Head-to-head: Is Africa’s young population a risk or an asset?

Schoolgirls in South Africa

Related Stories

Africa has more people aged under 20 than anywhere in the world and the continent's population is set to double to two billion by 2050.

Two analysts put forward rival arguments about what this means for the Africa.

Researcher Andrews Atta-Asamoah believes it poses a major challenge unless properly managed, while below economist Jean-Michelle Severino argues it is a massive potential work force that can drive development.

line break
Andrews Atta-Asamoah:
A cyber cafe in Kenya - 2012

Start Quote

Andrews Atta-Asamoah

Even within a peaceful environment, a rapidly growing young population presents a major challenge”

End Quote Andrews Atta-Asamoah

Walk into many cyber cafes in West Africa and you will see scores of young minds running sophisticated counterfeiting schemes aimed at making money by defrauding innocent people.

They blame unemployment and lack of opportunities for driving them into entrepreneurial criminality.

Their stories are similar to those of the young people who wait at secret North African ports for an opportunity to reach Europe by boat.

They are also similar to those who have ended up in the ranks of the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab, because they were promised salaries by their recruiters when there were not any more conventional job offers.

Such realities illustrate the threats associated with Africa's growing young population.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region where people aged between 15 and 29 will continue to constitute about half of the population of most countries for the next three to five decades.

Currently, the estimated median age in sub-Saharan Africa is under 19.

Graphic showing Africa's young population

There is a strong case to be made that a young population, or a poorly managed young population, leads to instability and civil conflict.

The terrors of the Mungiki sect in Kenya; al-Shabab's blood-thirsty young fighters in Somalia; the horrors of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria and the emergence of several Islamist groups in Mali and its neighbours.

Young in South Africa: Case study

Ncebakazi Ngqwane

Ncebakazi Ngqwane, 25, graduate, Cape Town:

Even though I'm battling to find a job after completing my diploma in public management two years ago, I am still confident of finding paid employment soon - I am positive about being able to make a contribution to the future of my country.

I wanted to do public management because it deals with all spheres of government, particularly local government. I've always been interested in working with people and even though I'm not really into politics, I can easily see myself becoming a politician one day. For the moment I am working as a paid intern in a provincial government department.

It is very difficult for young people to find jobs, which can be demoralising - particularly because I know I've worked very hard to complete my studies. I think government should do more by starting projects which will create employment for young people, while also helping local communities. Most companies are looking for people with experience so some sort of a youth wage subsidy which would encourage them to employ young graduates.

I have many friends who studied with me who are experiencing difficulty in securing work. I also know many [unemployed] young people, mainly in the townships, who have turned to crime.

These are all groups essentially driven by young people.

The civil wars across West Africa during the 1990s and early 2000s were also fuelled by disproportionately young populations with not enough to do and not enough money.

'Lawless enclaves'

Violent crime in South Africa is among the highest in the world, alongside youth unemployment.

In contexts where the growing youth population have suffered political exclusion and economic marginalisation, as was the case with the Arab Spring in North Africa, the situation can even be a recipe for revolution.

Even within a peaceful environment, a rapidly growing young population presents a major challenge.

In cities such as Ghana's capital, Accra, Nairobi in Kenya and Nigeria's economic hub of Lagos, the impact of the continent's growing young population is noticeable.

Living in the city is fashionable among young people - but the consequent rural-urban rush has resulted in unmanaged settlement characterised by mega slums such as Kibera in Nairobi, Sodom and Gomorrah in Accra and Makoko in Lagos.

Such settlements are often lawless enclaves where police presence is limited and service provision an afterthought.

A growing young population promises opportunities.

But it is increasingly becoming clear across Africa that unless political leadership offers young people something to live for, social stresses such as unemployment can make them easy prey to those who offer them something to die for.

It is therefore important that in seeking to harness Africa's demographic dividend, the right leadership and prudent policies are prioritised.

At the moment, in too many countries, that is not the case.

Andrews Atta-Asamoah is a senior researcher for the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa

line break
Jean-Michel Severino:
Balogun market in central Lagos, Nigeria - 23 December 2013

Does demographic growth work for economic growth? Yes.

Start Quote

Jean-Michelle Severino

Urbanisation is one of the most powerful growth engines the world has ever experienced”

End Quote Jean-Michel Severino

Or at least, at some specific moments, one of which Africa is experiencing now.

This continent's path is unique in the history of humankind for the speed at which it has enjoyed the growth of its population, and probably, the speed at which it will experience its decline.

