Let’s face it: 240 million people go to bed hungry on most nights, while malnutrition kills over 50% of children before the age of five. Climate change is already defining the contours of the continent and represents an ever-increasing threat projected to impact agro-productivity in ways that we have never seen before. Although these challenges may seem insurmountable, there is one challenge that, if left unaddressed, could have even more dramatic consequences. This is what is known as the ‘youth bulge’. This refers to the fact that the majority of Africa’s population is young and that up to 60% of them are unemployed. By 2035, the number of Africans who reach working age will exceed that of the rest of the world combined.
Without affordable, practical and innovative solutions to address the socioeconomic challenges that drive youth unemployment and migration, actualising the SDGs will remain elusive. Already, frustrated by the lack of opportunities, many young people are risking their lives on perilous journeys in search of a better life on other continents. Looking for practical solutions that can remedy poverty will also help realise the aspirations enshrined in the AU Agenda 2063.
Agriculture is the most inclusive economic sector, employing an average of 64% of the labour in Africa, including vulnerable young people and women.
The Bottom Line
There is an old African proverb that says: “Where the young know is where they believe it’s raining.” Translated into the present context, it means that Africa’s youth will engage where they are guided to engage. If they are enabled to start their own businesses, they will. If agriculture is made more attractive to them, they will drive this untapped cash cow. If their tech skills are harnessed, they will use these for the good of the continent, and if school curriculums are made more relevant to the job market, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
For Africa to address its youth bulge challenge, the region needs to first leverage catalytic sectors that can accelerate socioeconomic development. Agriculture is the most inclusive economic sector for this, employing an average of 64% of the labour in Africa, including vulnerable youth and women. It is therefore the most inclusive sector that can enhance inclusive growth in the continent. Complementary to this is the clean energy subsector where Africa is equally endowed in resources. Clean energy combined with agriculture for agro-value addition can catalyse job creation along the entire agro-value chain.
Second, Africa needs focused investment to increase the productivity of these sub-sectors and to accelerate the actualisation of multiple SDGs. To maximise this productivity, these sectors need to be considered as complementary to each other and not developed in silos, which is the way it is approached most of the time.
Agriculture that is driven by the principle of Ecosystems Based Adaptation (EBA), combined with clean energy-powered agro-value addition will ensure that food security and economic opportunities are created along the entire agricultural value chain, while simultaneously offsetting carbon and conserving ecosystems to combat climate change. Eliminating the current inefficiencies and losses in Africa’s agricultural value chains, which exceed USD48 billion annually, will unlock additional funds that can drive other sectors of the economy towards investing in the youth.
Education and Capacity-building
The lack of skilled manpower has limited the success of clean energy technology development on the continent. It is documented that Africa is losing out in this sector because there are ‘very few’ institutions of higher learning on the continent that offer renewable energy programmes. Africa’s system of higher education needs to be reformed to empower its youth with skills that can take advantage of opportunities in the catalytic sectors, without compromising on the competitiveness of its scholars.
All the Ministries of the Environment on the African continent should work with the education sector to make sure that clean energy solutions are integrated into the formal curriculums of relevant disciplines – agriculture, environmental science, energy engineering and other relevant engineering disciplines, economics and planning – at the tertiary level.
Policy is the biggest driver of change. Harmonising policy across different catalytic sectors will create the enabling environment that is needed to unleash youth potential. For example, an agriculture ministry working with the ministries of environment and forestry to ensure that nature-based techniques like agro-forestry are integrated into mainstream agriculture policies will catalyse the actualisation of SDGs 2, 13, 15 and Article 7 of the Paris Agreement on adaptation.
To catalyse investment in clean energy by both state and non-state actors, agriculture policies will need to reconcile with industry policies, energy policies, land policies and private investors. Infrastructure policies should prioritise investments in rural roads to connect production areas to markets and collection points.
All the Ministries of the Environment on the African continent should work with the education sector to make sure that clean energy solutions are integrated into the formal curriculums of relevant disciplines
A combination of capacity building for improved tax administration, where tax institutions and professionals are better equipped and trained to track and seal tax evasion loopholes; targeted partnerships, where financiers partner with entrepreneurs in EBA-driven agriculture to develop affordable financing products; and maximising Diaspora financing, where governments incentivise investments by recipients of remittances from overseas, can create opportunities for the youth. For example, financial technology (fintech), a combination of financial services with ICT, is currently enhancing the ability of off-grid communities to access clean energy for domestic use. the youth can also tap into such fintech applications to access clean energy for agro-processing industries.
Africa has what it takes
Africa holds a significant advantage in terms of resources. Sixty-five percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land is in Africa. It has abundant renewable energy potential as well, with a hydroelectric power potential estimated at 1852TWh annually (this is three times the continent’s current demand) and 1300GW of wind potential. It also has a huge amount of untapped geothermal energy and the best solar resources on the entire planet.
Let the 60% of unemployed young people across the African continent usher us towards action. It is time to put aside our fine words, pick up our tools and start to actualise the glorious promise contained in the SDGs for ourselves and future generations – to ensure that, truly, no one is left behind. This is the only way we can turn the youth bulge from being a ticking time bomb into a dividend. The future is in our hands and we have everything it takes to shape it for the collective benefit of all.
Dr Richard Munang is Africa Climate Change & Development Policy Expert. He tweets as @RichardMunang
Mr Robert Mgendi is the Adaptation Policy Expert
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the institution with which they are affiliated.