Africa's Ticking Time Bomb: Defusing the Youth Unemployment Crisis

Armed with a biochemistry degree and a year's worth of frustration, Kenyan native Margaret Wambura is one of the millions of unemployed young people in Africa.

Posted: 07/10/2013 02:47 PM EDT

Margaret Wambura did everything right.

She snagged the impressive internships. She demonstrated maturity and leadership as a resident assistant. Four years spent plunging herself into a rigorous, liberal arts education at DePauw University earned the 22-year-old a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry and Conflict Studies. Eager to land a job in the public health field, Margaret left the cornfields of Indiana for her native Kenya after graduating in 2012.

Her homecoming was not what she expected.

“I made that decision to come home,” she told BET.com. “I felt like it would make me feel better that I’m coming back here and putting myself to use in a way to stimulate the economy, even if it’s minute, but I don’t feel that way.”

Margaret is one of the millions of unemployed youth living in Africa today. Optimistic accounts of the region’s promising economic growth stem primarily from lucrative mining and oil sectors, neither of which absorbs Africa’s enormous labor market. With 70 percent of the continent’s population being under the age of 30, severe youth unemployment rates pose a major threat to Africa’s economic and societal future.

In Kenya, 80 percent of the nation’s 2.3 million unemployed are young people between 15 and 34 years of age, according to a U.N. Development Programme report. Those in their 20s like Margaret face a rate of 30 percent, with youth under 25 years old bearing the brunt of the problem. And, just like the DePauw graduate, many university graduates often go unemployed for months upon months, considered overqualified for even low-paying jobs considered menial, such as shop-keeping at the local mall.

Sky-high youth unemployment rates also plague countries like Egypt, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda. Yet, determining accurate rates is difficult given a lack of reliable data in some cases and discrepancies in what constitutes as unemployment versus employment, underemployment and illegal economic activity. Given the likelihood for margins of error, youth unemployment in Africa is a much larger crisis than reported.

“We could be sitting on a time bomb as we speak,” Dr. Frank Aswani said in a recent phone interview with BET.com. As the Vice President and Director of Strategic Relations at African Leadership Academy in South Africa, Dr. Aswani endorses youth empowerment as a necessary catalyst for growth and development in Africa. “If we don’t do anything about giving young people economic opportunities, what could potentially be an asset could turn out to be a liability.”

Nearly one year after graduating from DePauw, Margaret has been on one unsuccessful interview after another, venturing as far as neighboring Tanzania. Her feelings of frustration are mirrored by the nearly 73 million youth across the globe experiencing an unwelcoming job market since the global recession hit in 2008. Young people worldwide are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults, revealed International Labour Organization in a recent report.

A job creation drought has permeated populations worldwide, hitting the U.S. and U.K. remarkably hard. Additional factors provoking unemployment rates in African countries include a skills mismatch between labor supply and demand, small private sectors, a lack of access to capital for entrepreneurial endeavors and antiquated education curriculums.  

“A lot of the 21st century education at the moment is all about cramming content and regurgitating it in an exam, and not the fully developed skills like critical thinking and problem solving that students need to survive in today’s world,” said Dr. Aswani. He argues that a more innovative approach should be taken in African schools to prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist and technologies that have not yet been invented.

As for potential obstacles thwarting well-educated job seekers like Margaret, she points to cultural nuances like a preference for interpersonal relationships over online applications, as well as the older workforce’s unwillingness to retire. Applying the age-old adage of using who you know to get a leg up on a flooded job search market also becomes difficult when you are from a minority tribe.

“If you don’t know people of your tribe [at a potential job] that becomes a problem,” said Margaret. “Your [resume], your name is linked with your identity so they’ll definitely know where you’re from. It’s very hard to get your foot in the door. It really is tough.”

When asked which African countries were paving the way for innovative solutions to this crisis, Dr. Aswani noted the youth-led growth of information and technology industries in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. What he has yet to find are any effective education-based solutions. “It’s an opportunity that African governments need to step up to,” said Dr. Aswani.

He and two students from the African Leadership Academy spoke on the matter at this year’s Economist Africa Summit held in London. They focused on championing large-scale entrepreneurism as a vehicle for progressive change on the continent. Included in the Academy’s competitive curriculum is the ALA Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, an obligatory two-year program aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty and generating significant growth. Foreign-based organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa and The MasterCard Foundation have also launched employment initiatives recognizing the worthwhile potential of Africa’s untapped youth.

“It’s very important that we start recognizing the reality of the world today,” Dr. Aswani advised. “We have to start empowering young people with some of these critical skills they need to survive in today’s world. Otherwise we’ll end up with not just a jobless generation, but a generation of people who are hopeless.”

Today, Margaret sells shoes to stay afloat.

Armed with a loan from her mother, whom she intends to pay back with interest, the 22-year old biochemistry graduate purchased about 20 pairs while in Tanzania for an interview. The Kenyan currency is much stronger than the Tanzanian, she explained.

One month later, Margaret has not heard from the recruiters. She has sold six or seven pairs of shoes.

“Even though people tell me, ‘Get into business. You just can’t stay at home,’ business is new to me,” said Margaret. “It’s something that I’m still kind of struggling with.”

Because she comes from a large, middle-class household, her livelihood is not yet dependent on her own income. Most of her anxiety centers on what she believes to be the hazards of a discouraged, idle young mind.

“I have all of this knowledge, expertise, and skill; not only in biochemistry,” she said.

“I feel like I’m being wasted.”

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(Photo: REUTERS/Rogan Ward)

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