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Youth employment is a critical issue for Sub-Saharan Africa’s future. Unemployment and underemployment remain widespread and a wide range of interventions are required to increase opportunities for the region’s rapidly expanding youth population.

The challenge

Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where youth still represent a growing share of the total population. Over the next few years, Sub-Saharan African economies will need to absorb nearly 90 million young people between the age of 15 and 24 years. For this to happen, the current situation will need to improve. Youth unemployment is high, particularly among the better-educated in middle-income countries. However, a far more important challenge, in terms of scale, is the underemployment of tens of millions of young people who have little education and are living in countries reliant on agriculture or natural resources.

The stakes are high. If Africa’s young people can find good jobs and livelihoods, the region will reap enormous benefits through a ‘demographic dividend’. But, if not, the costs could well be social unrest and economic stagnation.

So what needs to be done to improve Sub-Saharan Africa’s future prospects? For one, young people can be prepared for opportunities in the urban wage sector by improving the relevance, quality, and reach of education and training programmes. But it is not realistic to expect that wage employment in industry and services will expand rapidly enough to absorb all of the young people. As most will continue to work in agriculture, household enterprises and self-employment, policies and programmes that improve farming productivity and incomes, increase access to credit and support a friendlier business environment for youth are also essential.

Needed: A wide range of interventions

Skills-training in the informal sector

Because of these patterns, decision-makers need to go beyond conventional employment policy and think more broadly about interventions that will lead to better jobs and livelihoods for Sub-Saharan Africa’s youth. This does not mean that the familiar skills development programmes – the staple of youth strategies in this region and elsewhere – are not important. However, the quality of these programmes needs to be upgraded. A review of the evidence on youth training in Sub-Saharan Africa reveals that, overall, efforts remains disproportionately-oriented towards formal-sector wage employment, without adequate recognition that the bulk of young people need tools to navigate in the informal sector, often in self-employment or microenterprises.

Private sector involvement

For all types of training, responsiveness and innovation in content and delivery will be key. The evaluation literature suggests that private-sector involvement can be important in achieving these goals through public-private partnerships and commercial training institutes. Currently, the extent to which commercial trainers are used varies by country. In addition, there are great differences in the quality of trainers, especially if standards are not set and carefully monitored. So, even where private delivery of skills development programmes is encouraged, governments still have a critical role to play in providing regulatory supervision, setting the overall policy framework and filling any funding gaps.

Youth and agriculture

Another way to positively impact on youth employment is by improving livelihoods in agriculture. But this involves some particular challenges. Farming is often not considered attractive by young people. Moreover, dwindling land resources, land grabs, inheritance practices, and lack of investment in technology and infrastructure are combining to make farming a difficult way to make a living. To provide better livelihoods for young people in agriculture, the priority areas are skills, land policy, credit, and infrastructure. Additionally, innovation in the form of new seeds, fertilizers, products and markets, as well as the creation of new opportunities further up the value chain in food processing and distribution, can help keep young people in the sector.

Self-employment and entrepreneurship

The other component of a youth employment strategy in Sub-Saharan Africa is to provide youth with the tools to support self-employment and entrepreneurial efforts. The relatively small wage sector in much of the region means that many young people will need to ‘create their own jobs’. For many, this is the most likely path out of poverty. For the more entrepreneurial, self-employment can be the first step in building a business that eventually creates jobs and incomes for others. Indeed, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor has found that the entrepreneurial spirit is thriving among Sub-Saharan African youth. Whatever their aspirations, many self-employed youth need financial and technical help. Indeed, access to credit is the main obstacle identified by young people to starting their own business. There is also room for encouraging innovative new business models based on new technologies and fitting into larger value chains.

More collaboration, better information

Youth employment is a many-sided challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa, and strategies to address it must go beyond standard employment programmes. Skills development programmes, which have been the staple of efforts until now, need to be more relevant and innovative. But interventions that support self-employment and entrepreneurship and that improve productivity and livelihoods in agriculture must also be central to any strategy. This will require coordination across government ministries. It will also require collaboration between governments, civil society, and the private sector. Indeed, some promising partnerships are now emerging in different parts of the region. Finally, the information base on which decisions are made needs to improve. Better data, more labour market analysis, and rigorous programme evaluations are needed to design and implement evidence-based policy to improve youth employment outcomes in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This article is based on a working paper prepared for the International Development Research Centre. The paper is available here.

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