African youth are bursting with untapped potential. The innovative, sustainable social enterprises launched by Educate!’s Student Business Clubs showcase what happens when you couple potential with skills training. You get stories about accidental soy milk and orphanages.

Students at Tororo Girls' School, an Educate! partner school, regularly volunteer at a local orphanage and donate crucial supplies like soap, food, and soy milk, all of which they make themselves. One day, while making soybean snacks, the girls accidentally made soy milk. After researching its nutritious value and determining it was cheaper to make than dairy milk, they began selling it to the community and donating it to the orphanage.

 
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Today, 6 out of 10 Africans are under the age of 25. Before 2050, that population of young people is expected to nearly double. By the end of the century, 50% of the world’s children will be African.

These figures are cause for concern as well as optimism. A recent Financial Times article by Dr. Mo Ibrahim, Sudanese mobile communications entrepreneur, philanthropist, and advocate for African economic development, sheds light on this critical issue. Dr. Ibrahim argues that Africa’s massive youth population is the continent’s greatest resource—as long as these millions of youth are given the opportunities and tools they need to thrive.

Dr. Ibrahim references recent surveys which have shown that youth in Africa are more highly educated, more entrepreneurial, and more adventurous than ever: “They have set their sights higher, wanting to emulate counterparts in other continents rather than achieve goals set by their parents”.

Unfortunately, there are critical barriers preventing youth from realizing their potential and succeeding in life post-graduation. There is a sharp divide between the skills youth actually need to get a job and improve their livelihoods, and what they are learning in school, referred to as the skills gap. Without classroom practice on how to research, create a business plan, and develop financial predictions, the Tororo Girls’ could not have capitalized on their soy milk discovery.  The skills gap is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing the global economy today, and nowhere is the crisis more pronounced than in Africa.

During a recent visit to an Educate! partner school in Arua, in the north of Uganda, a teacher recalled the way she taught accounting and other business topics before working with Educate! - through memorization and recitation. She knew she was not equipping her students with the skills to succeed post-graduation and that they would not have enough contextual knowledge and practice to apply what they learned in the real world. Yet she didn’t know how to teach any differently. 

Across the continent, the lack of necessary skills intersects with the massive youth bulge creating a near-hopeless situation for millions of youth who need to find a way to earn an income and take care of themselves and their families. Dr. Ibrahim writes that the youth bulge taken with the skills gap “is a recipe for frustration and anger”. There are strong links between the disempowerment felt by a large population of underemployed youth and terrorism, extremism, ethnic or racial conflict, political instability, and black market activities including human trafficking and the expansion of the drug trade. “If the energy and ambition of Africa’s youth are wasted, they could become a destabilizing force,” Dr. Ibrahim writes.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. Across the continent, African governments are reforming their education systems to be more skills-based and experiential, moving away from the traditional focus on lectures and rote-memorization. This type of practical, hands-on education better equips students for life after school. The same teacher in Arua, witnessing the skills gap firsthand, is thrilled with how improved teaching methods, gained through Educate! training, have enabled her to better prepare her students to join the workforce. By providing them with hands on experience in the classroom, she makes distant and complicated topics tangible and accessible. And the results are almost immediate – there are Student Business Clubs, like the Tororo Girls’ School, across Uganda developing innovative enterprises, from agricultural innovations to mobile applications.

In a letter to the editor of the Financial Times responding to Dr. Ibrahim’s article, Dr. Birger Fredriksen, formerly in senior roles at the World Bank, raised another key point: to adequately address the skills gap in Africa, we must recognize which skills are most essential for youth in these developing economies. Dr. Fredriksen notes that in most sub-Saharan African countries, 80 to 90 percent of all jobs are within the informal sector, and are often insecure, low-wage, part-time work.

To best address the skills gap in sub-Saharan Africa, we must recognize this reality and equip youth with the skills they need to succeed in the economy as it actually exists. While youth in other parts of the world may benefit from developing skills in technology and science, for millions of African youth, jobs in these sectors do not exist, and the only options are to work in the informal economy or in subsistence agriculture. For these youth, soft skills and entrepreneurship skills, will be most valuable in enabling them to create their own jobs when no formal jobs are available.

The best way to support African youth today is to equip them with the tools they need to unleash their own potential. Armed with the necessary skills and the confidence that they can succeed, there is no doubt that African youth can drive the continent’s development.

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