Africa’s youth are the world’s future skills base but there’s a critical need for skills development

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Well skilled African youth could be a potential beneficial talent pool. Yet, African education systems struggle to keep pace with changing requirements and learner demands. (Benson Ibeabuchi/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

For Africa to be a respected international partner, to achieve peace and security on the continent, and for the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA), alongside other strategic initiatives, to be successful, a highly skilled and educated population is key. 

Within the next two to three decades, based on ongoing population growth rates in Africa that are projected to continue for the next 50 years, it is expected that current and next generations of African children and youth might represent more than 40% of the world’s working age population, generally from the ages of 24 to 65.

In contrast, by 2050, populations in South Asia are expected to decline by 41% and in Southeast Asia by 32%. The European Union and North America will probably experience a 6% decline in population growth. The median age of the populations across these regions currently ranges between 31 and 42.

African countries are dominating the top 10 countries with the lowest median age globally, with currently an average population age of 19. Just under 20% of the continent’s total population are aged 15 to 24, and children under 15 make up just over 40% of total populations. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of the population is under the age of 30.

The significance of Africa’s youthful demographic trend is often discussed in terms of the youth dividend — the ways in which youth talent, innovation and productivity, if correctly harnessed, could contribute to economic development and prosperity for African countries. 

According to recent data, Africa’s working age population is expected to increase by about 70%, an estimated 450 million people in the next decade, by 2035. This trend could signal substantial growth potential for African economies and societies.

But projecting from current economic and policy configurations, within this same period in Africa, only a maximum of 100 million new jobs might be created, absorbing fewer than a quarter of the available labour force in formal employment. 

Currently, 11 million African youth join the labour market each year, but only 3.7 million jobs are generated. By as early as 2030, 30 million youth are expected to enter the workforce annually, without commensurate rates of job creation across African countries.

Data shows that structural changes in labour markets due to ageing populations is leaving the workforce drastically depleted of necessary capacity in regions of the world such as Europe and with a similar trend possible in Asia, without requisite interventions. 

While the fourth industrial revolution is promising a world of automation, machines and robots that may possibly fill the labour and skills gap in developed regions of the world, it is unlikely that the need for a human workforce will be completely overridden within the coming decades. 

We can anticipate that human contributions will continue to be required even in a world of machines and automation, in the form of new types of skills and futures of work.

Well skilled African youth could be a potential beneficial talent pool. Yet, African education systems struggle to keep pace with changing requirements and learner demands. 

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation notes a mismatch between knowledge and skills development conducive to productive employment and the quality of education policies, institutions and content across African countries. 

There is a strong need to ensure Africa’s educational systems are responsive to the skills and competencies required to engage effectively in an international world.

Educational data for African countries positively shows on average an increase in primary school enrolments and completion rates over the past 10 years, although this data may have altered somewhat since the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But these enrolment and completion rates have not equated to systemically improved educational outcomes. Gross numbers of enrolled learners and graduates decline in secondary and in tertiary education in the majority of African countries. 

Data indicates that less than half of Africa’s youth populations are enrolled in secondary schools, and a low average of 10% are in tertiary education. This is the result of the convergence of various issues from a lack of suitable facilities and infrastructure, to poverty and financial constraints, to cultural attitudes. 

At higher education levels, national governments in many African countries underspend on education budgets, given the need and demands.

Numerous additional problems and significant issues compound African youth populations’ advancement. 

Youth populations are the worst affected by rates of unemployment or exposed to unreliable types of employment in the informal and formal sectors. 

The United Nations estimates that youth are currently 60% of unemployed populations in Africa. 

Alongside this, issues of child and youth indentured labour abuse persist. Relatedly, young people are negatively exposed to crime, criminal gangs and terrorism, with 2017 survey data showing 53% of extremist group members in Africa were recruited between the ages of 17 and 26. 

Girls specifically endure childhood marriage and teenage pregnancies and high levels of gender-based violence as barriers to improved livelihoods and wellbeing. Young people also suffer from high levels of food insecurity, with recent data indicating moderate to severe food insecurity is experienced by more than half of African youths — an issue that is further exacerbated by climate change shifts and impacts such as drought.

These indicators among others are dismal signals that African youth are not currently on track to be a substantial proportion of the world’s talent and skills base, workforce or market.  

At a basic needs level, it is imperative that African governments improve good governance and public services delivery from water and sanitation to health, safety and security, specifically, with a focus on youth inclusion policies and support mechanisms for youth focused socio-economic development. 

Suitable contexts to attract and absorb African youth talent further calls for infrastructure development and business friendly environments for jobs creation and entrepreneurship.

From an international lens, there is a critical need to ensure requisite skills and capacity building and it is imperative that African youth are afforded avenues for learning that prepares them as global citizens, with skills and talents relevant for a globalised and internationalised world. 

Alongside basic language and numerical literacy, important global skills increasingly include media, digital and futures literacy as cornerstone capabilities required by today’s and future youth and professionals. 

The ability to develop multiple skill sets, with learners able to adapt to change, pro-actively reskill and upskill is also important in a world of disruptions and rapid shifts in the world of work. 

Other emerging critical capabilities include creativity, innovative and critical thinking. 

Insights on futures of education also highlight the importance of centering interculturalism and interconnectedness as key learning outcomes relevant to today’s and tomorrow’s globally diverse societies and economies, and as necessary components for successful performance in internationalised environments.

On the one hand, more opportunities and support are needed to facilitate access to international education institutions, resources and learning opportunities for African youth. Data shows that just under 80% of African students choosing to study abroad prefer international destinations outside of the continent. 

On the other hand, it is important to ensure a fair distribution of African youths’ talents so the continent does not lose high levels of skills through brain drain. 

Many African countries face severe development difficulties that require competent leaders, scientists, scholars and entrepreneurs. Therefore, in addition to enhancing access and quality of education and training for Africa’s youth, issues of migration and brain drain also need to be addressed.

Studies on futures of learning and education highlight that in response to increasing demand, as well as leveraging digital innovations, capacity and skills training providers are diversifying beyond the traditional university environments, with growing focus on developing vocational and technical institutions of learning, and with private sector corporations also stepping more into the role of learning and development offering work-based, experiential learning. 

These emerging patterns are in line with growing trends of lifelong and life-wide learning as key features of futures of learning and education.

Africa Day 2023 marks 60 years since the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity and provides a valuable moment to reflect on the continent’s futures and to reinvigorate commitment to fulfil Africa’s visions and aspirations as articulated in the AU Agenda 2063. 

African youth populations carry the mantle for current and future generations at home and internationally and must therefore be accorded the necessary support and avenues required to reach their highest levels of potential.

Mwagiru is a senior futurist from the Institute for Futures Research at Stellenbosch Business School.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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