Accelerated public and private sector partnerships needed to create economic opportunities for Africa’s youth

March 11, 2022

High unemployment and limited economic opportunities continue to hamper the full potential of Africa’s youth, according to panellists at the first AFRI CONVERSE dialogue of 2022.

Co-organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the dialogue brought together participants who expressed concern that despite its significant youth demographic - some 420 million between the ages of 15 and 35 years -, Africa’s youth labour force participation remains troublingly low. According to UNDP, youth labour participation rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is currently at 45.8%, while in North Africa it has fallen to a new low of 22.6%.

Assistant Secretary-General, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States, Dr. Khalida Bouzar, highlighted that a large proportion of youth was also not engaged in formal education, employment or vocational training. Additionally, young women experience greater challenges and barriers to employment.

Furthermore, the majority of those employed work in the informal sector and struggle to sustain their livelihoods due to low and irregular wages and the lack of access to social safety nets.

“This means they have limited or no access to social benefits, health insurance or credit facilities, which leaves them highly vulnerable to shocks and disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ms. Bouzar said, adding that the pandemic has placed some 20 million jobs at risk across the continent, and in turn has increased youth and female unemployment rates.

For Africa to effectively harness its youth demographic dividend, one of the solutions aspired to by the African Union and its member states is for youth to become ‘job creators’. Entrepreneurship and employment creation hold the key to enabling youth to have prosperous and secure lives.

“The difference, however, will lie in how effectively and creatively policy makers, governments, private sector, civil society and development partners work together to create opportunities for the next generation of Africans,” Ms. Bouzar underscored.

Deputy Director General, Middle East and Europe Department for Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Ms. Hiroe Ono agreed that unlocking and harnessing the potential of youth to establish growth-oriented enterprises was critical for the continent to thrive. On the challenges that hinder the potential of promoting youth employment and entrepreneurship, she said the problem was broad-based which requires a multifaceted approach from different countries.

“I believe ownership and knowledge sharing among different African countries and their partners as well as the public and private sectors is the key.” JICA’s Africa KAIZEN Initiative is a good example of how role-players are already sharing knowledge to help improve productivity, promote employer/employee dialogue and encourage entrepreneurship.

Education, skills and learning continuity to enable the youth to decide and develop their own career are the main pillar in which JICA and its partners are addressing the issue of economic opportunities on the continent. Their programs covers basic and remote education for all, employability through technical and vocational education and training, as well as job matching, career education, internship programmes and business skills for entrepreneurs. JICA’s ABE Initiative (African Business Education Initiative for Youth) programme provides African youth with Master’s degree in Japan, as well as an internship at Japanese companies. 

“Exploring potential economic opportunities with added value is also one of JICA’s pillars and includes business environment improvement, financial access, entrepreneurship support and participation of vulnerable groups,” said Ms. Ono.

Project NINJA (Next Innovation with Japan), which is a start-up support initiative launched in January 2020, also demonstrates how JICA promotes youth employment, entrepreneurship, innovation and the creation of new businesses. 

Mr. Daniel Elliot Kwantwi, the CEO and founder of TranSoniCa Company Limited in Ghana is among a cohort who benefitted from the ABE (African Business Education) Initiative and NINJA. He undertook postgraduate studies under JICA’s programme and completed his master's degree at the University of Tokyo. He recalled how when he first arrived in Japan and used the SUICA transportation card, he got the idea to take the initiative back to Africa. This marked the beginning of his business venture.

“In Africa, cash payments for transportation and shopping often take a long time, resulting in long waits and queues. In recent years, there has been a growing need for contactless payment services to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Stores are also facing issues with cash, such as theft and complicated sales management,” he explained.

Mr. Kwantwi added that with the help of investors and contacts made through JICA, he is able to expand his business to other African countries. Currently, the company has full time employees and interns who Mr. Kwantwi said are ‘wired’ to think as business and opportunity creators. Additionally, non-traditional jobs such as top-up agents and student ambassadors have also been created by TranSoniCa. He said his business success demonstrates how the private sector, in partnership with governments, can play a crucial role in creating the right kind of economic opportunities for youth within the current environment.

Ms. Leila Ben-Gacem, founder of Blue Fish in Tunisia, shared an inspiring story on her experience employing youth. She said youth unemployment and the lack of opportunities for entrepreneurship in Africa, including Tunisia remain a concern.

“The need for alternative education or vocational education, has never been more urgent. Looking at the numbers, I imagined vocational institutes in Tunisia, would have a waiting list,” she said.

Ms. Ben-Gacem started her social enterprise, Blue Fish, in 2006 to help Tunisian artisans, particularly women, to export their works and develop their businesses. With more than half of her company’s team consisting of high school dropouts, she highlighted the need for professional skills, which could enable the transition from education to employment, enabling policies and regulations to ease the starting of businesses.

“Today, I see the immense opportunities for our government, if it were to partner with start-ups of all types, to accelerate implementation of e-government to improve services, or just to make ministries talk to each other. There are also immense opportunities to improve climate justice through circular economy solutions and upcycling innovations led by our youth,” said Ms. Ben-Gacem.

Investing in youth to unlock their potential is a top development priority in Africa,

contributing to regional economic development as well as peace and stability. The Government of Japan has been a long-standing partner of UNDP in programmes designed to train young people, enabling them to access decent work and earn incomes that allows them to enter adulthood on a stronger footing.

AFRI CONVERSE will continue to be held bi-monthly to build momentum for the Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development (TICAD 8) by mobilizing a wide range of stakeholders from Africa and Japan to engage on the most pressing development issues. TICAD 8 is scheduled take place in 2022.