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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Youth bulge and urbanization key to Africa’s future

Urbanization and the unprecedented surge of a youthful population are re-defining Africa in irreversible ways. Hence, Africa’s future is inextricable bound to its youth and cities. The unresolved question however, is what kind of cities is Africa building and what does the future hold for Africa’s youth?

Africa’s youth are in the vanguard of what many economists and Afro-optimists have described as Africa Rising. In many ways what has characterized Africa rising is the surge of demand for goods and services and the inevitable spending by a youthful urban population.

Nairobi’s emergence as the IT innovation central and Africa’s most intelligent city is courtesy to Kenya’s indomitable youth. The youth have quickened the pace of Dar-es-Salaam, a city once characterized as laid back and easy.

 Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing region in the world. However, Africa’s urban age is characterized by uncontrolled sprawl; expansion of slum settlements; lack of water and poor sanitation; hunger and malnutrition; gridlock and inadequate investment in public transportation an; weak institutions for urban governance. The World Bank cautions that Kampala could become a mega slum in the next 10 years if no action is taken to improve the quality of infrastructure and commercial investment. Can Africa harness the urban age and drive rapid and equitable economic transformation?

According to IMF, Africa’s working age population will reach 1.25 billion by 2050. Furthermore, this rapid growth in Africa’s potential labor force means that it must create 450 million new jobs for new workers projected to join the workforce between by 2035. Potentially, the rising share of Africa’s working-age population could put its competitive advantage beyond the reach of any other continent or sub-region.

How well are we preparing young people for a competitive globalized knowledge economy where basic literacy and numeracy alone just won’t do? Honestly, not very well.

Over 38% of Africa’s children aged below 5 years are stunted. Research shows that compared with normal children, stunted children: score 7 percent lower on math tests; are 19 percent less likely to be able to read a simple sentence at age 8, and 12 percent less likely able to write a simple sentence; and, are 13 percent less likely to be able to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school. Moreover, 7-16 per cent of grade repetitions are associated with stunting.

Here are some worrying observations from Kenya. About 1.3 million children enrolled in primary school in 2007. Only 880,486 completed primary 8. A staggering 417,483 children dropped before end of primary school. In the 2014 KCPE examinations, only 432,000 or 34 percent of 1.3 million children enrolled in primary one in 2007 scored above the average 250 marks, good enough to join high school. Such a low level of transition to high school is unconscionable. Moreover, according to Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi confirmed that 2 million children are out of school.

But it gets worse. There is a mismatch between the skills that young people offer and the ones that employees need. Employers are flooded with applications but complain that they cannot find candidates with the right abilities. And here is the evidence. On average 56 percent of students graduating from East African universities lack basic and technical skills needed in the job market. In short, 56 percent of our graduates are half-baked. This sobering finding was revealed in May 2014 in a study conducted by the Inter-University for East Africa (IUCEA) and the East African Business Council (EABC) to establish employers’ perceptions of graduates.

In South Africa, uneducated youth are unemployable and enthralled in an orgy xenophobic violence against fellow Africans. Jobless rates among young black South Africans is probably 55 percent. In Nigeria, staggered by the winds of unemployment and discontent young Africans are vulnerable to the virulent ideology of hatred served by homegrown terror cells like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. Millions of Africans, mainly from West Africa, the Sahel and Eritrea either perish in the desert or drown in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to migrate for Europe for work and a chance to live their dreams. 

Africa’s transition to the urban age and the youth bulge, in combination, could ignite an unprecedented African renaissance and socio-economic transformation. How we leverage the capacity of Africa’s youth and harness the opportunities of urban transition will determine whether the 21st century belongs to Africa. 

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