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Africa’s youth may be able to benefit from digital revolution

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The question of the future of youth employment in Africa has taken centre stage in terms of research and policy analysis and other critical discussions. Africa represents more than 30% of the world’s youth.

It is the youngest continent in the world: 21% of its 1.2billion people are between 15 and 24 years old, whereas 42% are younger than 15.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), three in five of the unemployed are youth and 72% of the youth live on less than $2 (R28) a day. In addition, 10 to 12million young people join the labour market each year.

The persistence of conflicts on the continent continues to fuel uncertainty for the resolve of African leaders to strive for a better life for the youth. Certainly, there is no quick fix, but the reality is that more and more young people in Africa are losing hope of having any future meaningful employment.

However, in the next 20 years, Africa has the opportunity to benefit from a “demographic dividend” where there will be a large workforce supporting fewer children and the elderly, lowering the dependency burden and freeing up resources for development and the improvement of productivity. In this respect, appropriate educational efforts can yield results in terms of a better quality workforce. The youth should be considered the key player for the economic and social structural transformation of Africa. They are the energy and creativity of the future.

Africa’s population is expected to reach about 2.3billion by 2050.

The accompanying increase in its working age population creates a window of opportunity, which, if properly harnessed, can translate into higher growth and yield a demographic dividend.

This will be determined by young people taking control of their lives, creating their own jobs, investing in the digital economy by adapting new technology to fit the reality and economic context of Africa in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

The world is undergoing a disruptive yet exciting digital revolution, where artificial intelligence (AI), automation, demographic changes, globalisation and social developments are transforming every workplace.

Talk of AI and the advent of the 4IR, however, has created fear in developed countries that many jobs will be lost to machines and robots, and that economic growth will be stifled by technological advances. On the contrary, Africa may well be able to benefit from these technologies in ways that are not envisaged in more developed economies. The continent should also be able to avoid the expensive roll-out of outdated technologies and leapfrog to the latest innovations.

For example, history shows us that Africa, with just under half of all the mobile money platforms in the world, is leading the globe in rolling out financial products to masses of people who were previously excluded from this area of the formal economy.

By the end of last year, there were 122million active mobile money accounts in the region, with users transacting $20billion a month (63% of the value of all mobile money transactions in the world).

Likewise, education will be the key to making sure that the requisite skills levels are available so that African youth can benefit from new technologies. Despite the concern that the relatively unskilled African workforce will be left out of the knowledge economy, advances in technology make it possible for niche businesses to access their clients efficiently.

The use of social media as a marketing tool for the myriad small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that Africa is well known for can enhance sales without excessive costs. New applications also create new opportunities.

Educating for skills and competencies necessary for the 4IR is an imperative. This will have to be complemented with “soft skills” which industry requires. On-demand and lifelong education will be the new norm in the 4IR and Africa will have to oblige, especially for its youth.

The application of new technologies and digitisation will augment new realities. Uber, as an example, has increased the number of people using taxi services and has also made it possible for entrepreneurs to start small businesses, leading to more employment. Africa is already seeing mobile money platforms used to provide short-term loans to SMEs to enable them to expand working capital.

Support for and growth in SMEs will help to address Africa’s unemployment. If SMEs are going to be the driver of jobs and economic growth in Africa, technology will be a key enabler in this part of the continent’s future.

As advances in solar and other renewable energy reduce the capital costs of installing these systems and the storage of electricity becomes cheaper, we will see the transformation of the electricity grid.

New and renewable electricity-generating technologies will allow regional grids to be developed at a reasonable cost that don’t need to be connected to the national grid. New use of remote sensors will enable easy and remote management of these grids and smart meters will allow efficient and remote billing.

Combining mobile payment technologies with solar power allows even the smallest home to be lit. In the 4IR, technological advances will be limitless and Africa will have to be up to the challenge if it wishes to harness the new innovations for providing job opportunities for its youth.

Harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in our youth will determine Africa’s enormous promise to realise its economic and social potential.

We have to remember that the frustration of young people who have no hope in the future is a major source of insecurity in today’s world. And it is essential that when African governments plan their economic activities, they prioritise youth employment and skills. Africa’s economic prosperity or social instability depends largely on what becomes of its youth.

It is therefore imperative that both the private and public sectors invest in building not just skills, but a talent pipeline for the future. Laying a foundation for Africa’s current and future workforce requires a deliberate policy for the 4IR.

Paresh Soni is Associate Director for Research at the Management College of Southern Africa (MANCOSA) and writes in his personal capacity

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