I was honored to recently participate in the 27th World Economic Forum on Africa discussion in Durban, which provided a chance to reflect on both the pace of progress across our continent, and some of the stubborn challenges we must overcome. This year’s discussion centered on “Achieving Inclusive Growth” and addressed one of our most pressing priorities – ensuring that Africa’s bright future brings benefits that can be enjoyed by all, and that no one is left behind, irrespective of community, country, tribe, religion or language.
A critical step towards achieving this aspiration is ensuring that we create sufficient opportunities for Africa’s youth. During a discussion alongside private sector, NGO and government leaders, this topic came under intense scrutiny for very good reason. Today, while more 11 million youth annually enter the workforce, less than half this number of formal jobs are being created each year, leaving more and more young people unemployed. While this challenge feels acute today, it will be compounded over time by fast demographic growth. By 2060, it is estimated that Africa’s youth population will spiral from 198 million today to almost 400 million.
But there is a silver lining in that Africa is blessed with the most aspirational, innovative and educated youth population ever, giving us the opportunity to turn one of today’s most pressing problems into one of tomorrow’s most powerful strengths. Persistent high youth unemployment carries very high social and economic costs, and can irrevocably damage communities, whereas a motivated, economically empowered young labor force can accelerate economic growth and bring tremendous benefits to families, communities, nations and the continent as a whole.
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The clearest learning we have gained is that the very nature of work has changed – neither traditional terms such as ‘unemployed’ nor ‘employed’ accurately reflect the status of millions of African youth today. For most, their economic reality dictates that ‘not working’ simply isn’t an option. Rather, most youth have developed what we refer to as ‘mixed livelihoods’ or a ‘portfolio of work’ - a series of different income streams that can straddle the formal and informal sectors, including family and micro-enterprises.
This mixed livelihoods approach is rooted in practicality, as young Africans navigate unpredictable labor markets, and benefits both youth needing income and employers who cannot commit to full-time employees. Although informal, and unstructured, this trend has shown a propensity to drive economies; as we have learned more, we noted that in Kenya, the monthly income of youth with two or more income streams is 70% higher than those with just a single source of income, and it also means employers have more flexible talent that can help their businesses succeed.
While there are many admirable programs focused on youth across Africa, studies show that over 70% of youth empowerment programs do not meaningfully reduce the incidence of unemployment. It is, therefore, essential that we are cognizant of the way that todays’ labor market is changing, and that we are not training youth for a world of work that no longer exists, and is rooted in nine-to-five single employment. We need to prepare Africa’s youth to take advantage of the opportunities around them while providing them with access to income-generating opportunities. We also need to see how local ecosystems can be created for youth employment by working with private sector, governments and civil society to create a model that benefits all and is creating jobs which reflect the needs of all.
This is an incredibly dynamic and complex area – and there is no one size fits all. The nature and make-up of any “portfolio of work” will vary substantially by individual and community, and can include different traditional job disciplines across a variety of sectors. Therefore we all need to prepare youth with the foundational and transferrable skills that transcend one-dimensional jobs and allow them to navigate today’s new working world.
Lastly, we cannot be too prescriptive in the solutions that we provide. One of the reasons that YES! has proven credible and engaging for young people in Africa is that at its heart, the program is youth-led. It includes training, content and formats that are directly requested from youth in the respective communities. No-one knows the dynamics and needs of the local individual communities more than the young people looking for work each day, and therefore, for any program to be successful, it needs to listen, not preach, to youth.
Almost 1,500 influencers from across Africa participated in the WEF Africa discussions this year, including Heads of State, CEOs and global leaders of international organizations. Importantly weaving into the narrative was the unmistakably loud, determined and electric voice of Africa’s youth, who we should see as our salvation, not a problem to be solved. The WEF Africa discussions closed with a clear rallying cry that now is the “Time for Impact,” and I firmly believe that it is our young people’s aspirations and ambitions, alongside innovative thinking and support that should give us the confidence that Africa’s future is in extremely safe hands.