2016 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, is Chief Operating Officer at the Ecobank Foundation.
Capitalizing on Africa’s Demographic Dividend
LOMÉ – Africa is home to the world’s youngest and fastest-growing population. With as many as 20 million young people poised to join the workforce every year for the next three decades, the continent has an opportunity to shift the balance of local and global growth with a purpose: jobs. But it is far from inevitable that it will do so.
For African countries to capitalize on this demographic dividend, the future workforce must be educated, trained, and have adequate employment opportunities. Putting all the pieces in place will not be easy.
These are uncertain times for the global economy. Trade tensions between the United States and China are threatening the integrity of global value chains, and Britain’s looming exit from the European Union has the potential to cause even more disruption. The International Monetary Fund’s October forecast warns that as historic economic drivers stall, global growth this year and next could fall to 3.7%, a decline of 0.2 percentage points from previous estimates.
But as this slowdown gets priced in by stock markets around the world, new drivers of growth will emerge. Africa is well positioned to become one of them.
According to the World Bank, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are in Africa. Intra-African trade might be the gateway to future local and global growth, with the continent’s burgeoning population forging new opportunities across borders. Most significantly, Africa’s labor force is on the verge of a dramatic expansion. Today, 60% of Africans are younger than 25, and 41% are under the age of 15. By 2050, Africa’s youth population is expected to reach 840 million.
But this massive pool of potential talent is a double-edged sword. Despite strong GDP growth over the last ten years, the majority of young people in Africa could not capture economic opportunities. Furthermore, the African Union/OECD report Africa’s Development Dynamics 2018 highlights that if the underemployment trend continues, Africa’s young people will suffer the most. Failing to employ Africa’s young people fully could marginalize an entire generation and lead them down a path of disruption for which we may not be prepared. For countries to experience job-led long-term growth, the provision of quality opportunities in agriculture is vital. If that does not happen, and quality jobs remain scarce, the economic expansion of which Africa is capable will not happen.
In other words, African governments are facing a deadline to match job growth with skills training. Unfortunately, at the moment, few countries are addressing this challenge effectively.
According to the African Development Bank, the unemployment rate for young people in Africa is already double the rate for adults. In fact, young people are being let down even before they start looking for work. Too many primary schools suffer from crippling teacher shortages, for example, and gender discrimination prevents millions of girls from even attending high school. To overcome these shortcomings will require significant investments of political and financial capital.
Some leaders are moving in this direction. At the Paris Peace Forum (PPF), held earlier this month, African and global leaders gathered to discuss the powerful idea that international cooperation is the key to tackling global challenges and ensuring durable peace.
On the sidelines of the PPF, the focus fell on African youth. The AU-EU Youth Cooperation Hub, one of 119 projects selected to participate in the Forum, attended the meeting to discuss the AU-EU Youth Agenda. Striving to involve young people across Africa and Europe in decisions that impact them, now and in the future, this initiative aims to showcase strategies for bringing Africa and Europe together to address challenges such as the demographic dividend.
One approach to capitalizing on Africa’s demographic boom is to expand the availability of training initiatives that pair employers’ needs with African talent. As a former fellow with the Ibrahim Leadership program, I can attest to the transformative power of top-tier educational schemes and their value as incubators for job-related skills.
Africa’s success relies on its ability to harness its demographic dividend by equipping its youth with technological and innovative skills, which will be a catalyst for economic growth. This includes training and agriculture-focused programs to absorb skills along the value chains that connect raw materials to industries and markets across Africa.
By 2030, one in every five people on the planet will be African. Because of its size alone, Africa’s labor force will have the potential to drive global growth for decades. But to do so, Africans must implement the necessary reforms today. As our demographic dividend matures, governments, institutions, and organizations must help position young people for success. If African countries can meet this challenge, prolonged economic growth – at home and abroad – will be the reward.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2018