Photograph — Tommy Trenchard/IRIN

Africa’s youth represents both an opportunity and a challenge. 41 percent of Africa’s population is below the age of 15. By 2035, more people will reach working age (15-64) on the continent than the rest of the world combined. This so-called ‘demographic dividend’ is a massive opportunity for enhanced productivity and economic growth. However, it also represents challenges to societal progress and stability, as the youths that are marginalised–politically, economically or socially–can place further pressure on already strained resources and become vulnerable to extremism and criminal behaviour.

Cities like Lagos are currently experiencing the strains of abundant but underemployed youth, as population growth outpaces the rise in economic opportunities. These challenges are complex but solvable, and we must not delay in addressing them. ‘The youth are our future’, the refrain often goes, but we must not forget that they are also a large part of our present.

African countries must enact enabling policies and create institutional structures to harness this youth potential. Social, political and economic structures such as quality and affordable healthcare, education, skills and training, political freedoms, inclusion and information access will catalyse the transition from demographic growth to demographic benefit.

Unemployment is holding back the potential of Africa’s youth and requires us to look beyond expanding access to education. Continuing youth unemployment, which currently sits at approximately 50 percent across the continent, is among the greatest challenges facing the continent. To date, many countries have tried to address this challenge by expanding access to education. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that we must attend not only to the quantity of our education but also to its relevance to employers. Across the continent, employers complain that school and university leavers lack the skills they need most–soft skills, in particular–while students find themselves disappointed and angry when years of often painful investment in and sacrifice for their education leaves them without gainful employment. We must complement existing educational investment with an ecosystem of matching programmes that both work directly with employers to identify their needs and upskill youth to meet and exceed them–particularly in sectors with the potential to employ large numbers of youth, such as Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

Moreover, we must do more to understand the particular challenges youth face when engaging in entrepreneurship, and help grow the small businesses that account for a large proportion of job creation on the continent–adding just one job to 15 percent of South Africa’s existing SMEs, for example, could lower unemployment by over four percentage points. Not every young person should be an entrepreneur, but we should recognise and celebrate those that are building homegrown businesses that strengthen the resilience of their families, communities and countries.

Beyond economics, we must attend to questions of identity and belonging to help youth adapt to a changing continent. Africa is the most rural and most rapidly urbanising continent. As youth continue to move to rapidly changing cities and towns where established hierarchies and traditions are being called into question, they will seek new ways of belonging and making sense of themselves. Especially when paired with economic marginalisation, this can leave them vulnerable to damaging ideologies, such as violent extremism, that offer a sense of community and identity.

There is an urgent need to articulate and communicate an exciting narrative on what it means to be young and African in the 21st century, and to recapture the magic of a Pan-African identity that swept the continent in the 1950’s and 60’s and energised the Founding Fathers and Mothers of organizations such as the African Union. As such, African history and heritage should be introduced in early childhood training and education and expanded to suit the knowledge needs of our youth throughout their education life.

We must also invest more in youth and protect their innovative inventions. These are exceptional times for Africa. We have, in recent years, witnessed the tenacity, drive, grit and determination of Africa’s youth. Our youth create and utilise opportunities that continue to cater for the well-being and dignity of our citizens.  They are taking full advantage of advances in information technology and the digital age to carve out innovative and transposable solutions to lift communities out of vulnerability and extreme want. As the world’s youngest continent, our youth continue to define the future and will determine our growth and success. To unleash the innovative potential of our youth, we must lay emphasis on creating functional innovation hubs across the continent where ingenious ideas can be incubated and eventually commercialised. Africa has experienced huge intellectual loss due to the absence of intellectual property protection structures yet only protected ideas can be monetised.

We must also integrate the innovation hubs into national, continental and global intellectual property protection architecture in order for us to benefit from innovation.

We must remove the bottlenecks hindering women’s full participation in Africa’s economic processes. Despite being a critical factor in Africa’s productive labour force, women are still marginalised and excluded from full economic participation. Traditional norms and cultural values are some of the drivers of gender inequality, compromising women’s full productive potential. Institutional arrangements must be made to ensure that women participate in decision-making processes and access information, capital and business opportunities.

Investment in gender statistics is also critical to ensure that policies are aligned with need and evidence and evaluated against definitive baselines. According to UNECA’s Compendium on Gender Statistics in Africa, only 7 out of 33 surveyed countries (Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) directly finance gender statistics through national budget lines.

If we want steady, inclusive and sustainable growth, we cannot afford to alienate half of the population from our economic processes.

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