TORONTO – Across Africa, young people are on the move. This large-scale migration, which is putting economic and social pressure on host countries across the continent, is driven largely by factors like poverty, instability, and natural disasters. But the biggest cause of displacement is a concern shared by many around the world: the inability to find work close to home.
Many African countries have recorded significant GDP growth over the last decade. But the additional wealth has not translated into formal employment. In fact, 70% of workers in Sub-Saharan Africa remain in the informal sector, such as smallholder farming, street vending, and domestic tasks, rather than salaried jobs.
Africa’s youth are the hardest hit by these unemployment and underemployment trends. But young people also hold the keys to the engine of Africa’s struggling job market.
By 2030, over 120 million young people will enter the workforce across the continent. To create enough stable jobs, Africa will need to improve education, expand access to financial services, encourage civic participation, and provide social safety nets. But one of the biggest impacts will come when young people are fully empowered to pursue entrepreneurship. With the right support, the continent’s youngest job seekers can lead Africa’s employment growth forward.
In many ways, Africa’s youth are already confronting the challenge. This generation is more educated than their parents, and they live in countries that have benefited from rapid and broad development, including growing access to information, financial products, and other business-related services. African young people have high aspirations to shape the future of their countries.
Yet entrepreneurship is often considered a path of last resort. Young Africans sell goods or produce in marketplaces, not because they want to, but because they have no other choice. Self-employment is often combined with other sources of seasonal, temporary, or part-time work. The goal is to make ends meet, not to launch a career.
But times are changing. And today, young African business leaders are emerging to tackle complex problems, and in the process, putting many of their peers to work. There are countless success stories. In Kenya, Munyutu Waigi and Ivan Mbowa co-founded Umati Capital, a digital finance hub that helps agricultural processors, traders, and cooperatives access funds needed to expand their businesses. For their efforts, Waigi and Mbowa won the 2015 Zambezi Prize, which recognizes innovative approaches to promoting financial inclusion.
In Ghana, Mabel Suglo co-founded Eco-Shoes, a company that helps artists with disabilities create fashionable, comfortable footwear and accessories from old tires and recycled fabric.
In 2015, the Anzisha Prize, a joint initiative of the African Leadership Academy in South Africa and the Mastercard Foundation, honored Suglo for her innovative business strategy. Suglo provides mentoring in product development and financial literacy to five employees, and today, her business is growing.
And in South Africa, Marlon Parker, founder of the social innovation academy and incubator RLabs, created a virtual currency called Zlato to encourage active participation in skills-training workshops. When young people attend courses, access laptops, or book rooms at RLabs cafes, they earn Zlato credit that can be exchanged for food, medical care, and basic necessities. Since its inception in 2008, RLabs has created tens of thousands of jobs and is now active in 24 countries.
Africa’s youngest entrepreneurs are not only finding ways to support themselves and contribute to their communities; they are solving the main cause of migration on – and off – the continent. Entrepreneurs supported through the Anzisha Prize, for example, have created more than 300 jobs and generated more than $850,000 in capital. Fellows funded by Ashoka , another organization supported by the Mastercard Foundation, have created a staggering 200,000 jobs.
The skill with which young people are creating jobs through such enterprises gives great hope for the future. These bright, talented Africans are demonstrating the tenacity needed to overcome existing barriers and contribute to the wellbeing of their families, communities, and countries.
This should not come as a surprise. Young people everywhere are closest to the challenges their generation faces, and they often have the solutions to those that most affect them. We should offer our support. As many more young Africans prepare to enter the workforce, adequate job creation will require continued expansion of entrepreneurship. After all, these are the jobs that will keep Africa’s young people on the continent for generations to come.
Meredith Lee is Deputy Director of Youth Livelihoods at the Mastercard Foundation.
By Meredith Lee