Sometime in 2011, the Institute of Economic Affairs carried out workshops across the country dubbed The Kenya Youth Scenarios Workshop which I was lucky to be part of. During these workshops, groups of young people from different social, economic and political backgrounds were put together and told to create possible future scenarios of Africa. Each group was given two components say technology and inequality, education and poverty or infrastructure and huge population. We were then expected to use the indicators to project how a country would be if for example by 2030, poverty was still rampant yet technology was well developed.
By the end of the workshops, one thing that the groups seemed to agree on was that if Africa’s youth population kept growing and no solutions were reached on poverty, inequality and unemployment, then despite technological and infrastructural advancement; Africa would be faced with serious challenges of insecurity, religious fundamentalism and hopelessness.
It is therefore rather alarming to note that, barely three years after the Kenya Youth Scenario and the IEA Youth Research Compendium reports were released; we are already witnessing some of the projected scenarios namely; increased public frustration of youth who feel left out, the escalating cost of living and the rising extremist youth groups that spread terror across the continent.
A case in mind would be the infamous tale of young Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26 year old Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire to protest confiscation of his goods and humiliation by municipal officers. As it were, he was so poor that he got his stock on credit and so had no money to bribe the officers. When he tried to get an audience with the governor, he was denied access. He thus decided to set himself on fire so as to be heard. The protests that followed were numerous and led to the Arab Spring. Tunisians, angered by extreme poverty, rising food prices, inflation and high unemployment took to the streets and didn’t stop until the then president Ben Ali was toppled. The wave moreover, spread throughout the Arab nations.
In Kenya, there is a recent story of a young porter from Nairobi who was promised a million shillings and thus recruited by Al Shaabab to plant bombs in churches and other social places in Mombasa. The young man was easily lured because the sum promised him was much more that he could ever dream of making in his badly paying porter job. Even in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, economic disparity, serious levels of poverty and dire need to be heard have led to rise of the insurgent Boko Haram, which is abducting and killing scores of people.
Given these incidences, it is quite clear that the youth bulge in Africa, the largest in the world, is a ticking time bomb which if not adequately tackled, could explode anytime. Moreover, exclusion of youth from the labour market not only perpetuates generational poverty cycles but also breaks existing social cohesion structures thus escalating crime and violence among youth. Youth unemployment in sub-Sahara, put at 12% by the International Labour Organizations ‘Global Employment Trends 2014 needs to be addressed, especially since near half the current African population is under 14 years of age.
Economic Inequality is the other issue sitting alongside unemployment. In Kenya for example, 10 percent of the population owns 40 percent of the wealth in the country whereas the bottom 10 percent owns less than one percent. This notion of a huge percentage of a country’s wealth being in the hands of a minority ruling class is a dangerous thing in a continent with the highest rate of working poverty-people who are working but earning less than two dollars a day.
To address these issues and hopefully turn the bulge into a blessing, African nations need to first and foremost improve access to quality education and integrate it with work readiness skills to match market demands. This will address the mismatch between youth skills and current market demands. Also focus should be put on the informal sector; which is where jobs are going to be in the next 15 years since the formal sector isn’t able to create positions for the 11 million African youths expected to join the labour force every year for the next 10 years according to a 2014 World Bank report dubbed Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Lastly, financial inclusion through easy access to credit facilities for the poor should be sought. It can be achieved if youth in the informal sector are encouraged to form cooperative societies. Moreover, if we are to follow the advice of economist Hernando De Soto in his book ‘Why Capitalism thrives in the West and Fail Everywhere Else’, then our governments should strive to issue land title deeds to its citizens. This will transform the land, considered ‘dead capital’ into useful assets and collateral that the owners can use to acquire loans to start and expand their businesses.
With this in mind, the Kenyan leadership should strive to pass reasonable laws like reduction of the levy on iron and steel which is the major raw material for the informal sector, the huge job creator. Moreover,the government should have its ears on the ground so that it address the complains raised by youth on matters like exclusion and land injustices. Listening to them will prevent the youth from taking matters into their own hands and hence curb the escalating resource based conflicts. Likewise, efforts should be made to improve food security by constructing roads to prevent the 30-40% harvest wasted every season due to poor infrastructure.
If these issues are addressed, the populace plight can be transformed into a blessing and easily translate into wider markets for goods and services, greater skills and a huge pool of dedicated laborers keen on building the nation.