The 2019 African Economic Conference (AEC), held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh between 2 and 4 December and organised by the African Development Bank (AFDB), the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the United Nations Development Programme, urged African policymakers and international organisations to take serious steps towards achieving sustainable development across the continent and create job opportunities for the young people who comprise 62 per cent of Africa’s population.
The 14th round of the three-day conference focused on jobs, skills and capacity development.
“Africa is the next development frontier and young people will drive the continent’s economic growth,” Minister of Investment and International Cooperation Sahar Nasr said during the opening session of the conference.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), six out of 10 of the fastest growing economies are in Africa. In terms of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), Nasr noted that despite an overall global decline of 13 per cent in 2018, foreign investments in Africa rose by more than 10 per cent.
Nasr highlighted the role of the private sector role in helping secure sustainable economic growth, pointing out that Egypt’s own economic reform programme led unemployment to fall to 7.5 per cent during the second quarter of 2019, the lowest figure for a decade.
She said Egypt was focused on attracting value-added investments that provide job opportunities for young people and had taken serious steps in facilitating access to finance job creating projects.
Minister Sahar Nasr
Tarek Amer, governor of the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), told the conference that policy-makers across Africa are increasingly concerned with facilitating job creation and encouraging entrepreneurs. “Egypt’s experience in creating jobs and supporting entrepreneurs started with a vision created six years ago to restore confidence in the political and economic spheres,” he said.
The government has implemented policies to enhance access to finance, especially for small and medium enterprises, which in turn helped create more jobs.
“We believe that creating jobs and encouraging entrepreneurship is not only the way forward for our own economy but the best way to utilise economic resources across Africa,” he said.
Charles Lufumpa, AFDB’s vice president for economic governance and knowledge management, said an estimated 10 to 12 million Africans enter the workforce every year, though only three million jobs are created annually. The deficit presents a major challenge to policymakers.
“Although agriculture is the mainstay of many African economies, in some cases employing two-thirds of the workforce, the sector is characterised by low productivity and is often synonymous with low incomes and poverty,” he said.
If poverty is to be eliminated from Africa in our lifetime then we need to transform the structure of our economies from low-productivity agriculture to sectors such as manufacturing and services. Current levels of unemployment, coupled with the disruptive power of technology in the workplace, have made it imperative we reconsider traditional approaches to job creation in Africa.
AFDB, Lufumpa continued, believes the private sector should be the main engine for job creation and governments should facilitate it by improving governance and enabling an environment in which the private sector can prosper.
“AFDB believes the private sector can help create more and better jobs. Initiatives by AFDB engaging the private sector should create 25 million new jobs by the end of 2020, increasing support for entrepreneurship, which in turn empowers youth.”
Raymond Gilpin, head of strategy, research and analysis at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said the UNDP’s target is to empower 25 million young Africans by nurturing their skills, provide opportunities for 100 million Africans to network and seek peer support, close the gender gap and create 10 million jobs.
“AEC is working to establish a viable and interactive network of African thinkers and empower future leaders in Africa.”
Gilpin underlined the importance of digitisation in Africa’s development trajectory and the transformative power of information and financial technologies which can be used to recreate and re-imagine Africa’s future.
Africa is projected to have the world’s fastest growing working age population until at least 2030. More than 10 million new jobs need to be created every year just to keep up pace with the growth of the labour force, Adam Al-Hiraika, director of the macroeconomics and governance division at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), told conference participants.
“The majority of young employed people are engaged in the informal sector which can account for 95 per cent of jobs,” he said.
A flexible educational system is needed to improve the complementarity of labour and technology and one way of integrating young people into the labour market is to promote entrepreneurship.
“We need a new, homegrown strategy for development in Africa which helps us create jobs for everyone, add value to national commodities and compete in global markets,” said Al-Hiraika.
Such development is articulated in Agenda 2016-2025 which aims to transform Africa’s economies and mobilise the resources needed to empower youth, create more opportunities and encourage entrepreneurship.
“Improving skills and employability, and ways to finance projects, are among the objectives of the 2016-2025 strategy,” said Hanan Morsi, director of AFDP’s macroeconomic policy, forecasting and research department. AFDB’s strategy is targeting the creation of 25 million jobs, said Morsi. In 2018, the bank approved 112 projects across the continent, representing 60 per cent of all projects approved by AFDB, creating 1.5 million new jobs.
Salah Khaled, director of UNESCO’s regional office for Central Africa, argued that falling educational standards in Africa, and the failure of technical and vocational training to adapt to new technologies, have compounded the problem of unemployment in Africa.
“We need skilled IT teachers to prepare new generations for the job market and ensure their skills meet market needs,” he said.
Job creation cannot compromise efforts to tackle climate change, argued Priya Lukka, strategy director at Goldsmith’s University. “We need strategies that prioritise both issues at the same time,” she said.
Green jobs do not have to be limited to sectors like renewable energy but can include every sector as long as we think in terms of sustainable practice, for which cooperation between governments and the private sector is needed.
On the sidelines of the 2019 AEC the African Development Bank, in partnership with Microsoft, launched the Coding for Employment digital training platform, an online tool to provide competitive digital skills to young people in Africa.
Uyoyo Edosio, senior education, ICT and innovation specialist at AFDB, said the programme is a key part of the bank’s strategy to create 25 million jobs in agriculture and other key sectors by 2025 and to equip 50 million Africans with the skills needed to compete in the job market.
The programme has already been piloted in Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire and the goal now, according to Edosio, is to scale it up the next 10 years and establish 130 centres of excellence across the continent. By building synergies with the public and private sector, on local and international levels, to deliver demand-driven, agile and collaborative ICT skills trainings the programme seeks to deliver nine million jobs and help African youth become innovative players in the digital economy.
The digital training platform provides technical courses on web development, design, data science and digital marketing as developing participants’ communications, collaboration, problem-solving and leadership skills.
Ghada Khalifa, director of Microsoft Philanthropies for the Middle East and Africa, a defining challenge of our time is to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to benefit from technology and to meet the challenge requires a significant shift in approaches to skills development across the continent.
“We believe that through dynamic partnerships such as these we can help build a knowledge-based economy in Africa that leaves no one behind,” she said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.