Finding opportunities for young people is a critical challenge for Africa, where 62 percent of the population—more than 600 million young people—is below the age of 25. With no signs that population growth will slow in the decades to come, it is imperative that Africa leverage the talent and energy of its youth to create dramatically higher levels of prosperity and equality and avoid the latent risks of unemployment and social instability.
Today, Africa finds itself in a precarious position on this most important issue. Youth unemployment is three times the continent’s overall average. The World Bank found that young people under 25 represent three-fifths of sub-Saharan Africa’s unemployed population, and 72 percent of the youth population lives on less than $2 a day. To help their families, 30 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 14 are forced to work, which robs them of the educational opportunities that could break their families’ cycles of intergenerational poverty.
So what does the average unemployed youth look like in Africa? She is an 18-year-old girl, living in a rural area, literate but not attending school. Building her skills, reaping her energy, and realizing her aspirations would help every African country improve its living standards and ignite economic growth. Empowering her with opportunities to reach and apply her full potential is both our most important challenge and our most vital opportunity.
I often put myself in the shoes of that 18-year-old girl, full of promise but with few opportunities to apply it. She is part of a generation of young Africans who are the most globally connected people ever to have lived on the continent. Although they can see the social and economic progress occurring elsewhere in the world, she and her fellow young Africans are largely isolated from that progress.
Offering this girl a quality education is critical for her success. However, only two-thirds of youth who start elementary school in Africa graduate, and only one in ten African students continues on to tertiary education. Even when she obtains her university degree, she will most likely have trouble finding a skilled job in Africa—which is why the continent loses an estimated 20,000 skilled workers each year to more developed economies.
Simply put, Africa is sitting on a time bomb unless it creates its own jobs through the ingenuity, ability, and skill of its own people. It is our job as leaders to ensure that the millions of young people who are willing to put in the work to improve their future have every opportunity to experiment, learn, adapt—and eventually succeed. We must use this significant inflection point in the continent’s history to guarantee that the entrepreneurial nimbleness, grit, and vigor of Africa’s youth can be utilized to help lift the economies of Africa.
The way we educate our youth in Africa will make all the difference. Entrepreneurship must be an integral part of every young person’s education. We need to impart not only the technical skills of entrepreneurship, but also the mindset of the entrepreneur, through our formal and informal education systems. To help address this challenge, some colleagues and I founded the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in South Africa to educate thousands of job creators and problem solvers for Africa. We accept 100 young leaders a year to participate in the program. They’re chosen from over 3,000 applicants from over 48 countries on the continent.
At the center of our strategy is ALA’s Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and African Studies (LEA) curriculum, which prepares each young leader to creatively confront the continent’s most pressing challenges through interdisciplinary, experiential educational opportunities. In LEA’s series of design challenges, students leverage their ingenuity through team-based exercises to brainstorm, prototype, and test new ideas for addressing tough social problems. Using entrepreneurship case studies, students learn about modern African trailblazers in business, politics, and social affairs, giving them a set of inspirational role models to follow. The young leaders at ALA also have access to capital (in the form of micro venture capital or microfinance) to help them turn their own business concepts into reality.
Over the last four years, 45 different ventures have been launched at ALA through this methodology—real, live, small-scale enterprises that will one day form the roots of much larger enterprises that can help create jobs on the continent for our youth.
Behind this is our philosophy that if you give a young person a chance to get his or her hands dirty as an entrepreneur, you will inspire and prepare that person to one day launch entrepreneurial ventures on a much larger scale—ventures that can potentially create thousands of jobs. If you do not believe this, ask Mark Zuckerberg how the small computer project he launched in his dormitory at Harvard influenced what eventually became Facebook. Or ask Michael Dell how the small project he launched in his dormitory to assemble computers at the University of Texas when he was 19 influenced what eventually became Dell Computer.
The 400 young leaders currently in the ALA system (on campus and at colleges around the world) , hailing from 43 African countries, are truly amazing examples of what the continent’s youth can do with the right mindset, experiences, and skills. They represent the extent of what could be achieved if all young Africans were given access to high-quality entrepreneurial education and practical opportunities to apply their ideas, ambitions, and talents to real-world opportunities and challenges.
To create a supply of jobs for Africa’s youth and a wave of empowered young people to fill them, coordinated investments are needed in each part of the educational pipeline, from early childhood through to the entry-level labor market. Indeed, success requires the coalescing of today’s fragmented landscape of youth development programs into a harmonized network of interventions that weave together households, communities, schools, and companies in service of Africa’s youth.
The Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa is another promising example of how corporations and nonprofits, working together, can provide high-potential young people with the experiences they need to be successful in the marketplace. Harambee works with its South African corporate partners, including Hollard Insurance (one of the largest insurance companies in South Africa), and Nando’s (a large chain of fast-food restaurants), to prepare and place first-time workers in entry-level jobs.
Recruited through a text-message-based application system, Harambee participants take part in a three-month bridging program that teaches them functional, technical, and interpersonal skills. Using reality-based simulations, Harambee students learn how to interact in the workplace, manage conflict, and deal with failure—all assets proven to increase the success of new employees. Through its partners, Harambee is filling more than 3,000 jobs across South Africa with its graduates—all young people below the age of 25—validating an exciting new human capital model that has the potential to scale and benefit thousands more youth across Africa.
It is no coincidence that Harambee is the Swahili word for “all together.” To decisively reorient Africa toward increasing success, equity, and stability, we must fully empower the continent’s greatest untapped resource: its youth. Providing access to entrepreneurial opportunities and experiences will ensure that all young people have the opportunity to develop their talent and realize their dreams.
Africa may be known as the continent of gold, oil, manganese, and diamonds, but our true wealth lies in our people, especially our young people. Only by unlocking the potential of this treasure—by giving them a chance to work or to create their own jobs—will we finally achieve the prosperity that our minerals have so far failed to bring to our continent.