How Africa can leverage its youth in three ways

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on October 14, 2018

Africa is young in three ways: young economy, young political system and a young population. These three variables present Africa with unique challenges and opportunities. Yet Africa lives in a world with many old countries with far more experience. How does Africa leverage her youth?

To be clear, there are key challenges linked to being young and Africa is young in terms of modern political economy structures. On average, African countries, as currently delineated, are about 50 years old or younger. Juxtapose that with at least 400 years of slavery and 200 years of ‘exploration’ and colonialism. It’s a marvel that Africa still functions. The point is that, under the current economic structure, Africa is young in three ways: young economy, young political system and young population. Each variable has its challenges and strengths.

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In terms of being a young economy, key challenges of being a young economy is economic immaturity, shallow financial markets, massive informality, cartels, and a poor economic data and knowledge base. These are real challenges that constrain the economic prosperity of the continent. There is often the perception that Africa is ‘inherently economically incompetent’. No. We are just young and the same struggle we are having is what other nations have done to get where they are. But there advantages to being a young economy: We have the opportunity to leapfrog, the opportunity to learn from older countries and leverage economic experience from others to Africa’s gain and we have the chance to create an economic path the world has never seen. Africa has that power.

In terms of being a young political system, there are key challenges: kleptocracy, corruption, and a concentration of political power. This feature is evident in the acrimonious relationship between African governments and their publics. But there are advantages to a young political system namely a young, engaged an invested populace; an opportunity to influence the country’s political path; and an opportunity to craft a political ideology that benefits Africa. So be aware that Africa is crafting its own political identity. And it will be done in a manner that is aware of all the geopolitical interests others have on the continent. It will be Africa front and centre.

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And thirdly, Africa has a young population which is linked with the following challenges: unemployment, idleness and hopelessness, and civil instability. Africa has to leverage its population dividend or be swallowed by it. But a young population has its advantages such as: an energetic and deep labour pool; opportunity to skill up labour appropriately, and a massive young market. Not only is the African population growing in size, it’s growing in GDP per capita. Africa is a young, massive and lucrative market.

It is up to Africa to decide how to leverage our youth in three ways. And I am confident that we will.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;



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