For more than 50 years, up to the late 1990s, birth rates exploded in what was an empty continent and the impact on economic growth has been severe.

The weight of the young generation on the shoulders of the relatively few adults dragged down economic growth rates.

Limited domestic demand and lack of infrastructure prevented the growth of strong local markets.

The collapse of raw material prices in the early 1980s created a huge burden of debt for the continent, as well as dependency on aid and raw material exports.

But this is changing.

A graph showing population projections for 2015

The decline of fertility rates following a period of rapid growth presents huge economic opportunities and has started to launch Africa on a very long-term growth pattern.

Young in Ghana: Case study

Charles Oppong by a motorway in Accra, Ghana

Charles Oppong, 25, school graduate, Accra:

I sell car accessories like safety triangles, mats and car jacks along a motorway. I live with my uncle in a single room.

The plan is also to mobilise funds to pay for further studies. I want to become a graphic designer. I have the basic knowledge; in fact that was my area of study in high school. I make some art works called mosaics, made of egg shells. I do the designs on my free days. If I am able to get through my education I think I will make it in less than five years as a successful graphic designer.

My parents are dead and I was looked after in an orphanage, which took care of my studies up to senior school level.

It is very difficult to get a job as a senior high school graduate. They ask for three to six years' experience or further qualifications. I have also noticed getting a job is not about what you know or your qualifications but who you know.

We pray government will expand the economy and introduce more jobs, especially jobs that can absorb young people with lower qualifications. I am looking at opportunities to train on the job.

This very specific period, known by economists as the "demographic dividend", is Africa's moment.

Each year, the increasing number of working-age adults carries the weight of a relatively diminishing proportion of children, whilst elderly dependents remain few.

This favourable moment is compounded by the energy of a youthful population.

It is also multiplied by other important trends, all linked to this specific demographic moment.

Surge in domestic firms

The higher density of the population allows domestic markets to be created, demand to emerge and local firms to develop in an economic environment that is more business-friendly than 20 or 30 years ago.

The relative cost of infrastructure declines.

The proportion of the population living in cities also increases, with all the productivity gains this carries.

Urbanisation is one of the most powerful growth engines the world has ever experienced.

Of course, the impressive economic growth rates the continent has enjoyed since the turn of the century are still insufficient to really catch up with high-income countries.

Of course, economic growth in Africa remains linked to the price of commodities.

That said, many land-locked countries with few natural resources have enjoyed fast growth in the past decade - and commodity prices do not entirely explain the surge of domestic firms that one sees across the continent.

Africa Debate banner

Tune in to the BBC World Service at 1900 GMT on Friday 31 January to listen to The Africa Debate broadcast from Malawi: Africa's young population -opportunity or risk?

Or take part in Twitter - using #bbcafricadebate - Facebook or Google+

Telecom services and improved education have also played an important role in boosting the productivity of the economy.

Of course this will have an end.

There will come a time, which Europe and Japan are experiencing now and so too will China, when a smaller and smaller proportion of working-age adults have more and more elderly dependents to support.

This is an age when economic growth is more difficult to maintain.

Africa will enter that time, for sure - but possibly not for another century.

Jean-Michel Severino is a former head of France's international development agency, the Agence Francaise de Developpement and author of Africa's Moment.

Do you think Africa's young population presents an opportunity or a risk for the continent?

I'm a Nigerian living and working in London. As much as I would like to work in Nigeria the cons of moving back there greatly outweigh the pros. One of the major factors that kept me from moving back was employment opportunities. Specifically growth, The amount of training I get here, I wouldn't be able to get in 10 years in Nigeria. The youth want to learn and build up the country but the attitude is lazy.

Seyi Daniyan, London, UK

I am very tempted to say that this is an easy question-more of a no brainer. When I was younger I grew up to learn that "the future of any country/nation is in the hands of the young people". These young people were often referred to as "the leaders of tomorrow". But I really don't see that manifesting anytime soon, I would raise my hands to say you don't start teaching a child how to talk until he gets to the required age of speaking! That's a fundamental cause of why our young population could be a risk instead of being an opportunity. There is so much limitation, our society doesn't give us an opportunity to dream big dreams and when we do, it takes almost a lifetime to see a manifestation. With exception for a few who are related to political leaders.

Olu Akin-Olamiti, London, UK

It could be a great opportunity if the young do not carry the baggage of their fore parents like blaming colonialism for everything, they need to let go of all negative thoughts about the past and embrace the new technology of today, have a can do attitude believe in themselves. Forget about recent history with your useless leaders forget about them and do what you can for your self and your community, don't think about the whole country just think about your community. keep saying every day that this is our time and tell it to your children from an early age. Keep repeating the positive history of Africa, do not think of yourselves as victims. Come on Africa you can do it.

