Africa is the next big skills market – but youth need education and opportunities

The developing entrepreneurial movement among African youth is being increasingly recognised. Providing meaningful training and job opportunities for them can improve the quality of life of all the continent’s citizens, and counter poverty and illiteracy rates.

According to the World Bank, there will be a 70% rise in Africa’s working population (ages 15 to 64) between 2015 and 2035. The 15- to 24-year-old age group is estimated to increase by approximately six million annually over the next decade, making the environment ripe for new ideas, technology, and growth. But obstacles such as poor education, limited access to resources, cultural barriers and underdeveloped infrastructure stand in the way.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a further dearth of opportunities and a decline in employment rates worldwide. The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that the pandemic has hit young people especially hard: global youth employment dropped by 8.7% in 2020 compared to 3.7% for adults, with the fall being even more significant in middle-income countries.

Improving education is the first step

A recent report by Macrotrends claims that while improvements have been seen in this area, the literacy rate for Sub-Saharan Africa in 2019 was just 65.47%, up only 0.43% from 2018. The youth literacy rate was estimated at 75%, which means millions of young people who will soon need a job still lack this foundational ability to read and write. According to UNESCO, illiteracy is most significant in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Promoting literacy is an integral part of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. In addition to other key priorities, including nutrition and health, programs such as UNICEF UPSHIFT (a global initiative) aim to improve employment prospects for young people.

To ensure that education is accessible to everyone, the associated costs must be reduced significantly and as soon as possible. In addition, improving the overall system requires focusing on its fundamental pillar: teachers. African governments should prioritise educators’ requests. The outdated notion that teaching is not as important as other careers should be dispelled because if not, the educational system cannot improve. Global organizations like UNESCO have suggested some qualitative steps that can be taken in a similar direction to improve the education sector in Africa.

Perhaps the biggest barrier limiting African youth’s potential is the shortage of job opportunities. Unfortunately, Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s highest unemployment rate, but on the plus side, 29% of its young people are involved in new businesses, according to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report. It drew on the African Union's Continental Education Strategy for Africa to help close the skills gap and the role that both public and private institutions can play in future growth of Africa’s economy.

However, encouraging that statistic might be, the WEF report also notes that a large proportion of those new ventures have low growth potential, and with poor basic business skills, many young people might not be able to continue and manage a successful company. Yet these enterprising young minds showcase a potential group that, if properly trained and empowered, can grow to contribute to Africa’s and the world’s development as a whole.

What should governments and industry do?

Some international committees like the UN advise boosting infrastructure and increasing global trade. Yet we must not discount the importance of developing a skilled youth workforce as a critical step to accomplishing those goals. Human resources – especially consisting primarily of young minds – are critical to building Africa’s economy. Without the skills and entrepreneurial creativity that youth can bring, the evolution of infrastructure and world trade will not occur at the required pace.

Governments that can look beyond short-term challenges and work to develop their fastest growing resource – young workers – will benefit from business growth that improvements in infrastructure are aiming to bring about. Investing in youth today will yield far greater returns in the near future, and the quicker this is realised and acted upon, the better the outcome for both the youth and Africa’s economic prosperity.

Establishing a youth-friendly eco-system by creating entrepreneurship hubs, business networking spaces, and ease of trade to pan-African markets will offer young people exploratory opportunities to discover their interests and develop their full potential.

Enabling more youth to create startups and boosting manufacturing and exports would mean that fewer young people in Africa are left behind in the global shift to a more interconnected world. Despite the incredible importance of infrastructure development, bringing reliable power and internet to remote areas on the continent is still in its early stages. In the meantime, governments and industries can work together, taking a comprehensive approach to relieve the constraints currently preventing young people and the private sector from seizing opportunities and increasing productivity in various sectors.

Moreover, young people themselves should lead the efforts to foster an environment that enables and encourages their development. For example, having transparent structures for governance that ensures the participation of youth in government decisions will greatly reduce the acquisition of dead development aid and help authorities understand the real challenges facing the younger generation. This is in addition to concerted global efforts to abolish debt and negotiate fair international trade deals, such as the global committee for the abolition of illegitimate debt.

Organisations such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank Group and other African interest groups all assert that improving job creation in Africa is a global responsibility. With the proper skills, resources and support mentioned above, African youth can play a key role in the continent’s development and economic growth.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: Students from the Olympic Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya. – Patrick Meinhardt /AFP via Getty Images)

7 February 2022
Economic development