga

Ahead of Prince Philip's funeral on Saturday, former participants of one of his most enduring legacies - the Duke of Edinburgh International Awards scheme - have praised the "transformative" nature the program has played in their lives.

From Africa to Asia, people who took part in the scheme recounted how their experiences - from doing voluntary work in maternity wards, to reading to the elderly, to learning to play hockey or hiking - had given them both drive and direction.

"My story is just one. So many people will tell you how transformative the experience has been."

Kenyan Pastor Robert Olunga

Launched in 1956, the scheme is a program of activities for youth aged between 14 and 24, designed to promote self-awareness, independence, commitment, responsibility and service to the community.

Through a wide range of activities, young people can not only improve their self-esteem and confidence, but also gain essential skills for work and life such as resilience, problem-solving, team-work and communication.

There are three separate attainment levels: bronze, silver and gold, each with an increasing degree of commitment.

Currently there are 130 countries and territories running the program, with more than eight million participants since it started.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Prince Philip, who died on 9th April at the age of 99, had with his Duke of Edinburgh awards scheme "shaped and inspired the lives of countless young people and at literally tens of thousands of events he fostered their hopes and encouraged their ambitions".

Bronze, Silver and Gold awardee Olunga, who was first offered the chance to take part through his school when he was 14, said he developed leadership and team-building skills and a passion for youth issues, which helped kickstart his career.

From landing his first job with the Commonwealth office in Zambia where he was designing youth policies to becoming a consultant on leadership and teambuilding, to now serving his community as a pastor, Olunga attributes it all to scheme.

"My story is just one," said Olunga who also served as youth representative on the international council of the award scheme.

"So many people will tell you how transformative the experience has been."

Duke of Edinburgh International Awards Kenya

Kenyan youth participate in an expedition under the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award scheme in this undated photo. PICTURE: The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award

In India, the scheme - known as the International Award for Young People - has helped to empower girls and young women from underprivileged communities in major cities, such as Mumbai, by partnering with schools, charities and youth groups.

School sports coach Aarti Kori, 21, recounted how she never dreamt that she would be able to have a career in sports until she participated in the award scheme through a local charity.

As part of the program, Kori - who is from a conservative family where her mother never left the house and did not approve of girls playing sports - had to log her daily fitness regimen, learn a new skill and to do community service.

"I think I would not have been able to speak as well, take initiative or quick decisions if not for the programme. I have become more confident and I hold sessions on life skills," said Kori, who completed her award in 2020.

"I am the first woman from my house to have stepped out, to travel and make a career in sports."

Aarti Kori, 21, a school sports coach in Mumbai, India.

"I am the first woman from my house to have stepped out, to travel and make a career in sports."

In neighbouring Bangladesh, IT professional Sultana Razia, 30, who completed her award in 2018 at university, said it had inspired her to start her own charity and do social work.

Last year, Razia launched a food bank to support poor people living in the capital Dhaka who were struggling to earn an income due to COVID-19 restrictions.

She started by cooking a dozen meals for the poor in her neighbourhood and soon found herself partnering with other organisations, distributing 100,000 food parcels in six months.

"The award definitely inspired me to do more for my community...the tasks involved in it were challenging which helped discipline me," said Razia. "In fact, I think I got my first job because of the tasks on my CV and not my grades."

Duke of Edinburgh International Awards Guinea

Young people in Guinea paint a school as part of the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award scheme in this undated photo. PICTURE: The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award

Many awardees emphasised how the award had instilled a strong sense of social service due to the variety tasks which ranged from helping the elderly to campaigning for road safety, fundraising, litter picking or working with animals.

Ghanaian national Regina Addo, who completed her gold award in 2014 and now works with young people with disabilities, said the experience helped her decide on her career path which led to work overseas.

Addo, 30, who was tasked to work in a maternity ward in Accra as part of her community service, said the experience made her realise how much she loved working with children, adding that she now planned to train as a midwife.

"The award has a tremendous impact on anyone who does it. "It gave me perspective. It gave me the chance to explore who I am and what I want to do," Addo said by phone from Britain where she has been working for the last three years.

"It brings out the best in you and inspires you to want to give back to the community."