In a few decades, Africa will be home to the largest number of young people globally, set to be almost a billion under-18s by 2050. The current and future youth employment challenge provides an increasingly important focus for national and international policies and interventions. However, conceptions of African youth are marked by contradictions, as they are sometimes portrayed as “the nation’s future”, but mostly referred to as a threat that could destabilize the continent. What can we say about the African youth?
An important commonality shared by African countries across the continent is the number of young people. The ten youngest countries in the world are all in Africa. But who are the African youth? They have become a project for governments, political leaders, and NGOs, too many interests are at stake and there’s a great variety of projections in which the youth take different positions in the social order. As a result, African youth have lost their naivety. Moreover, referring to young Africans in terms of the youth bulge does not lead to a neutral demographic discourse. The concept is often associated with “population explosions” or a “ticking time bomb”. Also, it is often stated that the youth bulge leads to instability, disregarding the other factors that result in instability. On the other hand, African youth are also often framed as an untapped resource for the world’s fastest–growing economies or as Africa’s greatest economic asset. Among the leading figures giving the current African generations a voice and trying to counter these simplified narratives about the African people, is Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She cautions against “the danger of a single story” that categorizes African people. In particular, she warns of the single story of Africa as a place of “negatives”, popularized by Western literature, a critique that can also extend to framing youth solely as an underutilized asset.
What helps is involving the perceptions of the African youth themselves. A study shows that East Africans identify slightly more as being young than as being of a certain nationality. The survey among 18 to 35-year-olds in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, conducted in 2014 and 2015, showed that about 40% of the respondents saw themselves first and foremost as young people, while 34% saw themselves first as citizens of their countries. Only 11% identified themselves by their faith first and 6% identified as members of their family first.
Only 3.5% reported their tribe or ethnicity as the first dimension of their identity. Although there is not much evidence of the perceptions of the youth across countries, these results reflect the force of modernization that is affecting communities across the continent, especially as young people are more mobile and more interconnected than ever, regarding internet as a force for good. Indeed, across the continent, they are rapidly moving to cities and modernizing. They are the active agents of the continent’s radical transformation from a mainly rural to a predominantly urban region, leading to a concentration of youths in urban centers. Although leaving some traditions behind and aspiring to a modern life, they are still tied to the traditions and worldviewof their rural upbringing. For instance, although there is a growing number of young, college-educated Africans who are modernizing farming and call themselves agripreneurs, integrating modern methods into the traditional profession, traditional farming is often associated with poverty and only 5% of Rwandan youth is interested in farming or agriculture as a full-time job.
In addressing the challenge of youth unemployment, it would make sense to invest in modern industries and sectors that are future–proof in order to appeal to the youth. In fact, as Brookings argues, it is in these “non-smokestacks industries” that the biggest potential for meaningful work lies: tourism, ICT services, agribusiness, transport. These are among Africa’s most dynamic sectors, and like manufacturing, they benefit from productivity growth, scale, and agglomeration economies, but they are outpacing the growth of manufacturing in many African countries. Between 1998 and 2015, Africa’s services exports grew more than six times faster than merchandise exports. Between 2002 and 2015, exports of tradable services and agri-business increased as a share of non-mineral exports by an average of 58%. In order to offer the African youth, no matter how diverse this group is, a real chance, African countries will have to focus on developing a variety of future-proof sectors.