Over the past two decades, a window of opportunity has emerged for the African continent. This is the same window that opened up for a collective known as the Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore) roughly 60 years ago. It has been widely establishedhat in the 1960s, some African countries had equal or better socio-economic outcomes than their Asian counterparts. At one stage in the late 50s, Ghana’s per capita income of $490 was comparable to South Korea but fast forward 30 years and the tables had dramatically turned. In the 1990s, South Korea’s per capita income had skyrocketed to nearly $5000, which was about 10 times the amount recorded in Ghana during the same period.
An obvious question that arises in relation to this case study is, what happened? While debate on the answer persists, there’s a mountain of evidence that points to South Korea capitalising on its window of opportunity and reaping the rewards of a Demographic Dividend, also known as a youth bulge. The South Koreans, along with the other Asian Tigers and, later, countries such as Brazil, noticed that as their population structures changed (an increase in the working age population versus the dependent population), they could effect deliberate and strategic measures to create an enabling policy environment for transformational socio-economic growth. These measures focused on harnessing the potential of their youthful populations by investing in quality education and health, including family planning services, and by creating opportunities for gainful employment.
Today, African countries find themselves at a similar crossroads. With 60% percent or over 700 million of the continent’s residents yet to celebrate their 25th birthday, the basic foundation for a Demographic Dividend to occur is in place. Transforming the favourable population structure into real gains is where the work at all levels begins and must be sustained.
Achieving a Demographic Dividend is neither automatic nor guaranteed. The difference between success and failure lies in the enacting of policies across various sectors and the political will to ensure that they are implemented. One policy area that has a direct impact on Africa’s ability to achieve a Demographic Dividend is the state of entrepreneuship and employment on the continent, particularly for the youth.
One look at the statistics reveals a dire situation, which African policy makers will have to reverse if the continent is to achieve its full potential and build the Africa We Want . Young Africans aged between 15 and 24 constitute about 37% of the working population, yet account for more than 60% of all the unemployed people on the continent. About 72% live on less than $2 a day, often in situations where they have to take care of themselves, their siblings and other members of the family. The number of young Africans in the 15 to 24 age bracket totals over 200 million (expected to double by 2050) – many of whom have little to no opportunity to participate in their respective country’s economies.
On the continent and abroad, there’s overwhelming consensus that a ‘business as usual’ approach cannot be sustained. On one part, it would be wasteful for the continent to ignore a golden opportunity for transformative change and, on the other, it will lead to social unrest and conflict that will further result in the wide scale disruption and destruction of livelihoods and inevitably cost lives.
Acknowledging that Africa is not homogeneous but consists of 55 different nations with glaring differences and outcomes, there are policy recommendations that apply to different sectors and if successfully implemented or strengthened, can yield results at national and regional levels.
Young African entrepreneurs are in urgent need of national and regional credit facilities, established by governments or RECs (Regional Economic Communities), to access business capital. These can be in the form of Youth Funds[ [i] geared at start-up businesses or established youth-led entities that need the capital to grow and play their part in reducing the continent’s high level of unemployment. In addition to this, the often closed off world of government procurement and financial services needs to open up to youth-led businesses while simultaneously tackling the bureaucracy that reduces the ease of doing business. Investing in young entrepreneurs with a focus on sectors with high job multiplier effects, such as ICT and manufacturing, can generate employment and spur inclusive growth. Getting more and more young people interested and capacitated to contribute to the agricultural sector should be a key area of focus as it currently employs 60% of the labour force and accounts for 25% of Africa’s GDP. Education and skills development cannot be ignored in this conversation, hence African countries need to revise curriculums at the level of secondary education and rebrand TVET to ensure that young Africans are not only equipped to run businesses and be meaningfully employed, but are also competing at the global level. For countries in the five regions of Africa, enacting and implementing policy can be coupled with extensive engagement with the private sector to expand opportunities for internships, apprenticeships, and on-the-job trainings, as well as incentivising companies that prioritise youth entrepreneurship within their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes.
Unlike the Asian turnaround in the 1970s, Africa’s window of opportunity has come at a time when information and communication are at the click of a button, and technology has gone beyond what would have been imagined back then. This means that Africa is in a much more informed and technologically capable position to steer the ship towards transformative and sustainable socio-economic change. Plus, with the benefit of hindsight and countless case studies from different parts of the world, it is clear that the Demographic Dividend is not an abstract or utopian concept, rather a vision of what’s to come if rhetoric is followed by strategic action.
[i] Examples include the NYDA (National Youth Development Agency in South Africa), Youth Enterprise Development Fund in Kenya and YERF (Youth Enterprise Revolving Fund in eSwatini).
This article was written by Chris Fleming for the Anzisha Effect – A platform for experts to share what works in entrepreneurship education and support across Africa.
For a decade, Chris Fleming has worked extensively in communications, advocacy and events management in multiple African countries. A certified IT Technician, Chris branched out and developed a passion and expertise for assisting organisations to redefine how they relate to their target audiences.
Since 2010, he has committed his skillset to organisations that exclusively work with or for young Africans across various thematic areas such as health, education, employment and governance. He led the Communications and Marketing Unit at the Family Life Association of Swaziland (FLAS) and later joined the Youth Division of the African Union Commission (AUC) in Ethiopia, after being selected as one of a hundred young Africans to join the 6th Batch of the African Union Youth Volunteer Corps (AU-YVC) in 2016. During this period, he authored a weekly column called ‘#TheSafeSpace’ in the Times of Swaziland and contributed to Malawi’s online edition of Maravi Post.
In early 2018, he took up his current leadership role overseeing the programmes implemented by Kwakha Indvodza, eSwatini’s foremost male mentoring organisation. Later that year, he began contributing articles for the Anzisha Effect, under the African Leadership Academy.
An avid reader, blogger, writer and social commentator, Chris makes use of his voice, keyboard and pen to exchange ideas with fellow young Africans, with the aim of seeking long-lasting solutions to some of the continent’s greatest challenges.
He currently lives in the northern region of the Kingdom of eSwatini, nestled between two majestic mountains.