3 ways Africa can unleash the potential of its women and youth

Time the continent played to its demographic strengths

Vanessa Moungar
Community Lead, Regional Strategies - Africa
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Africa

Everyone deserves a fair chance at life. However, the reality is that getting a fair chance depends on your context.

Today, tens of millions of young Africans enter the job market expecting employment, which they won’t find. Consequently, discontent is growing, young people are roaring, and in some capitals, they are taking it to the streets. There are many reasons to explain these high levels of joblessness, from lack of skills to poor education quality. Across Africa, millions of boys and girls are still out of school, which dramatically reduces their chance of realizing their potential. In particular, many girls are married off at a young age instead of staying in school. Missing on their rights to self-determination, they end up having more children than they would have wanted and becoming victims of abuse in cases where marriage becomes the only source of economic survival.

African leaders have recognized the urgency of investing in Africa’s women and youth to ensure they are productive agents of their growing economies. Indeed, they have articulated the African Union 2017 Roadmap around the theme of harnessing the demographic dividend. But this can’t be business as usual. African states need to invest with ambition, focus and efficiency to ensure that youth that are educated and empowered today become productive agents of their growing economies tomorrow. Beyond policy, governments will need to work closely with the private sector, multilateral organizations and civil society to scale up the programmes that work, and make that agenda a reality. Following that call from the African Union and the United Nation’s Population Fund, a global partnership of stakeholders from the various sectors is being assembled to advise and provide practical solutions to Empower, Educate and Employ women and youth.


Here are some of the top priorities:


Young people need to have the space to express their aspirations and to be part of building Africa’s future. Civic participation in nation building is central to reducing youth vulnerability and maximizing human capital investments. Indeed, young people have a role to play in ensuring accountability from their government and must be empowered to become the real custodians of their future.

Besides, no country in the world has ever achieved a demographic dividend without making a significant investment in access to family planning. Fertility is higher in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere in the world and falling very slowly. There, in addition to enforcing laws to prevent child marriage and scaling up cash transfer programs for school attendance, governments must leverage partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry as well as logistics experts to bring family planning options to women everywhere, even in the most remote areas. They can ensure private health insurance covers family planning and education, work with media to open conversations about family planning or marriage age, and partner with community based organizations to engage communities.


Progress has been made in school enrolment in recent decades, as more children are accessing school today than at the turn of the century. However, 130 million girls around the world are still being denied an education — and 51 million of them are here in Africa. And among the ones having the privilege of going to school, many are not learning or completing their studies.

To change this, a radical shift is needed in the way education is financed and how those funds are used. For starters, increased financing for education is needed from both international donors and domestic resources. But importantly, any increase in financing must be matched by country-level reforms that increase effectiveness and improve accountability around spending. This includes public-private partnerships to review and adapt curriculum and training to market needs. New technologies open the door to much progress in both reach and quality of education, and vocational training models have proven successful in speeding up school to work transition. Finally, by incentivizing private sector investment through a competitive education market, governments can encourage the creation of first class regional educational institutions.


Policies to facilitate job creation need to be dramatically accelerated on the continent, to absorb its bulging working-age population. Current global efforts through the African Union and the G20 Compact with Africa can support the creation of a significant number of jobs. Harmony between both global processes is imperative to create mutually reinforcing synergies. The G20 Compact must dovetail into what the African economies need to harness this demographic dividend. Talk is cheap however, so all stakeholders – regional and international – must keep their promises and match their words with actions.

Governments must also incentivize youth employment and leverage the multiple existing private-sector-led initiatives to expand internships, apprenticeships and on-the-job training. Beyond these jobs, youth needs policies that enable easier access to business capital, which can happen through microcredit and SME financing programmes in partnership with the banking sector. Overall, competitiveness must improve for markets to offer opportunities to entrepreneurs, as well as to attract larger investors in sectors with job-multiplier effects, such as manufacturing, agro industries and ICT.

These are some of the top-line, priority recommendations. And the good news is that most of these laws and programmes already exist. They just need to be implemented or scaled up. It will require government coordination across many areas, clear and practical national plans, and optimum engagement of civil society, the private sector and the international community at large, to mobilize the adequate capacity and investment required.

Investing in young people, particularly girls, is one of the most powerful steps a nation can take to spur progress and advancement for all its citizens. For Africa it's not just the right thing to do, it's a must do for the continent to survive and thrive.

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Related topics:
AfricaFuture of WorkEducation
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