Africa is experiencing a demographic revolution with youth constituting the vast majority of its inhabitants. According to the United Nations, 70% of people in sub-Saharan Africa are under the age of 30. Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world with approximately 50 percent of people below 16 years of age. While this demographic trend presents immense opportunity for the continent, it also poses a significant challenge for governments as they grapple with the need to effectively educate, skill and build the capacity of the youth.
The inability to harness this youthful energy can result in dire social, economic and political consequences. To mitigate these perils, African governments must explore innovative approaches to youth management and empowerment, collaborating with civil society and the private sector to secure a brighter future for the continent.
The Youth Demographic Time Bomb
Africa’s youthful population presents a double-edged sword. On one hand it offers immense potential as youth are a source of energy, creativity and entrepreneurship. However, if not properly managed and empowered, this demographic advantage will quickly become a demographic time bomb. Unemployment and underemployment among African youth are rampant leading to a host of pressing challenges.
A lack of economic opportunities for the youth leads to economic stagnation. These young people are not only a source of labor, but consumers and producers. Their economic inactivity equates to a loss of productive capacity and a reduced market for goods and services, hindering economic growth and development.
Moreover, a lack of effective engagement can lead to social unrest. When young people feel disempowered and excluded from the socio-political and economic fabric of their communities, they may become disillusioned and seek alternative, sometimes destructive, outlets for their energies. This can result in a surge in crime, political instability and radicalization, all of which pose significant threats to society at large.
Innovation as the Key
The majority of African governments are constrained by limited resources and entrenched bureaucratic systems. Traditional approaches to managing youth that focus on creating jobs in the public sector are insufficient and unsustainable. It is crucial to seek innovative solutions. A combination of thoughtful policies, collaboration with civil society and engagement with the private sector is essential to effectively address the challenges posed by Africa’s youthful population.
Governments should seek to prioritize entrepreneurship and skills development programs. These initiatives not only provide young people with the tools to start their own businesses, but also enhance their employability in the formal job market. Innovation hubs, vocational training centers and mentorship programs can be established and strengthened to nurture young talent and foster a culture of entrepreneurship.
Embracing the digital age is paramount. Access to the internet and the development of digital skills are vital for African youth and literally open up a world of opportunities in online entrepreneurship, remote work and e-commerce. Governments can work with private sector partners to expand access to digital infrastructure and provide training in digital literacy.
It is imperative to involve the youth in the decision-making process. This not only empowers them, but also ensures that policies and programs are tailored to their needs and aspirations. Youth councils, forums and consultations are required to provide young people platforms to voice their concerns and contribute to policy development.
Collaboration with the private sector is crucial. Governments can create an enabling environment for businesses to thrive that in turn generate job opportunities. Public-private partnerships can be formed to support youth employment initiatives comprising wage subsidies for young employees and tax incentives for companies that hire and train youth.
Africa’s youth have a proven capacity for innovation. Governments should explore ways to create environments that foster innovation and creativity. Incubators, accelerators and research centers can provide resources and mentorship to young innovators, enabling them to develop groundbreaking solutions to local and global challenges.
Facilitating access to finance for youth-led businesses is critical. Microfinance institutions and venture capital firms should be encouraged to invest in youth-driven enterprises. Moreover, governments can create guarantee schemes to reduce the risk associated with lending to young entrepreneurs.
Collaboration for a Brighter Future
Government efforts alone are not sufficient to address the enormous challenges posed by Africa’s youth demographic. State Minister for Youth and Children Affairs Sarah Mateke announced to participants in the Sixth National Youth Parliament in August this year that government and 13 UN agencies are developing interventions to support advocacy by young people and consolidate youth empowerment.
Collaboration with development partners, civil society organizations and the private sector is essential. Civil society organizations often have a deep understanding of local needs and can reach communities that governments may struggle to access. Development partners and the private sector, on the other hand, can provide the necessary resources and expertise to drive economic growth and job creation.
Civil society institutions comprising churches, academic institutions, non-government organizations (NGOs) and community based organizations (CBOs) play a crucial role in advocacy, community mobilization and service delivery. Earlier this month, Makerere University and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) organized a Youth and Innovation Expo 2023 held under the theme, fostering innovation for Uganda’s transformational development to showcase outstanding youth innovations and youth enterprise.
A growing number of NGOs are implementing innovative programs focused on welfare, education, healthcare, advocacy and talent development. Roy Mugisha explained that he established the WEHAT Foundation to “unlock the amazing potential of every child and ensure access to quality education, advocacy for their rights and the provision of safe spaces within Kampala.” Governments should collaborate with these organizations to implement youth-focused programs, leveraging their grassroots presence and expertise in areas such as education, healthcare and community development.
The private sector engagement is equally vital. African businesses can play an active role in youth employment and empowerment through various means including apprenticeship programs, corporate social responsibility initiatives and workforce development partnerships. The Stanbic Bank National Schools Championship initiative trains and empowers students in high schools across the country in entrepreneurship, financial literacy and life skills. Such collaborations can be mutually beneficial, as a skilled and motivated workforce contributes to business success.
African governments can seek international support and partnerships to amplify their efforts. International organizations, donor agencies and foreign governments can provide financial assistance, technical expertise and knowledge exchange opportunities to support youth empowerment programs. UNICEF, Save the Children, Right to Play and War Child are among the more prominent institutions operating in Uganda focused on child protection and development.
Avoiding the Perils
Failing to harness the potential of Africa’s youth will have dire consequences. It is in the interest of governments, civil society and the private sector to take concerted action. The social perils of crime, radicalization and political instability can be averted through inclusive policies and youth engagement. The economic perils of stagnation and lost opportunities can be mitigated by investing in skills development and entrepreneurship. And the political perils of an alienated youth population can be alleviated by involving them in decision-making processes and valuing their contributions.
Innovative approaches to youth management are not just an option–they are a necessity for Africa’s sustainable development. By embracing entrepreneurship, digital transformation, youth involvement in policy-making, public-private partnerships, innovation ecosystems and access to finance, African governments can unlock the potential of their youth and secure a brighter future. Collaboration with civil society and the private sector strengthens these efforts to create a comprehensive approach to youth empowerment.
Africa’s youth are not just the future, they are the present. They are ready and willing to contribute to the development of their nations and the continent as a whole. It is the responsibility of governments, civil society and the private sector to provide the tools and opportunities they need to thrive. In this way, Africa can transform its demographic advantage into a catalyst for progress and prosperity, ensuring that its youthful population is an asset rather than a liability.
The author, Christopher Burke is the Managing Director of WMC Africa, a public relations and marketing agency based in Kampala, Uganda. Christopher has a strong background in development, communications and governance with 30 years’ experience based in Africa and East Asia.