Africa is home to abundant natural resources, yet the continent is characterised by high incidence of poverty, widespread informality and economic growth that has failed to create sufficient decent jobs for the burgeoning youth population. To add insult to injury, these pre-existing challenges have been exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic. Highlights of the World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2021 shows that prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 North Africa had the highest unemployment rate among all the 11 sub-regions; and sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) also hosted 60 percent of the world’s extreme working poor even though the sub-region accounted for only 12 percent of the global workforce in 2019.
Unfortunately, this penurious condition has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic – in SSA alone, COVID-19 resulted in substantial working hour losses equivalent to 13.5 million jobs which pushed over 4.9 million workers and their families into extreme poverty. To be candid, this situation can become worse, particularly as the continent’s youth population continues to grow rapidly. As of 2020, Africa’s population aged 0-34 was almost 1 billion people, representing 22.7 percent of the world’s entire youth population.
By 2100 Africa’s youth population is expected to rise by 181.4 percent. In other words, by 2100, Africa’s youth population will be equivalent to twice Europe’s total population, and about 50 percent of the world’s youth population will be in Africa.
This begs the important question; how can African governments provide sufficient decent jobs for the rapidly expanding youth population? Certainly, Africa’s bulging youth population has a strong tendency to compound the region’s socio-economic challenges, but there is a bright side to this situation.
In fact, the surest pathway to address this enigma is to empower the youth via skills development, which is an essential investment that will ultimately present Africa with an opportunity to reap enormous demographic dividends.
However, Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) which has been vital in equipping the youth with skills for employment or job creation has been hamstrung by a major challenge that is prevalent across countries on the continent – matching the supply of TVET programmes to the demand for skilled labour force in Africa has not been a walk in the park. Sadly, this challenge has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted the continuity of TVET.
According to a report (2021) prepared by a joint team from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the World Bank, more than 90 percent of the respondents in a survey indicated that TVET schools and training centres have been closed down in Africa as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While this is a major setback, it also denotes a turning point that requires that immediate actions are undertaken to recover lost progress, and strengthen TVET now and into the future. This could be achieved by regularly designing and implementing TVET models that meet the ever-changing demands of the labour market, ensuring that TVET systems are accessible for the bulging youth population across diverse backgrounds, rural and urban areas – an essential move that will promote re-skilling and up-skilling. But one may ask: to what extent will this development mitigate youth unemployment? The reality is that, with Africa’s informal sector being the major source of employment in the region, enhancing access to high-quality TVET will provide the youth with the required technical expertise needed to boost value-addition in the agriculture sector and other related industries; a breakthrough that will create new small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and large companies, create new jobs, accelerate the continent’s economic transformation and foster inclusive growth.
To throw more light on this subject, a report (2020) from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) paints a vivid picture of Africa’s labour market – High incidence of poverty in Africa reflects the largely poor quality of work young people and their families are engaged in, which is mostly in the informal sector. Even though the continent’s trajectory of youth extreme working poverty has declined significantly in the last decade, it is still above the global average.
A study (2018) undertaken by ILO shows that a whopping majority of the youth aged 15-24 (94.9 percent) who had little or no education are informally employed in Africa’s agriculture sector. Therefore if public policies and private involvement are directed toward strengthening access to top-notch TVET, these young people in Africa, particularly those in rural areas, will be equipped with relevant skills that will increase the number of the highly-skilled professionals the continent needs, stimulate productivity and eventually revitalise local economies.
To bring this into fruition will require massive transformation in the designing and implementation of TVET in Africa, leveraging cutting-edge technology and world-class technical expertise to equip youth in Africa with adequate skills needed for economic transformation – an arrangement that can only be undertaken successfully by experienced hands.
To make this possible, China has filled the void by supporting Africa in this field. With vast experience in TVET implementation, China has partnered with the World Bank, UNESCO etc., to strengthen TVET in Africa. For example since 2020, the China Funds-in-Trust project (CFIT) – a collaboration between China and UNESCO – has been enhancing the capacity of higher technical education institutions in an effort to support these training centres to respond adequately to the skill needs for national development in 6 African countries; Senegal, Tanzania, Gabon, Uganda, Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire.
Apart from these listed countries, China is also carrying out similar projects in other countries in the region; in 2021, the Ghana News Agency (GNA) reported that China has provided US$130million to enhance TVET in Ghana. The investment has been committed to upgrading five technical universities and 10 other technical institutions – so far China’s involvement has been impactful. It is now exigent for policy-makers and relevant stakeholders to protect this hard-earned progress by improving investment in TVET across all levels of education, understanding that providing high-quality, accessible and employable skills is central to addressing youth unemployment in Africa.
Alexander is an economic consultant, chartered economist and a chartered financial analyst