John Converse Townsend

From Classroom to the Real World: How young people in Africa can unlock limitless opportunities

Today more than half the population of sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 25, and the World Bank predicts that as many as 11 million young people will join an expanding labor market every year for the next decade.

These changing demographics seem on the surface like a reason for optimism in Africa, since young Africans will soon have more formal education than ever before. More than half of men and women ages 15 to 34 are projected to have attained secondary education, according to economists Deon Filmer and Louise Fox, the lead authors in a recent World Bank report, “Youth employment in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

But while it is well established that education opens the doors to well-paying jobs and brings other wide-ranging benefits to society, the benefits of education are never guaranteed. And, unfortunately, they may never be realized by graduates in sub-Saharan Africa because the rapid increase in educational attainment has come at the expense of quality. The education system’s track record for producing hirable skills “has been abysmal in Africa,” note Filmer and Fox, which prevents young people from becoming relevant and valued contributors in a rapidly evolving marketplace.

“If the quality of education does not improve rapidly, productivity and earnings are likely to remain low — a problem that will only become more acute as new generations of Africans enter and graduate from schools in larger numbers.”

About half of young women and more than 40 percent of young men are not formally employed (these rates are highest among college graduates). And only one in four young people south of the Sahara is expected to work for wages in their lifetime. Most will find employment in agriculture, or in non-farm household enterprises sewing clothes, for example, or selling coffee. These businesses are typically a form of “pure self-employment,” as most founders rarely consider hiring a second worker, and they rarely become “engines” of inclusive economic development as small- and medium-size enterprises.

“Most governments continue to ignore, neglect, or undermine the potential of this sector,” despite collecting taxes and fees from the majority of these enterprises, write Filmer and Fox. “Lacking support, [founders] just try to survive.”

This reality is a source of frustration for many young people, including Ian Mati, the founder of the Wipe A Tear Foundation. “There is this funding that is supposed to be helping young people, but it is people who are 40 who are getting this benefit,” he said. “When we want to build something that is worth it, and start on projects, young people lack the support to build something from scratch. We usually get the ‘Ah, you’re not of age’ comments. There’s lack of support and faith in us.”

Mati, an economics student at the University of Nairobi who has grown his work as part of Ashoka’s Youth Venture program, visits orphanages in the city with his team once a month in an effort to inspire underserved, albeit talented, young people to start – and grow – small businesses like beadwork companies or backyard greenhouses that sell produce at local markets.

“We’re helping young people unearth their talents and interests, and create ways to monetize them, or find opportunities through them,” Mati said. “Each of us has different talents: football, fashion, mathematics. Through these groups, we show them how they can develop their ideas, work in teams, believe in themselves, and start something as leaders who bring up others around them.”

Despite being raised on the streets of Zimmerman, Nairobi, where he lost friends to gang violence, Mati has become something of a success story. But he sees himself as just another young person desperate for more real-world experiences to make up for inefficiencies in Africa’s formal education system.

“Knowledge is not only in the books — youth have many skills and talents that we should grow and expand in the real world,” he said. “People are already trying to make ends meet, so a practical education can help them survive, as well as prepare for their future.”

Mati might be onto something. Social problem solvers working to tackle youth unemployment are providing school-age children with inexpensive, creative second-chance education programs or, like Marlon Parker, offering training that gives young people the skills they need in the 21st century.

Parker, as the founder of RLabs, runs skills training and development academies and innovation labs in partnership with governments in nearly half of Africa’s 54 countries, opening new doors for more millions of young people, some of who emerge as job creators.

“Traditional education systems develop young people for limited opportunities,” Parker said. “We need to create alternative opportunities for young people to learn from experience. And I firmly believe that for young people to stand out, they need to have a side project — these side projects, these changemaking opportunities, will set them apart in the job market.”

Currently there’s a lack of faith in young people by employers in sub-Saharan Africa, who don’t believe their demands for talent are being met by the current supply (a problem that is not unique to the region).

Employers aren’t just looking for basic cognitive skills, but also want behavioral, technical, and business skills, as well as social-emotional qualities like teamwork and empathy – skills that have long been undervalued in schools but can quickly be developed outside the classroom.

Still, governments can’t simply “train their way” to more and better jobs for youth, as the World Bank report concludes. Mo Ibrahim, the British-Sudanese telecom billionaire, has called for a national debate between business leaders, education specialists, and young people to determine the kind of workforce that Africa needs and how to deliver on its potential, because “education is too serious to be left to the few bureaucrats in ministries of education who have no connection to the real world.”

However, young people shouldn’t expect anything to be given to them, adds Esther Eshiet, 27, the founder of the AfterSchool Peer Mentoring Project.

“There needs to be a change in the way government and the private sector view young people,” she said. “But at the same time, the onus is really on young people to prove their worth — to prove that they’re relevant and can be difference-makers.”

Marlon Parker and Esther Eshiet are Ashoka Fellows selected in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation. Submit your solutions to the “Future Forward: Youth Innovations for Employment Challenge” by Nov. 5. A discussion the myths and trends for innovations in employment continues on the #AfricaYouthFwd hashtag on Twitter.

John Converse Townsend is a media manager at Ashoka Changemakers covering entrepreneurship and smart solutions to social problems.

employment, skill development