In sub-Saharan Africa and Africa at large, the youth are facing ever increasing insurmountable challenges. From poverty to unemployment and education, the list is endless. What is clear is that serious intervention is needed if we do not want to end up having a largely unskilled, uneducated and unemployed population in Africa ten years from now.
The United Nations stated that 50 percent of the youth in Africa are illiterate or unskilled and thousands under-employed and working in the informal sector, often in hazardous conditions. These ever-increasing socio-economic problems have forced the youth to look at alternatives for a better living. In extreme cases, youth tend to migrate to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa or even to Europe where job prospects appear better. But even these attempts lead to a growing population of unemployed and unskilled youth.
One has to ask: what is happening to the youth and why? Francis Chigunta noted in a 2002 study, The Socio-Economic Situation of Youth in Africa, that rapid urbanization and economic development has largely resulted in desolation of traditional African values, and the undermining of traditional systems of empowering youth through elders. What’s more are issues like teen pregnancies that have led to disintegration of family values. The author goes on to note that formal institutions have been left with the responsibility of empowering our youth, but a decline in community structures for social development has significantly contributed to an uneducated, unskilled and unemployed youth population. Attempts at using social welfare to address youth issues have largely failed. This has resulted in the youth looking to surrogate families in streets and gangs.
The challenges the youth of today face are multi-dimensional. In the disintegration of traditional societies which resulted primarily from colonial interventions, education is no longer viewed as a means to overcome poverty. According to the 2010-2011 regional overview of the UN International Year of Youth, 70 percent of the region’s population is under the age of 30, and slightly more than 20 percent were young people between the ages of 15 to 24, making Africa the world’s youngest continent. In spite of this, youth have largely been left out of the political, economic and social sphere of government decisions and feel that they aren’t heard or cared for. In a continent where the youth population is disproportional to the rest of the population, surely this is a problem government must prioritise. Throughout the continent, youth face similar challenges, and across borders youth organizations have chosen to look for innovative solutions to many of the problems facing our youth. What is lacking, however, is collaborative effort and communication between these organizations. Youth need to feel empowered; they need to feel they have a voice.
About two months ago I attended a TEDx Stellenbosch seminar in Stellenbosch, South-Africa, on the topic “What if Africa?” Alan Knott-Craig Jr., the CEO of Mxit (Africa’s largest mobile social network, developed in South-Africa in 2003), spoke on what social networks, specifically Mxit, have meant to the youth in South Africa. In his talk he highlighted how the youth view Mxit as an escape from their normal world and problems, and since Mxit is an anonymous social network, participants are free to be whoever they want to be. This feature rests on Mr. Knott-Craig Jr.’s belief that you are not free until you are free to be anonymous. Besides the problems and threats associated with this feature, Mxit has largely been instrumental in fostering a sense of community amongst the youth of all ages and ethnic groups. Even more, they have looked at what young people talk about in chat rooms and through this identified social problems needing urgent attention. This highly resourceful social network which allows users to interact freely and openly has created a virtual community that can be monitored by Mxit programmers and altered to the behaviour and needs of the users; a virtual society if you like. Through this platform, a lot has been learnt about what the youth talk and worry about an thus created a more productive surrogate community the youth belong to, replacing and/or addressing the need of young people to belong to gangs for a sense of community or brotherhood.
Now imagine a social network like Mxit being created to cater to the youth all across Africa. Outside of the proportion of the youth living in object poverty, almost every teenager or young (wo)man has a mobile phone today. Mobile technology is vast in Africa and the youth understand the language of mobile, but sadly our governments do not. What if it government were to take initiatives like these seriously and start investing in social media to hear the voice of the youth, using platforms such as Mxit to prioritise problems needing to be addressed among the youth? What if social media could be expanded throughout Africa in order to create a virtual community where youth from different parts of Africa could interact? Think about what the youth could learn and teach one another, and what insight government could gain from such interactions.
It is often said “African problems, need African solutions.” Well here is an African solution that has been staring us in the face for at least a decade. Mobile social media is one of the ways forward to give voice to the youth in our continent. I am not advocating for the sole use of Mxit, but use Mxit only as an example to illustrate a point. I am certain, as Mxit has sparked wide dialogue amongst the youth across South-Africa, that in a similar way other technologies/social media can be utilised to create a platform for youth to interact and “chat” about some difficulties they face wherever they are. Similarly youth programs or organizations can communicate and collaborate to address these social ills. We as Africans are extremely resourceful and innovative in our daily lives; why not channel this creativity to technologies and bridge the social divide between our countries? And in so doing, create collaborative networks that can build a better and brighter future for the youth of today. There are indeed African solutions to African problems in Africa, but these solutions aren’t getting the attention and investment that they need.