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Employment and training: the need for a new paradigm       

Twenty million. This is the number of jobs that Sub-Saharan Africa should create each year over the next 20 years to meet the challenge of employing its youth. However, although all public and private actors and international partners agree on this priority, results are still awaited. Analysis. 

By Dounia Ben Mohamed

This is the ultimate challenge for Africa. Employment. If the continent’s youth is its main asset, it is also its main challenge. Currently, Africa has 420 million young people aged 15 to 35 out of a total population of 1.3 billion; a figure that should rise to 830 million by 2050. However, for the 10 to 20 million young Africans who enter the labor market each year, only 3 million formal jobs are created at the same time. This gloomy observation is corroborated by statistics from the African Centre for Economic Transformation, based in Accra, which estimate that nearly 50% of university graduates cannot find a job.

Indeed, the issue of employment is at the heart of all concerns – from local government officials to employers’ organizations to development partners – and the Covid-19 crisis has only reinforced the urgency of finding answers. Millions of jobs have been lost in the aviation, tourism and broader service sectors. Yet the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that if the global youth unemployment rate were halved, global GDP could increase by $2.2 trillion to $3.5 trillion, with 20 percent of this growth directly benefiting sub-Saharan Africa.

“We must go beyond the planning stage

Once the facts are in, the hardest part is to apply sustainable solutions. Various national policies to fight unemployment have been proposed over the years, but with limited results. In September 2004, for example, African leaders decided to adopt a continent-wide strategy called the Ouagadougou Action Plan. Under the roadmap, adopted at an African Union summit on employment in Burkina Faso, the continent’s countries pledged, among other things, to diversify their economies to develop labour-intensive industries, adopt laws that attract investors and create employment opportunities for women and youth. “We need to move beyond the planning stage,” urged Abdoulie Janneh, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa. But after the hype, the Ouagadougou Plan of Action never took off, as job creation programs were rarely integrated into national development strategies.

Diversifying economies and focusing on labor-intensive sectors

In fact, the economies of many African countries are still too dependent on one or two primary resources (oil, gas, cocoa, minerals, etc.), which limits the size of the employment pool. However, some nations have succeeded in diversifying their activities by transforming these raw materials or by developing light manufacturing industries, such as Mauritius. Over the past four decades, Mauritius has recorded an average annual economic growth rate of 6%, which has allowed a four-fold increase in per capita income and a significant reduction in unemployment (from 20% in 1983 to 6% in 2019). This has been achieved by attracting investors in the country’s main export sectors, such as the sugar and garment industries. The government has also facilitated the creation of export processing zones, offering benefits to investors while allowing workers to form unions (unlike export processing zones in other countries).

Another approach to boosting employment is training in business creation, outside the school system. Several studies show that promoting small businesses and the informal sector can provide quick solutions to unemployment. In Nigeria, for example, which has more than 10 million small businesses, the government supports new entrepreneurs through a network of some 20 industrial development centers. These government-run facilities train young people in this way, helping them turn their ideas into viable projects, while providing loans.

“Investing strategically in our youth today, so that tomorrow the new horizon of a dynamic and prosperous Africa becomes a realitý”

In addition, private initiatives are multiplying, sometimes supported by institutional partners. In this regard, the African Development Bank (AfDB) set up in late 2017- on the sidelines of the 6th European Union-Africa Business Forum in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire)- the “Jobs for Youth in Africa” program, which relies on collaboration between the institution and its private sector partners across Africa. The pan-African bank’s stated objective is to “create 25 million jobs and benefit 50 million youth over the next ten years by providing them with the skills needed to obtain decent and sustainable employment. Present at the launch ceremony of the program, AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina recalled that “providing jobs for young people in Africa [is] simply about investing strategically in our youth today, so that tomorrow the new horizon of a dynamic and prosperous Africa becomes a reality. 

As a result, in Zimbabwe, for example – a country with an estimated 90% unemployment rate – Sharon Muchena is one of six women entrepreneurs to have completed training in garment making at the Vocational Training Centre in Motare, the country’s fourth largest city, taking advantage of a project designed to improve youth employment in tourism. Today, Sharon produces tracksuits, school uniforms and other clothing for her community. She and her staff run one of the four businesses created as a result of the project.

In the same spirit, the investment company I&P has launched I&P Acceleration in the Sahel, a financing vehicle backed by the European Union to the tune of 15.5 million euros to support start-ups and small businesses in the 13 countries of the Sahel region. Deployed over a period of four years, this support program will give 300 project leaders access to the financing and skills they need to accelerate their development in a “still fragile entrepreneurial ecosystem” marked by “insecurity, difficult access to financing, lack of support and recruitment difficulties,” as the designers of &P Acceleration in the Sahel point out. 

Until then, Senegal will host the third African establishment (after South Africa and Morocco) of Ecole 42, founded by French entrepreneur and billionaire Xavier Niel. The school, which has a worldwide reputation, aims to train specialists in the digital sector. From a two- to five-year curriculum, it will offer courses in programming, IT infrastructure, innovation and entrepreneurship, depending on the learner’s needs. And through the country of Teranga, School 42 will be able to export its concept to all of French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa.

Adapting school programs and focusing on STEM

This brings us back to the basics: education. Sub-Saharan Africa devotes 5% of its GDP to education, a figure in line with the recommendations of the World Education Forum, organized by UNESCO, which estimates that between 4 and 6% of a country’s GDP or 15 to 20% of its public spending should be devoted to education. Some countries on the continent such as Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Senegal are already doing better, with more than 6% of their national GDP allocated to education. But others, such as South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda and Madagascar, are spending less than 2.5% of their GDP on education. Another concern is the high expenditure of the education system, with 56% of it spent on salaries. As for content, “it is archaic,” observes the head of an employers’ organization. The emphasis should be on science, mathematics, engineering and technology, he says. The famous STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). 

This is the trend. IT schools and training centers are springing up all over the continent, teaching even the youngest students how to code, learn about 3D, and also about Artificial Intelligence (AI). Some of them in partnership with world leaders, such as Meta (formerly Facebook), Microsoft, Mastercard… And this, to prepare for tomorrow: 80% of the jobs that exist today will disappear in the next twenty years, especially with the arrival of AI. But in the meantime, we need to create jobs for the young people already on the job market. At this level, however, vocational training programs are still sorely lacking. “Business needs to be more invited into schools,” experts urge. School programs, especially in higher education institutions, must be reviewed according to the needs of the market, and to do this, the private sector, in other words the future recruiters, must take part in the debate. In particular, those at the head of social enterprises, which employ 41.6 million people in sub-Saharan Africa according to a study conducted by the British Council, and whose profits are mainly reinvested in their communities rather than being used for profit maximization. A “human” dimension that is more essential than ever in this post-Covid era. In the meantime, the launch of the African continental free trade area, the aFTA, is giving rise to a new hope, that of the eventual free movement of people. This new freedom will allow young people, and older ones, to move freely across the continent to find a job.

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