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Now’s the time to get Africa’s youth to work


Let’s start with Nigeria, where the youth population is over 35 million with many unemployed and struggling just for a daily meal.

Then there’s Rwanda, which is marking the 25th anniversary of its genocide and has done a great job rebuilding the country and reducing its unemployment rate to 15%.

Next up South Africa, where injustices of the apartheid era and lack of skills have left the majority of its youth destitute, with little hope evidenced by the protests seen during the past few weeks. Unemployment remains at a shocking 27% with youth unemployment set to have skyrocketed, leaving over ten million young people without jobs.

Last, Algeria where the voice of its youth was heard loud and clear, resulting in its 82 year-old leader to step down.

Research indicates that the continent’s youth population will reach almost 1 billion in the next 30 years, making it the largest on the planet. But this brings both challenges and opportunities. Recently, there were widespread protests here in South Africa, where various youth groups vented their ire about foreigners taking their jobs and housing allocations.

All of this should prompt us to think that as much as we think we’re doing our best, the next major conflict will stem from simple economics. We already see signs of this between the US and China, as well as the ongoing and tedious Brexit situation and the various regulations set by some countries to curb, for example, the influence of tech institutions like Uber and Facebook.

The key question is how do we unlock opportunities for Africa’s burgeoning youth population and get them into the value chain of economic growth? It won’t be easy as many are rurally-based, disadvantaged due to race or simply just ignored.

I believe that now is the time to invest in Africa’s youth, as there is nothing more powerful than young, energetic and eager minds, which are willing to participate and contribute economically towards a better, brighter and inclusive future.

It is imperative that in order to make this happen, a new thinking needs to be developed. The mind-set needs to shift from ‘poverty reduction’, which is associated with hand-outs and aid, to an inclusive ‘job-and-wealth creation’ mind-set, to accelerate industrialization goals.

As important, is the creation of a new economy, new entrepreneurs and sustainable businesses. Although Africa continues to “rise,” the fruits of its economic growth must be broadly shared going forward. Its growth is crucial to the success of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise the SDGs will fall short of eradicating global and regional inequalities. Many African countries are implementing positive policy reforms to improve the business investment climate. As a result, private sector investors have chosen to increase their presence in Africa, despite the recent macroeconomic turbulence.

However, more effort is needed to convert this investment into job creation and inclusive growth. Youth unemployment and underemployment constitute central challenges to Africa’s development. If youth unemployment rates remain unchanged in Africa, nearly 50% of youth – including students – will be unemployed, discouraged, or economically inactive by 2025. A sustained economic slowdown could exacerbate this situation with slower growth rates, depressed incomes and a reduced labour demand, making it even more challenging for many Africans to meet their basic needs.

The problem is expected to be the most severe in Africa’s resource-rich countries, such as Nigeria and South Africa, where low commodity prices and the threat of recession make a solution to the youth unemployment challenge more urgent. The likely consequences include increased poverty, social and economic exclusion, migration off the continent and an increased risk of political tensions.

Today’s status quo. The growing consensus shows that there is immense opportunity on the African continent. It also shows that Africa continues to receive massive investment from both the global

community and via intra-Africa trade. The recent Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCTA) highlighted that Africa needs to trade more within and prioritise key sectors that will improve and advance youth employment and infrastructure development on the continent.

Although Africa has seen growth in investments over the years, these have not translated into increased youth employment. The lack of implementation of policies and good leadership has also contributed to the lack of growth and unemployment challenges faced in South Africa. Here a few points to consider, which I feel could help get our youth back on track:

1. Good local government leadership: Although a lot of focus has been on getting national governments to work, the problem actually lies at the heart of the communities, which are the local governments. The majority of these are non-functional as those running them are unqualified to do so and lack the basic knowledge to turn things around and create local jobs for the people.

2. Build our manufacturing sector: Many of us probably saw the YouTube clip where a Nigerian minister is briefing parliament on the shock state of its manufacturing sector, highlighting that even toothpicks are imported in Nigeria. I think this says it all…

3. Get the youth to lead: Perhaps the African Union should champion an initiative to get all countries to sign an agreement that only 30-60 year-olds can lead their country in various government positions.

4. Digital skills: Upskill the youth with various digital skills, rather than redundant teachings, to ensure that they are future-fit for the dynamics of the ever-changing global work environment.

5. Big business support: Big businesses should change their perspective from Corporate Social Investment (CSI), which is largely deemed as a hollow PR exercise, to a Sustainable Investment that brings shared value and ensures a higher and more tangible impact in the communities where they operate

6. Build entrepreneurs: I can’t say this loud enough! I’m probably sounding like a broken record, but we must build and nurture our young entrepreneurs. Invest in them from the get-go – after all, they are our continent’s economic ‘tomorrows’.

Yes, all African countries have faced significant challenges, but our youth are the only drivers that can prevent a continental economic meltdown. So let’s stand together and get them to work. There’s no time like the present!

 Kizito Okechukwu is the co-Chair of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) Africa – 22 on Sloane is Africa’s largest startup campus.

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