Walk along any street in most African cities and you will see the story of Africa’s development, growth and potential: hard working, entrepreneurial people fill the cities making a living out of every opportunity crossing their path. However, dig a little deeper and you will see missed opportunities to take Africa and its citizens to the next level of development and build a future that today’s youth will thrive in. The hard work of everyday entrepreneurs is not matched by an education system that should provide the knowledge and skills for them to be profitable, for their enterprises to be lucrative. Few actors know what it takes to scale their business efforts. Fewer still know how to navigate the systems to access the resources that exists. At the same time, the policy environment diminishes the chances for its success. There is need to improve the opportunities of business, job creation and wealth accumulation through enterprises for youth; our next generation.
Over 60% of the population in Africa is under the age of 25. This growth is expected to increase exponentially over the coming years. This so-called ‘youth-bulge’ could be a great potential for economic growth through increased participation in economic development, labor markets but also as it leads to a rise in consumers[i]. If Africa’s young people can find good jobs and livelihoods, the region will reap enormous benefits through the fact that the majority of the population will be of working-age, the so-called ‘demographic dividend’.
Africa’s economic performance is already better than most other regions in the world. The shift in the population age structure predicted in many parts of Africa has an additional economic growth potential. However, in order to benefit from this demographic shift these children and youth need access to quality education and prospects to meaningful employment. Failure to provide the needs of the growing youngsters could lead to a rapid increase in poverty, urbanization, social unrest and, potentially, extremism and violence[ii].
While significant progress has been made towards universal primary school attendance, the reality is that a third (34%) of children of lower secondary school age (12-14 years) and more than half (58%) of 15 to 17-year-olds in sub-Saharan Africa are not in school. In other words, the majority of those who should be acquiring the skills to prepare them for the job market, or move into further education, are not even in the classroom. So how could these youngsters possibly have a positive impact on their countries’ development? At the same time, those who are lucky enough to complete their education are not necessarily ‘work-ready’. Researchers estimate that more than half of all graduates in the region are “inadequately prepared for employment[iii].”
An important missed opportunity for Africa’s education systems is the low exposure to financial literacy education and entrepreneurship education. Young people entering the workplace primarily have two pathways to a sustainable livelihood: employment or entrepreneurship. Over the next few years, Sub-Saharan African economies will need to absorb nearly 90 million young people between the age of 15 and 24 years. In order for this to happen, the current situation will need to improve. Encouraging entrepreneurship is of vital importance[iv]. In fact, today, the large majority of young people age 15–24 in Sub-Saharan Africa are involved in self-employment in the informal and agricultural sectors[v].
A New Path for the Future
In order to chart a new path for the future employment prospects of today’s youth, we need to acknowledge the reality on the ground. We need to go beyond the current roadmap of the SDGs to improve Sub-Saharan Africa’s future socio-economic prospects. Africa will need to prioritize preparing young people for opportunities in both the formal and the informal sectors of the growing economies. The vast majority of children will have to find employment in agribusiness, small-businesses and self-employment (around 90%)[vi]. In order to improve their chances of success we need to:
Listen and be Inclusive –Children and young people have a critical role to play in achieving sustainable development goals and are at the centre of development. Young people need to understand their rights as well as their responsibility and should participate in the decision-making processes including the political agenda of their countries. They also have an important voice that needs to be central to the debate about the future they will ultimately live in. As agents of youth development, we have a responsibility to listen to them and to let their ambitions – not our own interpretation of what they should do – drive the decision-making process.
From Dependence to Independence – Children and young people not only need to know how to read and write, they need to be equipped with the right skills – that means raising a financially literate, and a socially empowered generation to become successful entrepreneurs, who are able to scale-up profitable ideas and hire other young people when opportunities arise.
Life Skills Development- Empowering children and young people to take control of their own situation is key. Research has shown that young people are more able to build self-esteem, make informed financial decisions and thrive in the future when they have a good grasp of life skills such as self-awareness, social-connectedness, creative thinking, and problem-solving. Life skills, such as these, are vital as young people explore and enter the world of work and seek formal and / or informal employment.
