Youth employment in Africa is a top priority for African and European countries. Most job opportunities for African youth are found in agriculture and agro-processing. Yet, providing decent and productive employment, particularly to informal workers, is a big challenge for the near future. The first step in boosting youth employment is to conduct proper country-specific diagnoses of the challenges and opportunities. The success of the programmes and policies that follow will depend on substantial investments being made, effective coordination at the national level, the mainstreaming of youth within existing employment policies and the emergence of inspiring role models to engage youth. Continuous knowledge sharing on what works and why is essential, particularly to tailor policies to the many national and regional differences in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This was the main conclusion of the conference ‘Boosting youth employment in Africa – What works and why?’, hosted by INCLUDE and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague on 30 May. In her opening speech, Lilianne Ploumen, Dutch Minister for International Trade and Development Cooperation, stressed that 18 million jobs will need to be created annually until 2035 to absorb all young entrants to the labour market.

The keynote speeches at the conference were given by Dr Louise Fox (USAID) and Ginette Nzau Muteta (African Development Bank). In her discussion of the role of education, Fox stressed that although education levels in Africa have risen, many youth lack the basic skills to improve their job prospects. Moreover, focusing on education and skills may increase the workforce and, thereby, redistribute incomes, but it will not increase the demand for young workers as such. The mismatch between formal education and market demand is of equal concern. As pointed out by Carol Njeri Gathogo, a young dairy farmer from Kenya: “even after obtaining a job, I found that it was not related to the education I followed”. Thus, education policies should be demand driven and well aligned with employment policies.

Nzau Muteta added that effective coordination is essential: a lot of employment policies and programmes exist at various levels, but little systematic cooperation takes place. Moreover, many knowledge gaps need to be closed, particularly in relation to national data on job quality and quantity. These data can help to tailor policies on youth employment to country-specific needs. The closing panel, which consisted of eight youth representatives, highlighted that countries differ in their needs; for example, in Nigeria there is a need to reconsider (formal) school curricula, whereas in Benin there is a need for more inclusive governance of value chains. Peter Wobst (FAO) argued for a systematic exchange of what works in different contexts. In general, it was concluded that country-level diagnostics are essential and need to precede the choice of policies, programmes and instruments used in different contexts.

As concluded in the INCLUDE synthesis report, in the short term, most employment opportunities are to be found in the agricultural sector and in household enterprises. Therefore, it is important to improve productive and decent employment opportunities in these sectors. In turn, these opportunities can have multiplier effects on the local economy and create added value for the national economy. However, the question to be asked is to what extent can local economies benefit and how can value be added within countries. As already addressed in the 2016 conference ‘Jobs for women and young people’, hosted by INCLUDE and the African Development Bank, the negative image that youth have of a career in agriculture has a large impact on youth’s job decisions. This was underlined by youth leader Francis Arinaitwe at this year’s conference: “As a farmer you do not get as much attention from your friends as someone working in a bank”. In reality, as concluded by the MasterCard Foundation report ‘Invisible Lives’, African youth often have ‘mixed livelihoods’, in which agricultural production is combined with non-agricultural services or production.

Agro-processing can be an important mechanism for the transformation of Africa’s agricultural sector. However, it requires a comprehensive approach in which the demand for, and supply of, young workers on the job market needs to increase and be properly matched. Skills development, for instance, needs to be tailored to the needs of the market and combined with mentoring (particularly on access to finance) and job search assistance. The ICT sector can also be a promising avenue for youth, given the rising demand and relatively low investment costs of starting up. This was demonstrated by Bart Leijssenaar (Tunga) and Mamadou Biteye (Rockefeller Foundation), who explained how ICT projects can be upscaled and can target youth in marginalized urban districts.

Attention also needs to be paid to informal workers, particularly in rural areas. As pointed out by Fox, “informal is normal”, which means that this work needs to become more productive and provide a decent and stable income for youth working in the informal sector. Although some may formalize, as outlined by INCLUDE earlier, the perceived benefits of formalization are too low and the burdens too high for many informal workers to make this transition. Lowering the transaction costs of formalization and increasing access to bank accounts can help towards this.

One of the two closing panels consisted of eight youth from Africa ranging from small-scale farmers to social entrepreneurs promoting environmental sustainability. Although the panelists had varied and unique stories, they all shared the idea that youth need to be more directly involved in social and political dialogues on youth employment. Conference participants stressed the importance of young role models and support networks for young entrepreneurs to ensure that promising startups are identified and better supported.

At the same time, participants also highlighted the need to look at the macro-policies preventing youth from finding a decent job. International institutions reducing Africa’s access to global markets and illicit financial flows prevent employment generation, both directly and indirectly (due to lower government revenues). Moreover, it was pointed out that while many African governments claim that youth employment is a priority, such as in the Agenda 2063, they do not always walk the walk. Prudence Ngwenya-Sigwane (African Union Commission), therefore, urged young participants to find ways to hold their governments accountable for the promises they have made.

Closing the conference, INCLUDE platform member Prof. Lemma Senbet emphasized that “business cannot be usual” if we wish to solve the huge and urgent problem of youth unemployment in Africa. Transformation and innovation need to drive the transition to productive and inclusive economies – “business cannot be usual”. A multi-stakeholder dialogue is essential for achieving this, as civil society actors can help to put pressure on governments to cash in on the youth dividend.

A full report of the conference will be published on the INCLUDE website soonas well as a short film. You can find the multimedia report of the conference here. The synthesis paper that INCLUDE prepared for the conference is available here.

The conference also contained break-out sessions on youth employment in 6 countries and 3 sectors. You can find a selection of the key findings of these sessions below.

Table 1: Key findings by country

Senegal & Benin
  • A large youth bulge, with most employment in agriculture and the informal sector
Only Senegal:

  • Integrated macro-approaches for agricultural transformation
  • Close involvement of national council for youth
Only Benin:

  • Youth employment articulated as a national priority, but little action undertaken
  • Social, economic and political factors hinder starting entrepreneurs
Uganda & Rwanda
  • Youth employment prioritized in various policy pronouncements and programmes
  • Young businesses perform well
  • Several challenges, including access to finance and entrepreneurship skills
  • Entities taking leadership on youth issues can make a difference
Niger & Nigeria
  • Incubators can play an important role in improving access to jobs, especially for women
  • Training in soft skills and entrepreneurial skills is essential, as well as coaching, networks and peers
  • In conflict-sensitive regions, proper diagnostics of youth employment challenges are even more important

Table 2: Key findings by sector

  • High potential for large-scale employment
  • Increased ICT access in rural areas improves agricultural productivity, but is a challenge
  • Mentorship and coaching are essential (the private sector can play an important role in providing these, as well as skills training)
Agribusiness and non-farm employment
  • Interventions need to be market-focused (e.g. tailoring training) and services matched to market demand)
  • Demand and supply (and the match between) them should be approached simultaneously
  • Start-ups with high potential and quality need to be promoted
  • Focus on quality over quantity
  • ICT is an accessible sector for youth, given the rising demand for ICT in Africa and the possibility of learning skills online
  • A challenge is how to tap into local opportunities and prevent brain drain
  • For further development of employment in this sector, ‘soft skills’ will become important

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