Utilising Africa’s youth bulge

Youth bulge
Youth bulge

Africa will have the largest workforce – 1.1 billion people – on the planet by 2040. Can Africa harness this unprecedented demographic advantage to drive productivity and shared prosperity?

A survey conducted by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University revealed that about 55 per cent of East Africa’s youth aged between 18 and 35 were unemployed. The survey revealed that unemployment among youth aged between 18 and 20 was a staggering 80 per cent. About 50 per cent of youth graduating from East Africa’s universities cannot find work.

The majority of young and relatively well-educated youth in East Africa is employed in the informal sector. In Kenya for example, 80 per cent of jobs created in 2014 were in the informal sector.

Informal sector jobs are invariably ephemeral and low paying. Data from the International Labour Organisation shows that Africa has the world’s largest rate of working poverty – people who are employed but earning less than $2 (Sh202 ) a day. Creating productive jobs is Africa’s existential challenge.

While the current crop of Africa’s youth is the best-educated compared to previous generations, employers are for the most part dissatisfied with the quality of graduates entering the job market. Potential employers say graduates lack capacity for critical and analytical reasoning, cannot communicate and lack basic workplace discipline. Education experts have faulted the education system which privileges and promotes rote learning and represses thinking.

With a median age of about 19, Africa’s youthful moment presents opportunity and risk. Opportunity because providing quality education and skills to a majority of Africa’s youth puts in their hands the tools and capability they need to make real the promise of the youth dividend. Conversely, denying Africa’s youth quality education and a chance to participate effectively in the labour market makes youth a tinderbox for social upheaval.

Youth have a positive outlook about themselves and this is reflected in how they think about the future. The East Africa youth survey revealed that 75 per cent of the youth believed their countries would be richer materially, 66 per cent believe there will be more opportunities for youth – better access to quality education, healthcare, and more jobs for youth. Moreover, 62 per cent believed society would reward merit or hard work.

In their thoughts and views about the future, East Africa’s youth are sending a not-so-subtle message to their governments. They expect a future better than the present conditions.

They are demanding access to quality education and healthcare and well-paying jobs. In their belief that society will judge them on merit, they are signaling that the culture of patronage must end.

It is the large youthful population, not trinkets or hydrocarbons, that will deliver meaningful, durable and shared prosperity for Africa. Let’s fix education by training the best teachers and providing a curriculum that liberates our children to think and innovate.

It is time to fix the structural flaws in Africa’s growth story, revitalise rural economies, leverage urbanisation, and create jobs in agriculture and manufacture.