Africa Must Prioritise Upskilling its Unemployed Youth, Development Bank Urges

Youth at the Grand Médine town hall in Dakar, Senegal. Senegal has a large youth population, half of which is under the age of 18. By 2025, 376,000 youth are expected to enter the job market that offers only 30,000 jobs. And this number will rise to 411,000 in 2030, according to the Wilson Centre. Credit: Samuelle Paul Banga/IPS

By Mantoe Phakathi
MBABANE, Feb 4 2020 – Africa’s inability to produce adequate skills is negatively impacting its economic growth.

In fact, the continent is not getting a good return even on the minimal investment it is making in education, says Thembinkosi Dlamini, an economist and senior extractives lead at Oxfam South Africa.

He was responding to one of the main findings in the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) 2020 Africa Outlook Report, released last week. Titled Developing Africa’s Workforce for the Future, the report  notes that most African countries at all levels of income exhibit lower educational attainment, both in quantity and quality.

Thembinkosi Dlamini told IPS that education in Africa remains untransformed to meet the skills of the future. He attributed this to lack of foresight and dwindling public investments in education.

The report notes that many African countries’ student expenditure is the lowest in the world, at $533 for primary and $925 for high school. This is despite the fact that African countries allocated an average of 5 percent of GDP and 16 percent of government budget to education – just above the United Nations recommended lower limit of 4 and 15 percent, respectively from 2010-17.

As a result, Africa’s growth has not been inclusive because of the lack of jobs in high-productivity sectors such as manufacturing. Moreover, large swaths of the population are stuck in low-productivity, low-paying jobs in traditional agriculture and informal sectors.

“The slow pace of structural transformation stems from shortcomings in human capital reflecting low skills and education levels,” reads the report. 

Only about a third of African countries have achieved inclusive growth. The report observes that countries with better education outcomes and higher rates of structural change are more likely to achieve inclusive growth.

“Countries with active inequality-reducing policies have better prospects of reducing extreme poverty more by 2030,” states the report.

The report also points out that there is a lack of complementarity between physical and human capital in African countries resulting in a limited contribution of education to increasing labour productivity growth at the macro level.

“Public investments in both education and infrastructure can yield greater benefits in promoting long-term growth than investing only in education or only in infrastructure because both types of investment strongly complement each other,” reads the report.

Speaking at the launch of the report in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, AfDB president, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, said physical infrastructure, while important, is not enough to drive much needed greater growth and productivity of African economies.

“African countries should accelerate investments as well as the development of human capital,” said Adesina.

Unemployable with a master’s in engineering

The lack of investments or available job market is a case in point for Mkhonzeni Dlamini’s [no relation to Thembinkosi Dlamini]. 

Mkhonzeni Dlamini (32) graduated with a BA in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the University of Eswatini six years ago. He thought getting a job would be easy because Eswatini’s government had classified his qualification as one of the priority courses owing to the shortage of engineers in the country. However, Mkhonzeni Dlamini failed to get a job the following year. He then decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering in Taiwan, hoping that this would improve his chances. He graduated in 2018 and returned home.

“Even now, I’m unemployed,” he told IPS, adding: “I don’t understand why a person with my skill is failing to get a job considering that the country needs engineers to develop.”

The visibly frustrated Mkhonzeni Dlamini blamed this situation to the “government’s poor planning”, saying that there are many other young graduates, including doctors, who are idling at home because there are no jobs.

“The government doesn’t seem to have a training plan to match available jobs. In fact, the government doesn’t seem to know how many students are on training and plan to create jobs for those graduates,” said Mkhonzeni Dlamini.

Having searched for a job since his return in 2018, he is now considering leaving the continent.

“Like many African graduates who are frustrated like me, we’re now thinking of going back to the countries that colonised us,” he said. Mkhonzeni Dlamini is exploring possibilities of getting a job in the United Kingdom.

Educating Africa’s youth for jobs of the future

Meanwhile, Adesina said youth unemployment must be given top priority. With 12 million graduates entering the labour market each year and only three million of them getting jobs, the mountain of youth unemployment is rising annually.

He said given the fast pace of changes, driven by the 4th industrial revolution – from artificial intelligence to robotics, machine learning, quantum computing – Africa must invest more in re-directing and re-skilling its labour force and, especially the youth, to effectively participate.

“The youth must be prepared for the jobs of the future – not the jobs of the past,” said Adesina.

Thembinkosi Dlamini agreed.

“We haven’t seen academic papers recently testing the relevance of the education to current and future needs of the economy,”Thembinkosi Dlamini told IPS, adding: “The report correctly points out the high skills mismatch particularly amongst youth employees [saying] that Africans are miseducated.”

Leave no country, no youth behind

Despite the limitations in the workforce, the report notes some success stories on the continent.

In 2019, East Africa was the fastest-growing region, and North Africa continued to make the largest contribution to Africa’s overall GDP growth, due mainly to Egypt’s strong growth momentum. Moreover, six African countries are among the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies: Rwanda at 8.7 percent, Ethiopia 7.4 percent, Côte d’Ivoire 7.4 percent, Ghana 7.1 percent, Tanzania 6.8 percent, and Benin 6.7 percent.

Former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who attended the launch together with ministers and other dignitaries, described these six economies as the “stars among us”.

“We want to see more, particularly countries like mine, which have been left behind, so that more can be done to give them the support that they need,” she said.

  • Economic growth in Africa is estimated at 3.4 percent for 2019, about the same as in 2018. Although stable, this growth rate is 0.6 percentage point less than the rate projected in the 2019 African Economic Outlook. It is also below the decadal average growth for the region (5 percent).
  • The slower than expected growth is due partly to the modest expansion of the continent’s “big five” — Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa — which jointly grew at an average rate of only 3.1 percent, compared with the average of 4.0 percent for the rest of the continent’s economies, notes the report.
  • Africa’s GDP growth is marginally above the world average of 3.0 percent for 2019 and well above the average for advanced economies at 1.7 percent.
  • It also exceeds that of emerging and developing economies outside Africa, excluding China and India. 

While the statistics matter, AfDB’s Adesina said the faces behind the figures should be prioritised.

“And every single day we work, let’s look at the real lives behind the statistics. Let’s hear their voices. Let’s feel their aspirations,” said Adesina.