With the world’s largest proportion of young people, Africa’s working age population is expected to double to 1 billion over the next 25 years. These trends are unfolding in a landscape where unemployment and a skills crisis challenge countries to create jobs for the 450 million workers projected to join the workforce between 2010 and 2035.

This year’s World Economic Forum on Africa convenes government, business and other stakeholders across sectors to reflect on “Reimaging Africa’s Future” at a critical juncture. Where fertility is declining, many young and emerging economies stand poised to benefit from a demographic dividend. As their young people move into working adulthood with fewer dependents to care for, they will have more opportunity to acquire wealth, savings and purchasing power, and accelerate economic growth.

Increasingly countries recognize the demographic dividend as a key pathway to achieve rapid and inclusive economic growth and long-term development. At the same time, African leaders are charting their pathway towards an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa by 2063 as the world seeks consensus on a post-2015 development framework that is inclusive and sustainable for current and future generations.

But realizing transformative change will only be possible if African countries invest in people, particularly women and young people. By focusing on human capital and human dignity, empowering a healthy, educated and skilled population, Africa will reap the greatest economic and social gains.

Such progress has already been achieved in other regions. East Asia invested in the human capital of its young people and industry and experienced a seven-fold increase in GDP per capita. Latin America seized a two-fold increase during its demographic dividend window.

If sub-Saharan Africa takes advantage of the demographic dividend, estimates show a potential to add up to $500 billion per year to its economies for as many as 30 years – the equivalent of one-third of Africa’s GDP.

However, realizing the socioeconomic benefits of the dividend is not automatic and the opportunity does not last forever. It requires countries to make timely investments and put in place key policies to empower, educate and employ young people. Depending on the gaps and needs within individual countries, key investments may address sexual and reproductive rights, access to family planning, better health systems and quality education, on-the-job mentoring and a welcoming climate for business.

Leveraging the expertise, knowledge and innovation of the private sector is key to success as they play a critical role in ensuring decent jobs with fair wages and good working conditions for young and working-age people.

The Cape Town meeting provides a platform to build support across sectors on this time critical agenda and catalyse the public-private partnerships needed to enable countries to seize this once-in-a lifetime opportunity. How we translate the number of young people into a demographic dividend for countries will be a crucial topic of discussion at the meeting. Together we can promote inclusive and sustainable growth for current and future generations.

The World Economic Forum on Africa 2015 takes place in Cape Town, South Africa from 3-5 June. 

Author: Babatunde Osotimehin, Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, Chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Demographic Dividend

Image: Students hang out on the steps of a university building during a strike at Cheikh Anta Diop University, in Dakar April 10, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney