Is digital technology the answer for Africa’s young workforce?

02 November 2017

Sub-Saharan Africa has the youngest population in the world, but continues to be confronted by high levels of youth unemployment and working poverty. Could digital technology reshape their world of work and help to unleash their economic potential?

Unemployment among young people aged 15-24 years old has hovered above 10% in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade. Moreover, nearly 70% of working youth in the region live in moderate or extreme poverty, reflecting precarious work and widespread underemployment in the informal economy. While these proportions are slowly reducing, the absolute number of young unemployed or working poor in Sub-Saharan Africa has been increasing between 2015 and 2017, based on projections from the International Labour Organisation.

These trends are coinciding with the digital revolution and the increase in mobile phone ownership across the African continent. Digital interventions can play a significant role in helping to train, place and employ young workforces in productive employment. As both a means and an end to promote youth employment, digital can enable:

  • Efficient recruitment: Helping to connect young people with job opportunities through job portals, on-demand work platforms and social media groups sharing job advertisements;       
  • Upskilling: Providing digital, entrepreneurship and broader employability skills training through online courses, mobile learning apps and remote coaching;
  • Access to finance: Providing access to finance through mobile loans and crowdfunding for entrepreneurs, and through digitising existing savings groups;
  • Digital hubs: Helping to foster a culture of innovation through digital-focused hubs, incubators and hackathons, not just in urban centres but rural areas as well, and;
  • ICT sector: Creating new jobs in the information, communications and technology (ICT) sector through roles in software engineering, business process outsourcing and online freelancing, among others.

Yet there are major challenges to digital uptake that need to be overcome. First among them is having affordable internet access. Mobile phones are the main route online for many African youth, but the rural-urban divide in network connectivity is large, as are the regional differences in smart and feature phone, and data plan, costs. Second, the lack of relevant content in a local language can detach both young men and women from digital opportunities, with most internet searches in Africa only bringing up content from the USA and France, irrelevant to the context and needs of a young person for example in Kinshasa.

There is also a need to develop basic digital literacy and skills that allow young people to take advantage of new opportunities and not get left behind the digital curve. Indeed, changing employment patterns take place in a wider economic context and there will be losers from the automation of many manual jobs currently undertaken both in cities and rural areas, in Africa and elsewhere. Balanced with regulation and policies suited for the digital age, these effects need to be proactively managed as part of a modernising and evolving economy.

This is, of course, easier said than done.

Governments, in partnership with the private sector and civil society, will need to take the lead in developing a conducive environment for growing the digital tech sector to boost youth employment. This includes setting policies, taxes and regulations that balance competitiveness, affordability, innovation and privacy needs. In many places, further investments in digital infrastructure are required, from fibre optic broadband and data centres to mobile networks in rural areas, requiring close collaboration with such operators. Economies of scale will support a reduction in prices that could plug the affordability gap for internet access.

Basic literacy is an important prerequisite for digital uptake among youth, but school and university curricula will need to expand to cover basic digital and broader employability skills. Alongside incentives for innovation, a broader base of digitally-savvy youth will also help create the critical mass of innovators and digital users needed to spur more local content development.

The international development community can support this agenda in many ways, for example by championing the use of digital in its own programming, developing the evidence base to attract further investment into digital-focused jobs for youth in low-income countries, and supporting country-specific needs, from economic transformation and the digital enabling environment to innovation ecosystems and youth skills development.

On its own, digital will not solve the challenges of youth under- and unemployment in Sub-Saharan Africa. But by providing new ways to access jobs and finance, improve skills and spur innovation and entrepreneurship, youth employment prospects do not need to look so bleak.

For more on how PwC apply an Intelligent digital approach and balance business understanding with technology innovation and human insight visit www.pwc.co.uk/intelligentdigital 

Nina Nasman | Senior Associate, Cities & Urbanisation team

| (+44) 07841 803 110

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