Today, I want to talk to you about the present generation of African youths. I want to speak to you about their needs, their challenges, and most of all, their deep aspirations for the future of their continent. Before I do so, however, it is important to put into perspective the unique and crucial social space African youth currently occupy.
Africa has the fastest growing and most youthful population in the world; half of all Africans are under the age of 20. In fact, people under the age of 35 (youth) account for 68% of our continent’s population. It is imperative that we, as the older generation, as their leaders and elders, listen to the needs and desires of young people. We must do this while also asking ourselves deep questions about how to guide them toward their highest potential, as individuals and as citizens.
In my day-to-day work as the CEO/Editor of The African Perspective (TAP) Magazine, I have the privilege of interacting with young Africans from all walks of life, I meet and interact with young men and women from remote Kenya who like myself years ago are kick-starting their entrepreneurial journey; I also meet young Africans in the diaspora who are Harvard graduates etc. The most persistent question that I often ask them is what they want and need.Overwhelmingly, the answer is jobs.
Of course, jobs are not the only thing young people want, but it seems that all their other needs, in one way or another, stem from the ability to gain employment that empowers them, provides stability, and allows them to feel that they are making meaningful social contributions to their communities and countries.
Beyond the need for jobs, African youths have also expressed frustration with African leaders and politicians. Young people are tired of leaders whose integrity falters as soon as they assume social or political power. Our young people, like many people throughout the continent, are fed up with the cycles of nepotism, corruption and selfishness that plague our political systems and the people who control them. We cannot allow poor political leadership to irreparably damage the future generations and in effect the future of our beautiful continent. The youth are aware of the challenges they face, and it behooves our leaders to create the structures, policies and environments that give our young people the chance to thrive.
In the same way, the young people I speak to (especially those on the continent) also tell me they need the sort of educational systems that can equip them for the ever-changing world they find themselves in.
They need to enter institutions that have an eye toward the future, but are also capable of embracing the richness of history and knowledge we Africans possess. It seems that too many of our institutions, according to the youth; rely upon the programs and syllabi left to us by our colonizers more than five decades ago. Whether this is true in every sense, it can’t be denied that some gaps in consciousness and attitude exist.
So, whether our education system is that bad or not, it is clearly, a system we’ve lost faith in. Our young people want us to fix this; they require forms of education that reflect not only modern times, but the arc of the near future, so that we can know, without doubt, that young Africans are being educated in a way that prepares them to contribute to the health, wealth and sustainability of the communities from which they come. For example, we have trained many young engineers, but still, today, the building of roads across the continent is often left to the Chinese. Our universities have trained and equipped many doctors, but the wealthiest members of our societies run to London, Paris and more recently to India when they get sick.
Beyond this, African youths, as well as their elders, must be sure that their universities and colleges reflect the cultural knowledge and perspectives each of our countries is so endowed with, so that we can not only make world-leading contributions and innovations, but do so in a way that gives our own people faith in our academic, medical, and technological achievements, among others.
Further, according to The Brookings Institute, a Washington-based public policy organization, many African youths who do acquire work are not doing so in places that provide stable wages, skill development and job security. It may be that Africa is at a point where it is necessary to re-think its approach to employment.
The Brookings Institute suggests, among other ideas, a focus on manufacturing, they also argue for a renewed investment in tourism, agriculture, and projects that would allow young people in rural areas to acquire skills and work experience.
As I write this, I am well aware that none of these subjects–demographics, employment, and education–are new to many of you. Yet, I must bring them up again because young people (and the statistics) have made it clear that these are the essential challenges of this generation, and the ones to come. According to the World Bank, young people account for 60% of Africa’s unemployed population, and in some countries the number is even higher. In North Africa, for instance, the rate of youth unemployment is a staggering 30%.
As alarming as these statistics may be, these numbers do not include those in vulnerable employment, or those who are under-employed in informal sectors. The issue of youth unemployment is perhaps more pressing and more widespread than any single number can easily encapsulate. If we must stop the spread of terrorism especially in North Africa, we must create meaningful jobs for our youth.
Whatever approach we adopt to create more jobs for African youths, it must be swift and effective, as we know that widespread unemployment leads to a large range of other issues, including increased poverty, war and crime rates, an inability to access education and healthcare, and a lower overall life expectancy.
Thankfully, despite the issues and challenges that currently face our continent, Africa’s uncommonly high proportion of young people can be a blessing, if we direct it properly. Perhaps no other continent is as rich with potential for new ideas, new ways of knowing, and new ways of addressing old problems. For that, I think, we have our young people to thank. Yet, we also know that power and potential—which our youth undoubtedly possess– requires attention, discipline and stewardship in order to reach full potency. If Africa is going to reach its highest strength as a continent, we each must bear the responsibility of paying careful attention to what the future will demand of us.
Our young people are speaking, and will continue to speak as their numbers grow. It is our duty to work with them, particularly in the areas of job-creation and education, in order that they may grow into a future that fully embraces their needs, abilities and ambitions.
Moses Mutabaruka for TAP Magazine