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East Africa’s young: an asset or a problem?

Linda Staude
July 12, 2017

East African populations are among the youngest in the world. Experts say this can be a real chance for growth, provided some conditions are met. And therein lies the rub.

Three young people watch a fourth one handling a cell phone
Image: picture alliance/S. Reboredo

The East African population is growing at a yearly rate of three percent. That is three times the global average. Estimates show that by 2100 four billion people will be living in Africa. A young population offers a good chance for quick economic growth, says the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Provided there are enough jobs, food and social services. That is precisely the problem.

On busy Limuru Road in Nairobi, a young woman in a business suit wandered among the cars and minibuses. In one hand she held a sign which read: "Please give me a job." A picture, a cell number and her university diploma in economics also figured on the sign. "I applied for more than 500 jobs.  To no avail," Rakiel Kaoka said.

Some 200 million 14 to 24-year-olds like Rakiel Kaoka live on the African continent. The number is predicted to double until 2050. According to Roger Nord, deputy director for Africa at the IMF, such a large young working force can be a huge chance, if economic and social policies are adequate: "This could mean that by 2050 GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa would be up to 50% higher than it would be in the absence of this boost from the demographic transition."

South African student protesters chanting slogans behind a burning barricade
Young people without prospects will often take to the streets Image: Reuters/S. Sibeko

A time bomb

Adequate economic and social policies are exactly what most African countries lack, according to Mabutho Mthembu from the South African Youth Managers Foundation. He would like to see the youthfulness of Africa's population turned into a dividend, as he put it. But as it stands now, the situation is more akin to a time bomb. "And the reason being, young people are hungry, they are uneducated and they are unemployed," Mthembu said.

David Ng'etich's working day starts at 6 am. His first task is to chop wood. The young man from Western Kenya earns his keep by producing charcoal. He sells one sack for 500 shilling, the equivalent of five euro ($5.7). On average he sells five sacks a month, earning around 25 euro. It is just enough to eke out a living, but a miserable income for an economist with a diploma. University is expensive in Kenya. David's mother had to work hard to pay the fees.

Two children working in a gold mine
Children forced to work face dire prospects as adultsImage: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

Professional training needed

In the last couple of years, Kenya's economy grew by an impressive annual average of six percent. The country is East Africa's economic powerhouse. But at 20 percent it has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the region. Rhobi Matiniyi from the consultancy Dalberg Global Development Advisors believes that everything comes down to a lack of education and skills: "We need to build centers where people can become plumbers, or electricians or artisans. Just to empower them with those skills, so that they are able to empower themselves."

Professional training is still rare in Africa. Added to that, company founders and potential investors need seed funding, reliable water and electricity supply, good roads to transport merchandise and skilled employees. Like other African countries, Kenya is investing heavily in all of these areas. But just not fast enough, according to Rhobi Matiniyi: "Every year, about eleven million youths enter the job market. But there are only about three million job opportunities. I think we need to pick up pace."

If Africa's young are to be the continent's bright future, they need to have a future of their own first.