Among West Africa’s many trade and investment advantages is its people – and particularly young people, those 18 to 25 anxious to make their marks and build their careers. New attention on issues affecting youth employment reflects recognition of the potential the youth hold, and an innovative youth development initiative shows how investment can make an impact – creating jobs while growing business.
Investment leads to more jobs for West Africa's ambitious and driven youth.
Initiatives to increase youth employment have taken on new urgency over the last year. Civil unrest in many countries included calls from youth for meaningful opportunities.
In January, the International Francophone Forum discussed ‘Jeunesse et emplois verts’ or Youth and Green Employment in Niger. Nigert’s president, Issoufou Mahamadou, and the General Secretary of the International Organisation de la Francophonie Abdou Diop, brought together young people aged 18 to 35 from member countries of the Francophonie to explore sustainable employment in areas ranging from agriculture to renewable energy.
Youth unemployment in West Africa has hovered around 12% over the last decade, according to the United Nations. With about 60% of the region’s population under the age of 35 and almost 40% of the work force categorized as youth, the number is significant.
A recent BBC News poll
showed concern over youth unemployment ranked only behind corruption and rising food prices as one of the “biggest worries” around the world. A McKinsey report, “The Power of Many
” sums up the core of that concern: “Since the rate of youth unemployment is twice as high as the rate of total unemployment, the matter of the role of youth in modern societies is becoming worrying.”
The central question is simple: Where will the jobs come from? In Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali and Senegal, governments have specifically targeted youth employment for action. Ghana has had a National Youth Employment Scheme since 2003 and across West Africa, governments, NGOs and other organizations are making efforts to increase youth employment.
Apparel factories employ hundreds of young women in Cameroon and Ghana.
While governments are looking for the next cohort of civil servants, however, the greatest hope is the private sector – particularly as consumer demand for all sorts of goods continues to increase across West Africa and exports continue to grow.
Over the past five years, a doubling of cashew processing capacity in West Africa has created close to 10,000 jobs, according to the Trade Hub-supported African Cashew Alliance. New or expanded factories in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo are filled with young women, mainly, cracking the nuts of the world’s most popular snack nut.
In the apparel sector, too, hundreds of jobs have been created – again, mainly for young women. And there is potential to create thousands more (see related story
A study of initiatives by the International Labor Organization’s Youth Employment Network West Africa suggests government’s efforts are paying off: Youth employment initiatives have recorded success in preparing young people for work (employability), paying attention to gender differences (equal opportunities) and in inspiring and exploiting entrepreneurialism in West Africa.
Where government has not been active enough, young people are taking matters into their own hands. At “barcamps” in Ghana (see related story
), they have developed their own plans to address the issues affecting their futures. A whole mini-industry is building up around their initiatives – youth-focused magazines, websites and radio shows are winning their hearts and minds, and vocational training centers, providers of career counseling and colleges and universities are competing for their cedis, naira and CFA.
A big increase in cashew processing across West Africa has created 10,000 jobs.
The private sector sees the situation distinctly as an opportunity. As populations in industrialized countries, particularly Europe, age and birth rates remain low, the answer to the question of who will create value in the world economy is increasingly looking to emerging markets. Investors have taken notice.
“All of these young people hold enormous potential,” said Eric Rassman of Ikatu International
, an investment group working to bring strategic human resources (HR) best practices to bear on youth employment in West Africa. Read Ikatu's report
on youth employment.
“We have a win-win situation – by bringing in best practices in strategic human resources that are tailored for youth and Ghana, we help companies and youth benefit,” Rassman said. “Companies make more money, youth learn both technical and social development skills, and together, the community thrives.”
The company started working in Ghana in late 2009 after reviewing opportunities across West Africa and around the world.
“We reviewed both the global and Ghana-specific Youth Employment landscape including its challenges, existing solutions, players, and areas of unmet opportunity,” Rassman said. “Simply put, we found massive gaps in private sector lead initiatives – they didn’t have the proper tools to link existing youth skills to jobs.”
Ikatu also reached out to hundreds of Ghana’s Youth Employment thought leaders over 18 months, understanding the perspectives of National Government Actors, International Donors, the Private Sector, Foundations, NGOs, Civil Society, and most importantly, the Youth.
“We wanted to speak to those whose voices are not heard enough. Their message was clear: funders are hesitant to invest in West Africa because of the lack of human resource training, youth feel underprepared for the workforce, and the path to employment is riddled with structural challenges.”
Ikatu decided to invest in Ghanaian youths who had left junior secondary and senior secondary schools – young people who could not further their education – to prove that they can drive Ghana’s development.
Over the next five years, Ikatu will place funds, operational support, and a Strategic HR Director in Ghanaian SMEs that have demonstrated profit and growth potential, the ability to employ a significant number of young adults, and social and environmental sensitivity.
The goal is to build local case studies to share with youth employment stakeholders in Ghana, then focus on how to scale these market proven best practices through other SMEs, universities, and HR entities.
“Helping youth develop skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and communication while incorporating other basic developmental needs will produce better business results – we just need to help prove it here in Ghana,” Rassman said. “Private sector funders and SME owners want to see the business case to invest beyond technical skills and touch relevant examples to better understand the ‘how’.”
To accomplish its goal, Ikatu has already collaborated with the world’s leading HR experts and Ghana’s HR community but is looking for additional partners.
“We cannot do this alone and know the importance of ‘indigenous ingenuity’. We won’t be bringing pre-packaged solutions from the outside – good ideas are found everywhere, and most often, at home.”