From learning to earning in Africa

From learning to earning in Africa
MR. JOE ESHUN CEO, Deloitte East Africa

By 2035, there will be more Africans entering the workforce each year than in the rest of the world combined. We say development will and should be youth-driven because this will be the majority of our population and a significant portion of our economic life force.

Young people between the ages of 15 and 35 already comprise approximately 75% of our population, but if you look at the demographic breakdown within their categories, only around 15% are wage employed, with 35% facing under-employment and vulnerable employment that cannot be relied upon consistently for survival.

As we have strengthened our prioritization of education across the continent, we’re facing a challenge of an over-educated, underutilized market, where more (though not all) of our young people are gaining access to skills, but not finding opportunities to put their skills to use. We must ask ourselves – at what points do learning and earning mismatch so drastically in our economies, that young people are not taking up the steering wheel to drive development in our countries? And in many ways, what will be different for youth-driven development as we face a new post-pandemic world.


The objective of this presentation is to show how the private sector can be at the forefront of youth development in Africa to help address the gap between learning and earning. At the end of the presentation, I hope that I will have shared some practical ideas that we can all rally around across Africa.


This presentation will cover 4 key areas namely:

  1. Why the gap between learning and earning is widening
  2. What the private sector can do to contribute to youth development
  3. What governments can do to contribute to youth development
  4. Conclusion
  5. Why the Gap between Learning and Earning is widening

The transition between our education systems and participating in the economy is mired with structural challenges. I believe the gaps we see today with regards to youth participation in the economy are by design, not necessarily tied to whether young people are doing enough in their own individual right.

Our challenges begin from how we embed and encourage the right mindset into young people, to whether we are investing sufficiently in their success. It is also driven by the challenge of governments and the private sector understanding what young people need for them to be successful

Firstly, our education syllabi are not enriching young people with the right technical and transferrable skills required to help them thrive (employed or self-employed). We have not scrutinized our education systems, many of them originating from pre-colonial eras, to assess whether they are still fit for purpose. I know that many countries in Africa including Ghana and Kenya have attempted on several occasions to tweak the old education systems but instead of improving quality it is rather improving quantity.

Many of our current systems are feeding information to our young people without teaching them how to create value. We have socially viewed vocational training with disdain, while these skills are necessary for our people to build and work in manufacturing economies.

We have also siloed workforce and professional training from being embedded in our education systems, and in both private and public sector, we introduce these interventions too late in life, once young people are only just beginning the job search, or sometimes even much later than that. But at that point they would have already established some of their core values that influence their participation in the economy. We must remember that training young people to participate in development starts with building character and values that are shaped in childhood and young adulthood. We tend to expect our children to focus on the standard subjects we have assumed will shape them, but the right combination is required. For example;

  • Sports breed discipline and resilience,
  • the Humanities help us explore our personal values and exercise our creative minds, and
  • Maths and Sciences teach us the logical structuring and hypothesis testing we need to problem-solve.

There is also a growing gap between our shared values, where many of us view ways of working and opportunities for growth in a different way from millennials (those born between 1980-1994 i.e. 27-41 years) and Gen Z (those born 1990-2010 i.e. 11-31 years).

Many of our younger people prefer less hierarchical and more transparent environments that allow flexibility. Our Global Deloitte Millennial Survey indicates that 70% of millennials expect their employers to focus on societal or mission-driven issues. No other generation has exerted such an impact on the way we do business, on employee experience, and on consumer expectations. Their economic choices (where they work, what they buy, who they buy from) are much more aligned with their values than any other generation. Knowing this, how do we create companies with values that encourage, instead of frustrating young people’s participation?

We might start by bringing youth to the table in more tangible ways. What does it mean to emphasize on youth-driven development and engage in dialogue around young people without having them in the room to appropriately speak for themselves? We provide platforms for youth to share their perspectives but sign our policies and contracts without them. A good example, digital technology is a space of economic productivity for many of our young people to earn multiple income streams that have never existed before.

Our technology policies significantly influence e-commerce businesses and digital engagement; however, some African countries have stifled accessibility to the internet and consumer sites through fees and taxes, consequentially disempowering youth. In this situation, the short-term revenue gains do not outweigh the long-term losses impacting entrepreneur pockets.

Ultimately, our approach to youth development faces a final structural challenge of resourcing. While I can say as the private sector we have played a role in supporting youth in areas of skills development and youth programmes, there has been faster development of educational opportunities than economic ones for them to engage in.

Our youth initiatives are frequently done at a micro-scale and may not be able to fully address the gaps fairly. The dialogue needs to centre around creating actual opportunities – so that the youth we have invested in upskilling all have a place to go or something to do. At the end of the day the journey from learning to earning requires job accessibility, and for entrepreneurs it requires enough financing, access to capital, land and the right networks. These are the tools that young people need to properly take the wheel on development.

