Ideas & Debate

Neglecting youth hampers Africa’s economic potential

Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs secretary Sicily Kariuki (left) launches a National Youth Service project. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs secretary Sicily Kariuki (left) launches a National Youth Service project. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

A few weeks ago, a local television station aired the story of a young man who is an orphan, had been admitted to some of the most prestigious learning institutions in the country but was now living the life of a pauper.

Dishevelled and unkempt, he looked like he was living the life of a homeless man; yet when he spoke, his clarity of mind and intelligence were unquestionable.

This week a video of African children in the Congo working in mines went viral. The two children in question were eight and 11 year old boys, working in awful and dangerous conditions, barely making income and living a life of destitution and hopelessness.

These stories are important because they reveal the extent to which Africa is mismanaging the potential and promise of its youth. The average age of an African is 19.5 years, yet the average age of an African leader is 65.

Is there any wonder then, as to why Africa’s leaders seems to be chronically unable to catalyse a young labour force and apply it to the development of young people themselves, that of their countries and the continent at large? It seems to them that youth are a demographic liability, not asset.

In Kenya the rate of youth unemployment is dire; 80 per cent of those unemployed are under the age of 35. There are several factors that contribute to this figure the first of which is poor education.

The Brookings Institution points out that 62 per cent of Kenyan youth aged 15-34 years have below secondary level education, 34 per cent have secondary education, and only one per cent have university education.

Skills are a crucial path out of poverty; indeed education makes it more likely for Kenyans to not just to be employed, but to hold formal jobs that are more secure and provide good working conditions and decent pay.

So the fact that the country is doing such a poor job in educating the youth translates to the relegation of those young people to the periphery of the promise of the country.

Even among those who are educated, most are ill-equipped to be absorbed into employment.

A study by Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology made the point that the commercialisation of tertiary education in Kenya has led to overcrowding in the institutions due to the increase in enrolment.

This ‘massification’ policy by universities is characterised by degree programmes that do not address the job market, resulting in millions of frustrated graduates who cannot find employment.

Due to the aforementioned dynamics, most young people are left to fend for themselves, invariably in the informal economy— where those with limited resources are able to start ‘hustling’ and earn a living.

The informal economy employs 80 per cent of Kenyans, and yet it is grossly neglected.

The good news is that it is not too late to act, but the nature of action must be very different to ongoing activities.

At the moment, most youth interventions either operate in silos with the limited creation of long lasting structures and partnerships; are funded unsustainably and programmes end when donors pull out; or provide interventions that do not address the needs of the youth effectively (think Youth Fund).

Youth need a combination of on-going employment opportunity; credit lines for enterprises through the deployment of blended financial vehicles (grants and loans); skills upgrading (life, business, management, financial and technical skills) and mentorship.

Only in doing this will the country, and indeed continent, leverage the demographic dividend that is the young people of Africa.