In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital, Mulu Warsa has found a formal-sector job as a factory worker thanks to her high school education. In Niamey, a city at the heart of the Sahel region, Mohamed Boubacar is a young apprentice training to be a carpenter. And in Sagrosa, a village in Kenya’s remote Tana Delta district, Felix Roa, who works on a family farm and runs a small shop, dreams of a better life if he can find the money to expand the business and move to a more urban area. His family is too poor to support him through secondary school.
Mulu, Mohamed, and Felix belong to a vibrant new generation of young Africans who make up the largest share of the population in most countries south of the Sahara. In fact, while populations in most parts of the world are aging, Africa is now by far the world’s “youngest continent”. Although many argue about whether this strikingly youthful demographic is an opportunity or a challenge, in fact both are true. And the large share of youth in Africa’s population has profound implications for individuals, families, as well as for entire economies.
Along a path that is beset with challenges—yet alive with possibilities—young people in Africa are fighting their way forward in virtually every corner of the vast continent. Increasingly connected to each other, especially in urban areas, these young men and women have high expectations. Given the right attention from governments, they could collectively be an amazing resource for the region as economies try to rely less on extractive industries and diversify in the manufacturing, services and agricultural sectors.
Jobs are at the top of the agenda everywhere. While urban youth tend to be more vocal and visible in their job-seeking, particularly in the small but fast-growing formal wage sector, millions of youth in rural and semi-urban areas are also trying hard to find better-paid work to improve their living standards. There is much that governments can do to hasten a brighter future for young people, whether it is to encourage formal sector growth and make it easier for firms to do business, or to recognize, support, and nurture the large informal sector that will continue to employ the majority of youth in the near future. Beyond addressing simple unemployment—an issue that gets its fair share of coverage—Africa must address the great challenge of underemployment.
I was a co-author—along with a team from across the World Bank—of a newly released report “Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa” that attempts to take up this challenge (www.worldbank.org/africa/youthemploymentreport). The report points out that youth employment is by no means a simple or one-dimensional challenge that can be solved by merely increasing training opportunities for youth. While this remains important—for instance, training was critical for Mohamed in Niamey—governments must also urgently address the quality of education, nutrition, and basic health care, while also removing a whole range of obstacles that hinder progress in agriculture, household enterprises, and manufacturing. Education was the distinguishing element for Mulu in Addis Ababa, together with the existence of a formal employer. Financial inclusion, however, continues to be an insurmountable challenge for Felix in Sagrosa.
Collectively we—policymakers, development partners, private sector visionaries, and citizens—must push for change and redouble our efforts to meet the expectations of today’s youth, so that they can take advantage of the opportunities that will come their way as economies grow. They cannot do so without access to high quality education, finance, land, and technology, and without supporting infrastructure and regional trade opportunities that would benefit the private sector and generate productive jobs. In short, reforms that span a wide range of interconnected issues are profoundly important for young Africans as well as for Africa’s destiny in the decades ahead.