Africa’s youth: a ‘ticking time bomb’ or an opportunity?

The jury is still out as to how much of an impact such national initiatives have had on youth unemployment. Ncube warns against high expectations. There are “no quick fixes,” he advises, and recommends “stronger job-creation mechanisms”. Singing the same tune, the World Bank proposes a jobs strategy that pays more attention to rural development, invests in agriculture, is sensitive to the migration of youth to urban areas and prepares them for the contemporary labour market.

The influx of young people into Africa’s urban areas worsens unemployment there. They are looking for jobs in populous cities such as Lagos, Ibadan, Cairo, Nairobi and Johannesburg. With briefcases loaded with job applications, they move from office to office in search of jobs – any jobs – to keep body and soul together. They often confront obstacles, including discrimination due to their inexperience, according to the ‘African Economic Outlook’. Even those who are lucky enough to find employment are the first to be laid off when economic growth derails.

No shortage of ideas

There have been other ideas about how to create jobs. The Brookings Institution argues for a focus on manufacturing, because it is “the industrial sector most closely associated with employment-intensive growth”. It also urges more investment in agriculture, tourism and construction and in projects that employ young people. “Public works programmes provide opportunities for young workers, particularly rural residents and people with low skills, to acquire initial work experience.”

The UNDP also lends its voice to the call for more investments in agriculture. In its first-ever ‘Africa Human Development Report’, released in May 2012, it argued that a situation in which African governments spend more money on the military than on agriculture is unsustainable.

Currently, foreign direct investments in Africa mainly target mining and minerals, sectors that produce few jobs, according to the ECA. The OECD warns that natural resource–based economies such as “oil exporters Nigeria and Algeria, gold producers including South Africa and copper exporter Zambia” therefore need to diversify into other activities or “be susceptible if the bubble bursts”.

In February 2013, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan stated on his Facebook page that the country was already diversifying its economy. He was trumpeting the decision by General Electric to invest $1 billion in power generation and oil production in the country. “This will provide jobs for thousands with multiplier effect for tens of thousands,” President Jonathan wrote. Last year US-based Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, invested $2.4 billion in South Africa’s major retailer, Massmart Holdings, in what has been cited as an example of the kind of jobs-generating investment Africa needs.

Most analysts also agree on the need to revise Africa’s education curricula to include skills and enterprise development. The Brookings Institution proposes an urgent focus on post-primary education, although African leaders appear to be more concerned about meeting the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. Even so, many consider as valid the Brookings Institution’s point that there is a “mismatch between the skills of young [African] workers and those needed by employers”.

Despite current challenges, there is a sliver of good news: Africa’s growing youth population comes with high energy, creativity and talents, which are “also the key to future prosperity,” notes the African Economic Outlook. It now depends on whether African governments can grab the unemployment bull by the horns.

This article was first published in Africa Renewal