Study: Access to mobile phones won’t magically fix youth unemployment in Africa
Many in the international development community view technology –not least, mobile phones – as a possible panacea for Africa’s youth unemployment crisis. Their use is sharply on the rise. Mobile phones reduce the need for physical travel, allow rapid access to information about job openings and enable people to contact potential employers. They can be used to help run more efficient businesses.
Research my colleagues and I conducted as part of a study funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development found that some young people in Africa are using mobile phones successfully to access or create employment. But mobile phones are failing many more young people in their search for employment and livelihoods.
The study, conducted in Ghana, Malawi and South Africa, suggests some important reasons why phones may be unable to help young people fulfil their employment dreams. Our findings demonstrate that phone connections are not enough. Connectivity is only useful if it opens up access to employment opportunities that will pay a living wage.
That’s the crux of the problem: there simply aren’t enough quality jobs available. Ghana and Malawi have extensive informal sectors which have long provided at least some work for young people. Mobile phones have opened up some new opportunities in the informal sector – young people sell airtime or repair handsets, or may grow their service and trading businesses through the phone.
South Africa, meanwhile, has failed to grow a vibrant informal sector since apartheid ended in 1994. Its young people tend to be looking for work in the formal sector, and most do not have the employability skills that might make mobile phones useful to achieving this goal.
In reality the extent to which the mobile phone can support and sustain real improvement in young lives is depressingly finite unless significant interventions occur – particularly in the education and technology sectors.
Photo courtesy of Simon Berry.