HARNESSING AFRICA’S YOUTH DIVIDEND FOR AN INCLUSIVE AND SUSTAINABLE DIGITAL FUTURE

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By Patrick Ndegwa

Africa is a continent that is rich in innovation, possibilities and most importantly, young people. With an average age of 19.7 years and 77% of Africa’s population being under 35 years, our continent is rapidly getting younger. United Nations (UN) data projects that by 2050, our youth population will double, with two in every five children being born on our shores.

This youth boom presents an incredible opportunity for Africa, equating to fresh perspectives, creative thinking, innovative work and entrepreneurship – the kind of opportunities that stimulate digital transformation, economic growth and sustainable development. In essence, our youth have the potential to shape and transform Africa, but only if they are given the right tools to do so.

Education, skills training, employment and motivation are all needed if our youth are to rise to the challenge (and weight) of having Africa’s digital future resting on their shoulders. But with a bleak youth unemployment rate, rising poverty and poor education levels across the continent, it can be argued that, instead of empowering our young people and investing in their development, we are wasting their potential.

A study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) revealed that 94.9% of Africa’s youth (aged 15-24 years) are informally employed, have little or no education, are rural based and mainly engaged in subsistence agriculture. All of these factors go against creating sustainable communities that can contribute and prosper in today’s digitally driven world. And without appropriate pro-youth policies, youth development projects, and greater economic and employment opportunities for young people, our budding youth population could threaten social cohesion and the continent’s growth, accompanied by a massive migration of young people leaving in search of opportunities elsewhere.

Forging an empowered, digitally ready generation

According to UN experts, local governments and organisations can use this youthful reality to their advantage, creating a ‘demographic dividend’, which is defined as the economic growth that transpires when there are more working-age people than non-working-age people.

Harnessing Africa’s youth dividend starts with quality, inclusive and digital-first education. Our current education systems need to be reformed to ensure our young people are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to find work and thrive in a 21st century labour market. School curricula should promote science, technology and innovation from a young age, while teaching entrepreneurial skills to enable more young people to start their own businesses. After all, we should be building Africa’s digitally equipped, connected workforce of tomorrow.

Furthermore, girls and women should be given equal educational and skills development opportunities. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of births per woman falls from 6.7 births for women with no education to 3.9 births for women with secondary education – proof that female education is crucial for reducing poverty and driving sustainable growth. Not to mention that young, educated women bring different viewpoints, new ideas  and more innovation to the table.

Skills programmes, youth development projects and job creation are other ways governments and businesses can invest in young people. Community youth initiatives, graduate programmes, internships and mentorships are a few ideas to generate more skilled labour and increase the number of qualified young people across Africa.

Enabling Africa’s digital future 

As key drivers and enablers for our continent’s future competitiveness and prosperity, ICT infrastructure, connectivity and emerging technologies all have a role to play too. Without access to these necessities, our young people will not be able to innovate, create, or reach their full digital potential. Therefore, it is up to local ICT leaders and industry players to continue driving digital inclusion, rolling out smarter infrastructure to every far-reaching corner of Africa for more young people to benefit from. Connecting the youth to each other and the rest of the world will be crucial to further unlock Africa’s innovative, forward-thinking spirit. With more than 600 tech hubs spanning our continent already, just imagine the possibilities when quality, affordable and reliable Internet access for every young African is a reality.

If we fail to invest in our young people, we risk losing Africa’s greatest asset: the future leaders, change agents and innovators of our continent. African governments, organisations  and development agencies need to step up to the plate – creating a conducive, pro-youth environment that nurtures, develops  and empowers young people to take action and catalyse our continent’s digital future.

The writer is the Seacom East Africa business sales lead

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