A New Narrative for Africa: Generation Next — The Future of Africa Depends on Youth Job Creation

Abiola Oke
8 min readNov 14, 2023

This piece is part of my Think Forward Africa Series

Young people constitute the biggest proportion of the African population, and are the most affected demographic group in any country’s socio-economic and political development. Source: Accord.org | Photo: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Every few decades, a palpable groundswell of enthusiasm about Africa sweeps through, prompting major publications to craft substantial articles on the looming ascent of this vast and diverse continent. In June of 1998, Time Magazine dedicated an issue to the theme of ‘Africa Rising,’ proclaiming, “After decades of famine and war, life is finally looking up for many Africans. Here’s why.”

Africa Rising — Times Magazine Cover
1998 Times Magazine — Africa Rising

Fast forward to 2011, and the same storyline persisted as The Economist unveiled its article, aptly titled ‘Africa rising.’

Economist Magazine Cover— Africa Rising
2021 Economist Magazine — Africa Rising

Just last week, Declan Walsh of The New York Times took a fresh approach to this ubiquitous narrative. His article, “The World is Becoming More African,” coupled with stunning imagery, offered a comprehensive exploration of the factors that currently define Africa and what lies ahead. This piece is part of a series, and it admirably depicts the multifaceted forces shaping the continent. It is not my intention to criticize Walsh or any of the publications mentioned above. Instead, I seek to highlight the urgency needed to address the evolving needs of Africa in light of its burgeoning youth population.

The New York Times — The World Is Becoming More African
2023 The New York Times — The World Is Becoming More African

Walsh commences his exploration by underscoring the projection that “By 2050, one in four people on the planet will be African.” The article reveals that the median age of an African stands at 19, in stark contrast to India’s 28, China’s, and the United States’ 38. In addition to a burgeoning population, Africa is poised to become the world’s youngest continent. As expected, Walsh’s piece echoes the attributes that captivate Western media — the surge in African music, film, and fashion — elements that many of us in the influential African diaspora proudly champion in our pursuits.

While I think Walsh’s piece is a worthy read, the question of how much longer we will continue to tout this elusive African Rise before it is realized comes up for me. What does a risen Africa look like? Who has established this vision for us, is it the successful outliers or foreigners? I plan to tackle many of these questions in subsequent pieces as part of my Think Forward Africa Series. My urgency notwithstanding, here are some key points I took away from his article.

  • Africa’s burgeoning youth population, in stark contrast to declining birthrates in wealthier nations, propels it into the position of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing continent.
  • Observers predict that Africa’s youthful demographic will be the driving force behind the next significant global transformation as African artists gain international recognition and innovative technologies emerge, though job creation remains an unresolved issue.
  • While industrialization historically fueled economic growth in countries like China and South Korea, Africa’s position could be less favorable due to infrastructure constraints, a lack of electricity access, and inadequate industrialization efforts.
  • Africa’s economic growth lags, with a meager annual increase of 1 percent, compared to India’s 5 percent and China’s 9 percent, despite African migrants sending $96 billion in remittances in 2021, outstripping foreign aid.
  • Africa’s youthful population is governed by elderly leaders, leading to a decline in democracy across the continent, with half of Africans living in countries deemed “not free,” creating a unique governance challenge.
  • A successful transition for Africa requires visionary leadership, effective policies, educational advancement, and the synergy of various factors, including drive, innovation, and some degree of good fortune, to fully unlock the continent’s potential.

Sure, we’ve made some progress, but it’s time to add to the ‘enthusiastic African’ narrative the reality that we have much more work to do. It is true; we make great music, exceptional fashion designs, and prolific film output — but our youth need jobs!

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, the three largest economies in Africa are Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa, accounting for 65% of the continent’s economy. The report highlights that Africa possesses significant assets often overlooked in headlines: our sizable working-age population and abundant natural resources for transitioning to a net-zero economy. Despite a strong start in the 2000s, African economic growth slowed over the past decade, particularly in its three largest economies.

However, some countries, particularly in East and West Africa, have maintained above-average growth in urbanization, capital investment, and exports although productivity in the service sector remains low.

We need young people to participate in enhancing agricultural yields, incentives to boost industrial productivity, and increasing local manufacturing. We must improve manufacturing output for Africans to meet local demand and export markets beyond the continent.

According to the World Economic Forum, if African countries were to match India’s production rate for domestic markets, we would unlock $140 billion in additional economic value by 2030.