Sandra , London, UK

Comments: Africa's young population like many of its resources would not be the engine for sustained economic development, without proper guidance and direction. Africa cannot consume its way to development; it must produce, build and innovate.

Dogula, US

It is not the demographic shift that is the problem or the fact that young people form the majority in African countries. That fact is neutral in and of itself. The question or rather the problem is that the governments are perceived as not being effective in providing opportunities for their people to be able to pull themselves out of poverty and achieve their goals in addition to corruption limiting the already available ones. There is a high sense of frustration among the people, both old and young as they see the political process as too slow in providing them with their needs hence the turn to radical means to get what they want. That said having a young working population will always benefit a country hoping to develop as labour is crucial and we can already see the effects that the reverse of this, an aging population is having on European industry.

Fiona, Southampton, UK

@Sandra: There is a difference between using colonialism as an excuse and forgetting it entirely. I don't think we as British people have the right to tell people from our ex-colonies that they should get over it and move on. Colonialism had a massive effect on the development of Africa, both politically and economically. Of course other factors - including bad leadership - have contributed to Africa's past troubles, but that doesn't mean the impact of colonialism is unimportant.

Angus, Oxford, UK

These statistics are completely unsurprising. Some young Africans of our - and our parents' generation - think starting a family early and quickly having many children is their primary societal duty even if they are unemployed, uneducated, and unable to cater for the children. Years ago, as a new graduate engineer working in construction in northern Nigeria, I had to hire and pay labourers daily. They were idle, cheerful, street-smart, but totally illiterate 16-25 year-old males. Many were step-brothers born months apart and each often already had two or three wives and several children that themselves had never attended school and roamed my construction sites half-nude and emaciated. One labourer - upon hearing I was his age (23 at the time) and still single - spoke to me sympathetically and solemnly advised me to try to get married soon and quickly have several children as it was a taboo to be "this old" and have no wife and children. When I cited his two struggling wives and eight illiterate children, he said God takes care of children, not man. It comes as no surprise then - like the numbers in your article - that such youths or their children may now be foot soldiers for the Boko Haram insurgency. Whether religion, illiteracy, ancestral values or absence of contraception is to blame for the perpetuation of this practice of creating large, unplanned families, a thorough reorientation of these populations by government and clerics is required. And an urgent alignment of income, tradition, economic prospects, and common sense by individual Africans is necessary.

Ozi Anebira, Abuja, Nigeria

It could definitely be a great opportunity IF and only IF the young generation changes its attitude towards work and life, many young people are frustrated by the current economic and political problems in their countries, however they must believe in themselves and be innovative. Its not all about being educated, they need step out and showcase their skills in order to build their economies. If we continue blaming governments and God then We will continue being the continent GOD forgot about. Lets be the change we want to see. If all African youths had a positive attitude, trust me this would be the best continent to live in. Remember, a nation's future is only as promising as its next generation of citizens. I will not talk about the other side of it being a RISK. Lets be positive at all times. Thanks.

Maggie, Kampala, Uganda

Potentially it is a work force necessary for production and drive the world forward. It forms also an important segment of the market. During slave trade in Africa the ones who were taken and sold were not old people but the younger ones. The slave work force was used in production in the Americas etc; before human labour was replaced by machines. Even those who fought against apartheid in South Africa were youths. It is now upon our governments in Africa to decide whether to use the work force in production after proper education and training. The question is, what plans do African governments have for the younger work force in Africa. Are African governments investing in them to get human capital and make sure that they become useful work force for Africa and the world; because we form part of the world. Speaking from my own experience; when I was at the primary school I was eager to be educated to higher levels as I was inspired by our friends and neighbours who were studying in secondary schools and universities. I liked to be like them. So when I was in secondary school I had to work during long term holidays to get school fees and pocket money. It was never easy; my age by then was 15 years and I earned tshs.100/= per day in 1990. It was a private school and I went up to university by private financing. Now I have an MBA (Finance&Banking) and Advanced Diploma in Accountancy. But today there are laws passed world wide which do not allow child labour. By then when I was working in construction sites the laws were not there in Tanzania. To conclude, I would say that it is a combination of factors ranging from an individual,parents,friends and countrys' politics, poliecies and plans that decide whether African young force is a curse or an asset.

Erasto Ipande, Ifakara, Morogoro in Tanzania

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Africa stories

RSS

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.