Growth without jobs: Africa’s youth: a “ticking time bomb” or an opportunity?


Ambrose Byamugisha Muhoozi


There is another reason to pay more attention to Africa’s youth, many analysts believe. With 200 million people aged between 15 and 24 (the youth bracket), Africa has the youngest population in the world. The current trend indicates that this figure will double by 2045, according to the 2012 African Economic Outlook report prepared by experts from the African Development Bank (AfDB), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the industrialized countries’ Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), among others.

The story of Africa’s worrisome youth unemployment is often told alongside the story of the continent’s fast and steady economic growth. While six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa, the unemployment rate for that region is 6%, according to the AfDB. Compared to the world average of about 5%, its rate may not seem that high. But the problem is that in most African countries, youth unemployment “occurs at a rate more than twice that for adults,” notes the AfDB.

Youth account for 60% of all African unemployed, according to the World Bank. In North Africa, the youth unemployment rate is an eyebrow-raising 30%. It is even worse in Uganda, Botswana, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal, South Africa and several other countries.

Young women feel the sting of unemployment even more sharply. The AfDB found that in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa and all of those in North Africa, it is easier for men to get jobs than it is for women, even if they have equivalent skills and experience.

Masked reality

Africa’s unemployment statistics exclude those in vulnerable employment and those who are underemployed in informal sectors. “Young people [in Africa] find work, but not in places that pay good wages, develop skills or provide a measure of job security,” reports the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based public policy organization that conducts independent research. More than 70% of the youth in the “Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda are either self-employed or contributing to family work,” adds the report.

Doreen Tumuhiirwe, a jobless university graduate in Kampala, Uganda, says that it is common to find young Ugandan university graduates doing menial jobs. “They clean floors in hotels, sell recharge [mobile telephone calling] cards — some even work in factories as laborers.” Or exported as house girls to Saudi Arabia. The Brookings Institution considers underemployment a problem serious enough to warrant greater attention, since it masks the reality in countries that post low unemployment rates.

Simply put, underemployment is not a solution to poverty, concurs the International Labor Organization (ILO), which reports that up to 82% of African workers are “working poor.” According to the African Economic Outlook, on average, more than 70% of Africa’s youth live on less than US$2 per day, the internationally defined poverty threshold.

Ticking time bomb

“This is an unacceptable reality on a continent with such an impressive pool of youth, talent and creativity, “Youth unemployment is a ticking time bomb,” which now appears to be perilously close to exploding.

African leaders intervene

African leaders met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2009 to try to defuse the youth unemployment time bomb. They declared 2009–18 the “African Youth Decade” and resolved to mobilize resources, including from the private sector for youth development. Their plan of action emphasized the need to address both unemployment and underemployment. Two years later, meeting in Equatorial Guinea, they once more promised the “creation of safe, decent and competitive employment opportunities for young people.”

African governments have made some efforts to match words with action. Ghana created national youth service and empowerment programmes to equip college graduates with requisite skills and help them find jobs. Mauritius developed a plan to encourage technical and vocational education for young people. Zambia introduced a national youth policy and a youth enterprise fund to stimulate job creation. Uganda government introduced a skills acquisition and enterprise development programme as a component of the existing national youth service corps;

The jury is still out as to how much of an impact such national initiatives have had on youth unemployment. Mr. Ncube warns against high expectations. There are “no quick fixes,” he advises, and recommends “stronger job-creation mechanisms.” Singing the same tune, the World Bank proposes a jobs strategy that pays more attention to rural development, invests in agriculture, is sensitive to the migration of youth to urban areas and prepares them for the contemporary labor market.

The influx of young people into Africa’s urban areas worsens unemployment there. They are looking for jobs in populous cities such as Kampala, Nairobi, Lagos, Cairo, Kigali and Johannesburg. With briefcases loaded with job applications, they move from office to office in search of jobs — any jobs — to keep body and soul together. They often confront obstacles, including discrimination due to their inexperience, according to the African Economic Outlook. Even those who are lucky enough to find employment are the first to be laid off when economic growth derails.

No shortage of ideas

There have been other ideas about how to create jobs. As researcher I still argue for a focus on manufacturing, because it is “the industrial sector most closely associated with employment-intensive growth.” I also urge and encourage our Governments on  more investment in agriculture, tourism and construction and in projects that employ young people. “Public works programmes provide opportunities for young workers, particularly rural residents and people with low skills, to acquire initial work experience.”


The UNDP also lends its voice to the call for more investments in agriculture. In its first-ever Africa Human Development Report, released in May 2012, it argued that a situation in which African governments spend more money on the military than on agriculture is unsustainable.

Currently, foreign direct investments in Africa mainly target mining and minerals, sectors that produce few jobs, according to the ECA. The OECD warns that natural resource–based economies such as “oil exporters Nigeria and Algeria, gold producers including South Africa and copper exporter Zambia” therefore need to diversify into other activities or “be susceptible if the bubble bursts.”

In December last year, Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni  stated on his Facebook page that the country was already diversifying its economy. “This will provide jobs for thousands with multiplier effect for tens of thousands,” President Museveni said .Last year US-based Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, invested $2.4 billion in South Africa’s major retailer, Massmart Holdings, in what has been cited as an example of the kind of jobs-generating investment Africa needs.

Most analysts also agree on the need to revise Africa’s education curricula to include skills and enterprise development. I propose an urgent focus on post-primary education, although African leaders appear to be more concerned about meeting the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2025/45. Even so, many consider as valid  point that there is a “mismatch between the skills of young [African] workers and those needed by employers.”

Despite current challenges, there is a sliver of good news: Africa’s growing youth population comes with high energy, creativity and talents, which are “also the key to future prosperity,” notes the African Economic Outlook. It now depends on whether African governments can grab the unemployment bull by the horns. 

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