I conducted a comparative analysis, aligning the opportunity areas proposed by McKinsey with the elements that have propelled the economies of China, India, Singapore, and South Korea, some of the world’s fastest growing economies over the past two decades. The findings underscore the following pivotal factors that contributed to their remarkable growth:

China:

Much of China’s economic growth results from comprehensive economic reforms initiated in the late 1970s; a shift towards a market-oriented economy played a pivotal role in its growth. Additionally, China’s emergence as the “world’s factory,” with a focus on exports and attraction of foreign direct investment, coupled with significant investments in infrastructure, particularly in transportation and energy, significantly bolstered economic expansion. Crucially, China harnessed its workforce to remarkable effect.

India:

India’s economic transformation can mainly be attributed to the services sector, particularly the information technology and software services industry; it established India as a global hub for outsourcing and technology solutions. The demographic dividend provided by India’s youthful population contributed to a dynamic workforce and heightened economic productivity. Economic liberalization in the early 1990s, featuring reforms that opened India to foreign investment and reduced trade barriers, facilitated increased economic growth and globalization. Once again, India harnessed its workforce to drive progress.

Singapore:

Singapore’s strategic position as a global trading hub has been instrumental in driving economic growth and establishing it as a significant player in international commerce. Pro-business policies, encompassing a business-friendly environment, low taxes, and efficient regulation, consistently attracted multinational corporations and foreign investors, further fueling economic prosperity. Singapore’s commitment to education and skills development, coupled with substantial investment in cultivating a highly skilled workforce, has been a significant driver of its economic competitiveness. Singapore’s investment in its people also yielded actual returns.

South Korea:

South Korea often called the “Miracle on the Han River,” has been relentlessly focused on industrialization, marking a significant turning point in its economic history, with heavy industries and manufacturing forming the bedrock of its growth — government support, including export-led growth strategies and industry financial incentives. Large family-controlled conglomerates, known as chaebols, including prominent names like Samsung and Hyundai, significantly contributed to the nation’s industrial development, solidifying South Korea’s status as a major economic player.

While it is important to note that each of these countries has a unique historical, political, and social context that influenced their distinct growth trajectories, these factors, among others, have collectively propelled the economic growth of these nations.

Africa is not a country; while distinct from nation to nation, African nations can benefit from the factors that have led to the development of the countries highlighted above.

In the last decade Africans have witnessed the proliferation of cellphones and fintech, and while celebrating exceptional achievements in the arts is applauded, there is a critical need to underscore the imperative of capacity building and creating job opportunities for the youth within theses sectors.

The youth explosion resembles a powder keg on the cusp of ignition; it is particularly concerning as young Africans are being lured by terrorist groups. In a report published by UNDP’s Mohamed Yahya, lead author and UNDP Africa Regional Program Coordinator, he states that

“The report finds the road to extremism in Africa is paved with deprivation…Poverty, marginalization and underdevelopment play an important role in the African context and it is, therefore, important for development actors to also be involved in finding solutions.”

Our society needs to prepare for the impending population surge and the public sector support must catch up in fostering job creation, leaving a significant gap that demands immediate attention. Youth unemployment in South Africa stands at 61% for individuals aged 15 to 24, and an even more alarming 71% when considering those who have given up on job hunting. Similarly, according to Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Budget and Economic Planning about 53.40% of youths are unemployed according to youth unemployment rates released by the National Bureau of Statistics in 2022. These numbers are unacceptable!

The African continent continues to grapple with a situation where the elites thrive while a significant portion of the population struggles with poverty and inadequate access to necessities. It is imperative that our private sector also engage in stakeholder capitalism — a business approach that isn’t just about making profits for shareholders. It is a framework where the interests and well-being of all the people and groups connected to a company’s operations are considered, not just investors; this includes employees, customers, suppliers, the community, and the environment. Companies such as Patagonia, Starbucks, King Arthur Baking Co. and the B-Corp (Benefit Corporation) movement are prioritizing ethical supply chain practices, reducing their carbon footprint and ensuring the well-being of communities. The goal is to create value and benefit for everyone involved rather than just focusing on maximizing profits. (more on Stakeholder capitalism)

I’d be remiss if I did not mention the various strides made by Africans in addressing some of these challenges. Although there’s still a long road ahead, several African nations, such as Rwanda, Kenya, and Gambia, have taken significant steps by waiving visas for Africans. This move is poised to facilitate the free movement of people in pursuit of improved opportunities within the continent. Furthermore, the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in 2019, aimed at eradicating trade barriers and enhancing intra-Africa trade, represents a commendable initiative. These are notable advancements; yet more progress is essential.

Tackling these issues necessitates a fundamental shift in how we identify and address challenges and what we celebrate as successes. Even as we consider the demand for foreign direct investments, it is imperative that we tie these opportunities of investments towards job creation. It is high time that we prioritize job creation as the key to unlocking the true potential of our continent.

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