Invest in Financial and Entrepreneurship Education – They also need to understand money; how to obtain it, use it, grow it and live off it. They need to be educated, inspired and motivated to take the risks to venture into the world of entrepreneurship to create job opportunities in the local and global economies. In fact, many young people that have left school are already entrepreneurs, but on a subsistence level. Beyond just ensuring access to quality basic education for all, Africa’s school systems need to emphasize work readiness, financial literacy and entrepreneurship in order to produce graduates who can compete with the global workforce. We need to equip youth with the skillset and technical know-how that they will require to be employed or become successful entrepreneurs[vii]. Governments will have to review their education curricula.
Create a Conducive Youth Policy Environment – Many governments have developed in recent years national youth strategies and multi-sectoral action plans often coordinated by newly formed ministries of youth. The reality however, is that most national plans are an aggregation of vertical sectoral programmes which are poorly funded, hampering the required action to create an enabling environment and opportunities for young people to start work or enterprises[viii]. Future youth policies and programmes should prioritize improving productivity and incomes for young people by increasing access to credit and support a friendlier business environment for youth[ix]. For this to be successful, the enormous opportunities of innovations available in the world today should be fully utilized, which should include providing access to reliable internet.
Be Coordinated- Multiple civil society actors including donors, international and local NGOs already invest immeasurable time and resources in the youth development agenda. Yet, these efforts remain often uncoordinated and fragmented, thus achieving minimal impact in the long run. Junior Achievement and Aflatoun International recognize the need for the two institutions and partner networks to strategically work together to complement the ongoing work in the area of youth entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial literacy skills development, while at the same time forming a partnership to advocate for and promote the importance of policies and business environments that encourage young people to start and succeed in enterprises.
The private sector should play a bigger role. It has significant influence and a crucial role to play in promoting economic development and most importantly, in supporting youth skills development. As a future employer, the private sector can provide internship opportunities aimed at equipping youth with essential work readiness skills that can help them thrive in the (global) job market. The private sector can also provide volunteer mentor opportunities and expertise to emerging youth businesses while simultaneously providing market linkages and opportunities to youth start-up enterprises. At the same time, it can support the implementation of financial literacy and entrepreneurship programs by providing the much needed in-kind and financial resources as an investment to civil society actors.
Act at Scale – The road to development in Africa is paved with pilot projects that never see the light of scale, primarily driven by donor appetites that prioritize innovation over replication. Long term pilots are not always great investments. Rather, an emphasis should be placed on identifying and documenting successes and lifting, shifting and customizing the elements that determine success. We know what works – Junior Achievement and Aflatoun International have extensive experience running youth entrepreneurship, work readiness, financial and social educational programs benefiting children and young people – we know what needs to be done. As all actors have a collective responsibility to work together to tap into the great opportunity children and young people have, nations should reconfigure their national youth plans into social contracts which go beyond the traditional Ministries of Youth, Health, Social Welfare and Education. Youth development policy-making is often informed by an understanding of the current realities versus future visions. Policies and practices need to factor in a fast changing world, including opportunities for youth in a wide range of sectors from agro-entrepreneurship to digital entrepreneurship.
It is a collective responsibility of all stakeholders including governments to ensure a comprehensive implementation and achievement of the SDGs for a sustainable future. This can only be achieved if we involve and invest in young people; empowering them with the skills and competencies that will enable them to survive and thrive in a complex and competitive world.
Investing in the next generation will not only be fulfilling their right or increasing democratic values in society, it will optimize economic performance. Investing in opportunities for children and young people will mitigate the youth bulge and yield a demographic dividend. It will minimize the potential for socio-economic instability that usually accompanies high youth unemployment, idleness and restlessness.
If we can make these changes, we can begin to paint a different picture of Africa’s city streets, in which the commercial activities of all players, from hawkers to consumers, from carpenters, mechanics, taxi drivers, tailors, masons, to estate agents, is elevated, scalable, profitable (perhaps even lucrative), transparent, formalized, valuable and perceived in a way that contributes to both personal wealth creation and accelerated national growth.