I will now want to focus on the role of the private sector.

  1. What the private sector can do to contribute to youth development

On the topic of resourcing, I want to emphasize a gap that we often do not discuss enough. Africa’s biggest employer is still agriculture, and we have not aligned success factors in this industry to drive youth engagement in it. According to the World Bank, non-farming sectors will not be able to produce enough jobs and economic opportunities to absorb new graduates in Africa.

Agriculture routes are necessary to ensure opportunities for our young people, but there is more work to do with aligning research, policy and incentives to encourage agribusiness options for young people. We must consider addressing access to land, financing and large-scale agriculture options for youth to drive this sector as well.

I have four key things that I believe the private sector can contribute to address equity and support actual growth of young people’s participation in development:

The first is scaling finance for start-ups. African businesses are generally undercapitalized, impacting their ability to grow. Nairobi’s start-up scene has faced a conundrum of having to place Silicon Valley-based faces (that are often not African) at the forefront of their companies as a strategy to raise capital from the West.

Consequentially, this has often also led to a stream of shareholder value exiting the continent as start-ups grow and start breaking even – Flutterwave, the Nigeria based payments company that has just been valued at over USD 1B, and raised USD 170M in March, is solely funded by American firms. Local financiers are risk-averse around young businesses, and at our own expense, leaving our disruptive start-ups to be funded by the West or not funded at all enough to properly take off.

To mitigate our risks, or potentially better protect our investments, brings up my second point which is investing in long term, large scale skill-building. Many of our private sector youth training interventions are narrowly targeted and are often internal initiatives driven by individual companies or institutions.

They tend to be short term experiences for the participants, that yes, may guide youth into entrepreneurship or create a talent pipeline for our companies, but often result in skilled people existing within siloed pipelines – none have access to another set of opportunities, or a small group of young people have access to all opportunities.

When Deloitte took on supporting the YALI (Young African Leaders Initiative) Regional Leadership Centre in Nairobi, I wanted us to participate in a large-scale initiative where we could build a large, region-wide alumni network and partnerships with other private sector players. Participating in young people’s growth over time, and in partnerships, has, in my opinion, reaped better results for the participants and for the industries they work in.

Our experience with YALI brings up my third point which is significant participation in intervention design. Are we, the private sector, willing to invest our time and resources to developing demand-driven programmes? Are we engaging governments and IDO players around policy, the kind of skills we need to see from youth to build a better talent pipeline, and developing incentives that will also influence further participation of the private sector?

Lastly, committing to making a shift in our workplace cultures will allow us to pay better attention to young people’s inputs and contributions to how we do business, and in the long run, how we grow our economies. The viewpoints of younger generations will be critical to creating a new normal in the post-pandemic world, and companies need to reset and listen to their younger employees to create a better normal for our countries and set an example to our society that young people can take the steering wheel and drive change, and it is actually profitable to let them do so. Culture to me is significant because – culture eats strategy for breakfast. If we want fresh ideas, we cannot bring them into archaic environments, or be unwilling to change our way of doing things to implement the commitments we are making to youth.

  1. What governments can do to contribute to youth development

I’ve spoken extensively about the private sector’s engagement, but I do want to wrap up by emphasizing that we still cannot leapfrog the public sector’s significant role in youth-driven development. Youth participation in economic activity is a structural issue, rooted in economic growth and policy more than anything else. So, I will wrap up by reiterating that youth-driven development will begin with:

  • A radical shift in our education systems and ways of learning to incorporate more transferable skills, with better investments into vocational and agriculture training instead of it being viewed as an “alternative” education route.
  • Lowering the barriers young people face to actively engage in policy and politics; and
  • Making sure that the industries we want to engage young people in are tangibly attractive for them through tax benefits and government investment support. The success stories in America and Asia (Singapore and Taiwan can confirm that they had unique ways of supporting industries that generate the right level of jobs for its people.)
  1. Conclusion

Despite uncertain and discouraging conditions, Millennials and Gen Z’s express impressive resiliency and resolve to improve the world, even during this time of COVID. As we rebuild our economies and society, youth interventions should not be isolated from the wider conversation around economic development that requires massive overhauls, significant investing to address broader issues.

There is an African proverb that states that “what the child learns in youth will continue in old age”. Look around us and see what these millions of young people are learning now and be fearful of what the future holds for us if we all do not intervene.

“The youth can walk faster but the elder knows the way” and this is where we as the private sector should come in and show the way so that the fast pace of the youth can take us to a better-developed state.

Thank you.


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