Nurturing African futures: rethinking youth empowerment in a changing world


Africa is undergoing a demographic revolution, with young people making up the vast majority of its population. According to the United Nations, 70 per cent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa are under the age of 30.

Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world, with around 50 per cent of its people under the age of 16. While this demographic trend presents immense opportunities for the continent, it also poses a significant challenge to governments as they grapple with the need to effectively educate, train and build the capacity of the youth.

Failure to harness this youthful energy can have dire social, economic, and political consequences. To mitigate these dangers, African governments must explore innovative approaches to youth management and empowerment, working with civil society and the private sector to secure a better future for the continent.

The youth demographic time bomb

Africa’s youthful population is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it offers immense potential, as youth are a source of energy, creativity, and entrepreneurship. However, if not properly managed and empowered, this demographic asset will quickly become a demographic time bomb. Unemployment and underemployment among Africa’s youth are rampant, leading to a number of pressing challenges.

The lack of economic opportunities for young people leads to economic stagnation. These young people are not only a source of labour, but also consumers and producers. Their economic inactivity represents a loss of productive capacity and a reduced market for goods and services, hindering economic growth and development.

Moreover, a lack of effective engagement can lead to social unrest. If young people feel disempowered and excluded from the socio-political and economic fabric of their communities, they may become disillusioned and seek alternative, sometimes destructive, outlets for their energies. This can lead to an increase in crime, political instability, and radicalisation, all of which pose a significant threat to society as a whole.

Innovation as the key

Most African governments are constrained by limited resources and entrenched bureaucratic systems. Traditional approaches to youth management, which focus on creating jobs in the public sector, are inadequate and unsustainable. It is essential to look for innovative solutions. A combination of well-designed policies, collaboration with civil society and engagement with the private sector is essential to effectively address the challenges posed by Africa’s youth population.

Governments should seek to prioritise entrepreneurship and skills development programmes. These initiatives not only provide young people with the tools to start their own businesses, but also enhance their employability in the formal labour market. Innovation hubs, vocational training centres, and mentorship programmes can be established and strengthened to nurture young talent and promote a culture of entrepreneurship.

Embracing the digital age is crucial. Access to the internet and the development of digital skills are vital for Africa’s youth, literally opening up a world of opportunities in online entrepreneurship, remote work, and e-commerce. Governments can work with private sector partners to expand access to digital infrastructure and provide digital literacy training.

It is imperative to involve young people in the decision-making processes. This not only empowers them, but also ensures that policies and programmes are tailored to their needs and aspirations. Youth councils, forums, and consultations are needed to provide platforms for young people to voice their concerns and contribute to policy development.

Working in partnership with the private sector is critical. Governments can create an enabling environment for businesses to thrive, which in turn create employment opportunities. Public-private partnerships can be formed to support youth employment initiatives, including wage subsidies for young workers and tax incentives for companies that hire and train young people.

Africa’s youth have a proven capacity for innovation. Governments should explore ways to create an environment that fosters innovation and creativity. Incubators, accelerators, and research centres can provide resources and mentorship to young innovators, enabling them to develop breakthrough solutions to local and global challenges.

Facilitating access to finance for youth-led enterprises is important. Microfinance institutions and venture capital firms should be encouraged to invest in youth-led enterprises. Governments can also create guarantee schemes to reduce the risk associated with lending to young entrepreneurs.

Working together for a better future

Collaboration with development partners, civil society organisations and the private sector is essential. Civil society organisations often have a deep understanding of local needs and can reach communities that governments may find difficult to access. Development partners and the private sector, on the other hand, can provide the resources and expertise needed to drive economic growth and job creation.

Civil society institutions, including churches, academic institutions, non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations, play a crucial role in advocacy, community mobilisation, and service delivery. Earlier this month, Makerere University and the United Nations Development Programme organised the Youth and Innovation Expo 2023 under the theme ‘Fostering innovation for Uganda’s transformational development’ to showcase outstanding youth innovations and youth enterprises.

The involvement of the private sector is equally important. African companies can play an active role in youth employment and empowerment through various means, including apprenticeship programmes, corporate social responsibility initiatives, and workforce development partnerships. The Stanbic Bank National Schools Championship initiative trains and empowers students in high schools across the country in entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and life skills. Such collaborations can be mutually beneficial, as a skilled and motivated workforce contributes to business success.

African governments can seek international support and partnerships to strengthen their efforts. International organisations, donor agencies, and foreign governments can provide financial assistance, technical expertise, and knowledge-sharing opportunities to support youth empowerment programmes. UNICEF, Save the Children, Right to Play, and War Child are some of the most prominent organisations working in Uganda on child protection and development.

Averting peril

Failure to harness the potential of Africa’s youth will have dire consequences. It is in the interest of governments, civil society, and the private sector to take concerted action. The social dangers of crime, radicalisation, and political instability can be averted through inclusive policies and youth engagement. The economic dangers of stagnation and lost opportunities can be mitigated by investing in skills development and entrepreneurship.

In addition, the political dangers of an alienated youth population can be mitigated by involving them in decision-making processes and valuing their contributions.

Innovative approaches to youth management are not an option – they are a necessity for Africa’s sustainable development. By embracing entrepreneurship, digital transformation, youth policy engagement, public-private partnerships, innovation ecosystems and access to finance, African governments can unlock the potential of their youth and secure a better future. Collaboration with civil society and the private sector strengthens these efforts to create a comprehensive approach to youth empowerment.

Africa’s youth are not only the future; they are the present. They are ready and willing to contribute to the development of their countries and the continent as a whole. It is the responsibility of governments, civil society and the private sector to provide them with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive. In this way, Africa can turn its demographic advantage into a catalyst for progress and prosperity, ensuring that its youthful population is an asset rather than a liability.

Christopher Burke is the director of WMC Africa, a marketing and public relations agency based in Kampala.

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