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It's time to harness the power of African youth

By Rajneesh Bhuee | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2017-04-23 15:47

Young people can offer the much-needed human capital to speed up economic growth and foster sustainability on the continent

Africa, the continent with the biggest potential for growth because of untapped opportunities, is home to 12 percent of global oil reserves (Nigeria, Algeria, Angola, Sudan and new potential sources like Kenya); 40 percent of the world's gold, a commodity once used as an exchange currency; and over 60 percent of the world's underutilized viably arable land.

However, only 1.2 percent of global manufacturing comes from African countries.

If one were to go back in history and assess the development models of reigning superpowers like China, the United Kingdom and the United States, evidence shows that industrialization is what led to the exponential growth in the economies of these countries.

However, a one-size-fits-all model cannot be applied to African countries. To achieve prosperity and have good socioeconomic standards for their citizens, these countries need to develop a robust industrial sector, which is existent in many African nations but is not on a par with what is required to spur growth on the upward scale.

African leaders on several occasions have emphasized the importance of industrialization to Africa in boosting inclusive and resilient growth. This ambition has been articulated by the African Union's Action Plan for Accelerated Development of Africa and further reaffirmed in the AU's Agenda 2063, which has laid out a plan that supports implementation of industrial policies.

The continent has experienced favorable economic growth in recent years and is backed by the expansion of domestic markets in regional blocs like the East African Community and the Economic Community of West African States. With continuing foreign investment, business environments are improving to match standards in the developed world. Additionally, macroeconomic management is on the rise, and the purchasing power parity of regular consumers is increasing with favorable commodity prices and a growth in public investment.

Given all the economic positives of the continent, it is easy for one to conclude that Africa is set for the path of rapid industrialization and we will only hear better versions of that story. However, the reality is quite different. Most of the factors mentioned above are driving growth, but with many of the youth bulge unemployed, economists around the world are fearful that Africa is on a reverse trend and there is more de-industrialization happening than rapid industrial growth.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest youth population in the world - the biggest strength and weakness of the continent. There are more unemployed youths in African economies than anywhere else in the world. According to recent statistics released by the World Bank, oil-rich Nigeria claims that its youth unemployment stands at 13 percent; however, due to its large population, the actual figure may be much higher.

The de-industrialization wave is because of the overreliance of most African economies on agriculture and unprocessed commodities that add relatively little value to the exporting country's revenues. The manufacturing sector needs solid infrastructure to enable efficient transfer of raw materials and shipment of finished goods to market. However, the roads, railways, ports and air services in Africa are inadequate to serve the growing sector. Additionally, the few industries that do exist in these countries employ youth in the informal sector. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Standards, only 12 percent of the labor force in the country is employed by the formal sector.

Africa offers a young demographic, a growing consumer class and opportunities to build infrastructure and contribute to the service sector that is gaining momentum in the rising African economies, but is not yet at the levels expected of these countries. Many of the services are low-tech and cannot be scaled or traded and lack dynamism.

To break the chain of growing de-industrialization, the focus needs to be shifted to sustainability and alternative economic pathways to industrialization. Africa should use its most precious, yet undervalued asset - its youth. Solutions should be encouraging more intra-and interstate collaboration of African countries in building long-lasting partnerships that will be homegrown and whose effect will be felt by the people at the bottom of the pyramid.

If properly harnessed, Africa's youth bulge can offer the much-needed human capital that will not only speed up economic growth, but will foster sustainability on the continent. Entrepreneurship is not a new concept in Africa and is the solution that Africa needs. The future lies in tapping into the digital revolution and encouraging young entrepreneurs to develop products and services that transform agriculture, business, healthcare and transportation systems.

Success stories of this model are seen in countries like Ghana and Kenya, where the youth have used mobile technology in improving agricultural production and in turn encouraged governmental and policy support for youth-driven innovation. Africa can learn from its leading trading partner, China, and invest in its youth, allowing them to add their quota to the development of the continent.

The author is a research consultant in Nairobi, Kenya. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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