By the Mo Ibrahim Fellows

200 million Africans are between 15 and 24 years old. This number is expected to double by 2045. With 10 million young graduates entering the workforce each year, Africa’s labour force will surpass both India’s and China’s by 2040. The statistics are staggering.

African leaders have two options: stand by and watch this potential degenerate, or take action to prepare this enormous asset to contribute to, and ultimately lead continent-wide socio-economic transformation.

Much has been written about Africa’s impressive growth over the past decade and its emergence as the next global economic frontier. Excitement though has been tempered by the reality that, for many, growth has neither translated into improved living standards nor created enough jobs, especially for the youth.

As evidenced by the Arab spring, which ironically began in what was considered the continent’s most stable and economically advanced sub-region, youth unemployment has become the biggest risk to Africa’s sustainable development and stability.


Having spent a year working closely with the heads of the African Development Bank, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the World Trade Organisation, we posit that the only way to resolve this challenge is to focus on two fundamentals: creating more sustainable jobs with decent incomes in strategic sectors, while improving education and skills development. Invariably the two are inextricably linked.

Through our interactions with various stakeholders, we have observed a consensus forming around, what we consider, an “African economic transformation blueprint”: diversify from single commodities, industrialize, export value added goods. However, these prescriptions are not new; the drive to execute is.

Improving education

All three of us have had the opportunity to study at home and abroad. We know that an education system that places undue emphasis on rote learning cannot produce the innovators, critical thinkers and problem solvers Africa needs for economic transformation.

In today’s reality, where there are no guarantees of a ‘job for life’, young people must have the skills to manoeuvre through different jobs. Transferable skills such as critical thinking and teamwork are as important as specialization and matching the curriculum to the labour market.

African formal and informal education systems must place a premium on quality education. Greater investment is needed in higher education, vocational training, and skills development. They must also promote specialization. Graduates should be sufficiently skilled in those sectors that offer the greatest comparative advantage and should be trained to adapt to future growth sectors. According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Africa has the lowest share of engineering graduates in the world. Yet, such specialized skills are needed to drive and sustain economic transformation.

According to the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report on Jobs, 621 million young people globally are ‘idle’ – that is, not in school or training, not employed, and not looking for work. Learning is a lifelong process that should be encouraged to promote career agility.

Creating sustainable jobs

Fixing Africa’s education systems will not be enough to resolve the challenge of youth unemployment – not for a continent forecast to add 163 million people to its labour force by 2020.

Africa needs to create more jobs – now. This will require African leaders to identify the sectors with the most promise and ensure job creation at strategic points throughout the value chain. This will ultimately help match better trained graduates with greater opportunities. The question is not really what needs to be done. It is, “How?” The answer is vision, strategic planning, and focused implementation. Without a plan to create new jobs, the expectations of a ‘job ready’ workforce will be dashed, with detrimental consequences.

Consequently, while policy makers tackle the macro issues around job creation, they must also examine the micro level, targeting industries within local communities. Success stories, such as emerging cassava value chains in Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi, provide high potential for youth employment. These must be scaled up and replicated. Through regional integration, we must accelerate efforts to promote the free movement of people across the continent to widen Africa’s job market.

Short and long-term fixes

Some things we can achieve straight away. For instance, policy makers can work with business, civil society and other actors to institutionalize internships and volunteering. In many African countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria, obligatory national service schemes for young people already exist in various forms. Governments should assess these ‘ready-made’ schemes and should build on their successes to expose more youth to public service and work experience.

Undeniably creating sustainable, income-generating jobs will take time in many instances. But the work must begin now.

The development of Africa’s youth can only be successful and sustainable if all facets of society are involved. Government, the private sector, civil society and most fundamentally, the family, must all play their part in preparing Africa’s youth for a transforming continent.

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