On paper at least, Africa’s youth don’t appear to be faring too badly when it comes to jobs.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) 2020 estimates, Africa has the lowest youth unemployment rate (11%) of all the Continents. Comparatively, youth unemployment in Europe and Central Asia is 16%, 15% in the Americas and 14% in Asia and the Pacific region.
With almost 60% of the Continent’s population aged 15 years and under the age of 25 years, this appears to be a good portent for Africa.
But as is ever the case with Africa, things are never quite what they seem.
The reality, studies show, is that youth unemployment is low across the Continent because African youths simply cannot afford not to work. And while they might be employed, it is not in the formal labour market or in well-paid jobs.
Moreover, as Africans know too well, Africa is not homogenous and the disparities in employment rates are as vast as the Continent itself.
While youth unemployment is only 3% in Ethiopia and Uganda, 4% in Tanzania and 7% in Kenya, this is not the same for those on the northern and southern tips of the Continent, according to the (ILO, 2019). Youth unemployment is a staggering 56% in South Africa and 51% in Egypt. It is 47% in eSwatini, 41% in Namibia and 38% in Botswana.
A skills mismatch between skills acquired in school and skills required in the labour market is the main problem, studies have repeatedly shown.
And Covid has exacerbated the problem.
A UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) survey of 142 countries found that the poorest countries experienced 115 days of school closures on average as a result of Covid, compared with only 53 days in some high-income countries.
The survey concluded that the enforced closures had rolled back years of progress for the most disadvantaged students.
As we celebrated World Youth Day 2021 on 12 August, it appears the already-bleak outlook for Africa’s youth has just got grimmer.
But like the statistics on youth unemployment, I do not believe this is the only possible outcome for Africa’s youth.
While Covid has, at first glance, dealt a death blow to Africa’s attempts to improve its trajectory and the future of its young, I believe the pandemic actually provides a great opportunity for African governments to elevate entrepreneurship and critical thinking over that of “traditional subjects”.
Covid has started eroding one of the main obstacles to transforming education: societal expectations.
African culture is often prefaced on a “wage-earner mentality”. African parents have long pursued and taken pride in their children finding “good jobs” in the criminal justice, financial, health, engineering or education sectors.
What Covid has brought home for even the most conservative African parent is that many 20th century jobs or a regular, guaranteed wage are a thing of the past for many people.
Prioritising entrepreneurship and preparing our children for a future where they will need to know how to identify opportunities and monetise ideas is now the name of the game.
Ironically, it may also stop the pursuit of public office for personal gain, jobs in the civil service and cronyism which has blighted Africa’s prospects up to now.
African governments have long striven to provide a world-class, traditional public-school education for its children. Most have failed.
So instead of trying – and most likely – failing in their bids to make up the lost school hours or on remediation (mitigating learning loss and helping those who did not learn during school closures to catch up), African governments can use this seminal moment to transform what and how African children are taught.
Instead of focussing solely on the ABC’s and ensuring children memorise facts so as to pass exams, priority should be placed on honing critical thinking and problem solving – commonly known as higher-order thinking skills – and on practical application of knowledge.
Universities too should also be focussed on finding solutions to the challenges their society faces, rather than merely teaching theoretical constructs.
Entrepreneurship is the ability to come up with solutions to challenges and commercialising those solutions.
Africa has lots of challenges and requires lots of solutions.
Who better to provide solutions to Africa’s problems than Africa’s youth – with the help of their entrepreneurs and supported by their governments to institutionalise entrepreneurship among the continent’s youth.
Therefore, instead of seeing the pandemic as a glass-half-empty for the future of Africa’s youth, we should flip the script and see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cultivate and nurture entrepreneurship among Africa’s young and in so doing secure their future.