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Delivering the Promise of Africa’s Youth

With 12 million people entering the job market each year, and 200 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24, the question addressed by a panel at the World Economic Forum on Africa this afternoon was whether Africa is sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Moderator Lerato Mbele told the audience that many of the 12 million young people leaving school each year cannot be absorbed into the formal economy, and end up doing menial work; work that cannot sustain them. Technically, she said, these people are not unemployed, but under employed.

Mbele also highlighted unemployment rates, pointing out that, in every major economy in Africa, a quarter of the population are people who cannot find employment.

Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi conceded that a situation in which a country was growing economically, yet there was unemployment of 18 percent was “absolutely a ticking timebomb”. He added that 18 percent unemployment was a scary figure, especially when unpacked even further in the context of young people in the country being fairly well educated.

Masisi said young people in Botswana have lots of expectations for their future, and the frustration of not being able to find jobs can easily cause people to venture into less desirable areas.

Ethiopia, which has one of the highest and fastest growth rates in the African market, will hit 19.4 percent unemployment next year.

President of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zewde, concurred that youth without any prospects can be a ticking time bomb. To help counter this, the country is a year into an inclusive and transformative process to address the issue, and has a plan to create three million new jobs in the new year (Thursday, 12 September is Enkutatash 2019) in Ethiopia, which starts next week.

This, Zewde said, is to make sure that those who benefit from government’s policies and commitments can also contribute to helping young people. This is a transition by government, and it is on the right path, she said.

“We have to change the way we do business, we have to change the way we are addressing serious issues.”

Africa’s digital potential

Jim Ovia, founder of Zenith Bank, said, however, that the beauty of young people in Africa was that there were many youth who have great energy, and the potential to be trained. He added there are also many young people who embrace digital technologies.

Ovia added that the current focus is on how we empower youth, and create jobs for youth who are keen on the digital era, and who are not necessarily interested in brick and mortar transactions, as used to be the case several years ago. He added that a number of African youth, especially those from Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya to an extent had taken their ideas to Silicon Valley to raise funding for their start-ups.

These young people, in many cases were under 30, and have successfully complied with international requirements around the rule of law, and corporate governance, Ovia said.

This, he said, started happening five or six years ago, and Ovia is very impressed with the level of recognition these young people have achieved.

These entrepreneurs, Ovia added, have found platforms for growth, and we should be focusing on these platforms to create millions of start-up companies for the youth entering the job market.

Head of Government Affairs and Public Policy at Google, Karan Bhatia, said there are many pockets that exist to develop the skills set needed to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To take advantage of this, however, partnerships with government and business are required.

However, civil society activist Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili warned that we would continue to experience problems with, for example, youth joining militia, until the issue was fixed. However, there are examples of countries and continents that have been down similar paths, she said.

Band-aids will not work to fix Africa’s problems, Ezekwesili said. “We need real structural solutions, solutions that will last.”

The young people who are out there are very angry, she said. What we need to turn our minds to is how to expand the opportunities that are available.

Bad politics, however, gets in the way of taking advantage of the opportunities out there, Ezekwesili said. “We must solve this problem ourselves.”