1 July 2021 Thoughts as we end Youth Month: Let’s lay the groundwork for youth employment through 4IR

Recently, I heard youth unemployment described as a bloodbath. In many African countries, including Zambia, Botswana and South Africa, youth unemployment figures stand at roughly double the general unemployment rate. Worryingly, it has been like this for decades, raising many questions: How effective are our youth unemployment initiatives really? Have we made a dent in removing the barriers to entry that persist for youth? When will we start to see systems change as young Black entrepreneurs still suffer from poor education, lack of funding and monopolized business practices that exclude them?

There seems to be a movement towards techno-optimism, as youth are encouraged to prepare for the jobs that will become available in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While digitization is inevitable and preparing for it is a no-brainer, there are many issues that deserve careful attention if we are to reap the benefits of 4IR for youth employment in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Firstly, while most Sub-Saharan countries are playing digital catch up to the rest of the world, issues related to inclusion dominate our landscape. Major inequalities exist in the digital space, prompting the need for conversations around who has access to tech. Unfolding implications of the racial bias that exists in Information and Communication Technology, which is sometimes described as a racially monolithic economy, move into view. It has never been more important for governments to include youth in policy making, and for youth to advocate for digital inclusion.

Secondly, the mode of delivery of 4IR capacity building must take into account that many youth are outside of the formalized system. Digital literacy initiatives should find them in their communities, wherever they are, and not assume that school curriculum inclusion will suffice.

Thirdly, skills-need assessments show that more important than digital literacy is the imperative to cultivate problem-solving skills. It is at the point where young people connect digital solutions with community needs that the greatest possibility of economic success is predicted. While unemployment is systemic and multi-faceted, it is essential to encourage and empower youth to solve the problems around them, where they live, with technology. An interesting example of this is ABALOBI, a mobile app used in small-scale fishing to log the day’s catch and link fishers to restaurants that want to buy fresh fish. 

Fourthly, we need to urgently consider ways of enabling young entrepreneurs to secure funding to turn their ideas into reality. The answer to the question “would Facebook exist today if Mark Zuckerberg had been African?” needs to be an impetus to serious introspection.

Fifthly, 4IR might have tax implications, as people are dissatisfied with service delivery and many seek ways to avoid paying. An African digital business that offers bulk buying to small shop owners, enabling them to reduce their pricing significantly, recently found that in some countries, the fear of paying tax drives these small business owners from having bank accounts, which they believe to be monitored by government. Where poor tax literacy exists, people don’t know that they fall under an income threshold and therefore would not need to pay tax. Added to this is evidence that many young people don’t know about government initiatives to enable quick, cheap and easy registration of small businesses, and they are not aware of the SME support benefits that come with registering a business. For example, Zambia has a one-stop shop for business registration in Lusaka that promises to complete the process within 24 hours. In South Africa, the process can be done for under R200 using a cell phone. It is becoming increasingly clear that digital literacy must be accompanied by tax literacy and financial literacy, and that young people need to tap into networking so that business communities can support them with information and practical know-how.

That magical point we long for where young people from Sub-Saharan Africa enter masses of 4IR jobs and are enabled to use tech to solve problems—thereby slaying unemployment and accessing meaningful life-long work opportunities—will only be reached once we’ve focused on putting necessary policies and systems in place. The private sector must participate but cannot achieve this alone. Government should take the lead and young people must use their collective agency to ensure that governments prioritize their inclusion. #FeesMustFall in South Africa showed us that youth can achieve much when they mobilize themselves but #FeesMustFall also carried a high cost.

We end Youth Month on the historic reminder of how the energy and determination of our youth pushed through enormous obstacles. There is great hope for the future of Africa in 4IR, and young people need no encouragement to grab opportunities presented by digitization. We must therefore make it our priority to remove barriers, do the necessary groundwork and place youth at the forefront of leadership and policy-making.

Renette Pickering, gold-youth Research and Development Manager