Less than 14% of the working-age population is in paid employment, which limits the growth of a consuming middle-class. When combined with the low contributions of manufacturing and agriculture to national gross domestic products (GDP), this challenging outlook calls for proactive partnerships among stakeholders to advance the employment landscape.
There are at least six major targets in improving youth employment in sub-Saharan Africa:
1) Relevant and widespread education and training at all levels
2) An integrated ecosystem to support entrepreneurs, including financing, mentoring/training, access to markets, protective and supportive regulatory regime, and available infrastructure
3) Pro-business policies by governments, so investments in infrastructure, services, commercial law and related regulations are timely and transparent
4) Sustainable programs built around competitive advantages and cultural acceptance
5) A stable political environment that does not exclude new entrants or restrict sectors based on existing power relationships
6) A mindset about labor that values work as a path to a career and provides the means to acquire additional skills to progress
The African Development Bank (AfDB)
, among others, is very active in building programs that target many of these concerns. In a series of papers, it has tracked programs aimed at building
youth employment in sub-Saharan Africa that provide important models for member countries. There are several variations, for example, of entrepreneur promotion efforts that address financing, training and mentoring issues, but lack sufficient scale to generate the number of jobs needed to dent the growing employment deficit.
One theme focused on by the AfDB, and others, is the importance of reviving and building the competitiveness of the agricultural sector. Nowhere in the world is there as much underutilized arable land as in Africa. Significantly, the least skilled and literate populations are in the rural areas. With the ever increasing demand for food, experts believe the agricultural sector offers benefits to feed locals and supply overseas demand.
Shantayanan Devarajan, chief economist for the World Bank’s Africa Region, articulated this need for understanding
the roles of the formal and informal labor forces: “The challenge of youth employment in Africa, therefore, is not just to create more wage and salary jobs — important as this may be — but to increase the productivity, and hence earnings of the majority of young people who will be employed in informal farms and household enterprises.” He emphasized that:
“…because most Africans will work in informal farms and household enterprises, the challenge of increasing their productivity needs to be met by first, increasing their basic skills, which they can then take with them when they move to the new enterprises; and second, creating jobs in the formal sector by improving the economy’s competitiveness, so that this sector can absorb more qualified workers into a productive workforce.”
According to Busani Bafana, writing
for Africa Renewal: “Despite the negative perceptions, the agricultural sector employs as much as 60% of Africa’s labour force … and accounts for only 25% of the continent’s gross domestic product (GDP).” He cites experts who see agriculture as an important engine of growth, if the government and private sector act together to build the supply chain and distribution infrastructure that will turn today’s deficits into jobs and income. As importantly, it is a sector that can absorb large numbers of youth and women in productive jobs.
Turning Good Intentions into Results
The broad consensus among the private sector, international donor community and host governments about the need to aggressively pursue youth employment policies is an opportunity. Such an initiative could scale-up existing effective programs and help absorb the 10-12 million annual new entrants to the job market in sub-Saharan Africa. By implementing a broad strategy that incorporates rural as well as more traditional manufacturing options, utilizing technology across all sectors to improve productivity, and including women and youth in employment programs that increase their skills and employability, Africa has a viable and realistic opportunity to diminish its employment deficit and build a strong middle-class.
Moreover, if the countries of sub-Saharan Africa can understand the regional and local benefits that can be obtained from labor mobility, resource sharing, better distribution and power infrastructure, and streamlined business procedures, the task of generating worthwhile jobs becomes less onerous and reflects the deep commitment needed to propel Africa forward.