Young Africa works it

2015-11-02 06.53.33

… in so many ways

Ask today’s young Africans what they plan to do for a living when they grow up and the answer is not that likely to be as simple as lawyer, doctor, or architect.

They can’t afford to put all their eggs in one basket as, say, a chicken farmer or a merchant banker, being forced rather to hedge their bets by developing a number of revenue streams, quite possibly including a small chicken coop out back for eggs and meat to sell.

The new type of varied work lifestyle so entrenched as to be an identity emerged as a major theme in youth employment at the inaugural MasterCard Foundation Young Africa Works Summit in Cape Town on Thursday and Friday.

The summit brought together hundreds of experts, practitioners, young people, and policymakers to discuss youth unemployment in Africa with a focus on opportunities within the agricultural value chain.

Explaining the importance of the agricultural value chain, MasterCard Foundation president and chief executive Reeta Roy, who opened the conference with Deputy Minister in the Presidency Buti Manamela, said: “The agricultural sector is set to create eight million stable jobs by 2020 and up to 14 million if the sector is accelerated. We believe it has to feature prominently in development plans for the continent if we hope to achieve a prosperous future for young Africans.”

Frequently, with regard to Africa the statistics are thought to “speak for themselves” – it is home to the youngest population in the world with 600 million people under the age of 25, 72 percent of whom live on less than US2 a day and are unemployed or vulnerably employed, etc. But the conference underlined the fact that there is another voice that must be heard – the people themselves, particularly the youth.

The MasterCard Foundation used the conference to release material from its Youth Diaries Livelihoods project, detailing how African youth manage their daily working lives to achieve a sustainable livelihood. Preliminary findings from the project, which used an innovative diaries methodology to examine the day-to-day employment activities of young people in Ghana and Uganda over six months, highlight the extraordinary lengths that young people go to as they try to achieve sustainable livelihoods.

The research shows it is clear that many young people in Africa need to have multiple jobs to survive. Although many pursue various micro-business ideas, they often find themselves also having to work in agriculture, sometimes just for household consumption, and various other formal and informal jobs and roles.

ET Jackson Associates director of research and a lead reviewer on the foundation’s youth livelihoods programme Karim Harji told a conference session on mixed livelihoods that the idea that a young person must choose a direction and stick to it, effectively betting everything on it, is largely a Western idea.

He said this ideal originated in economies where there tended to be a safety net. The upside of the singular focus, also known as betting the farm, could be as big as the downside (ie you win big or you lose everything). For many Africans it was an unimaginable luxury to take such a wild punt on any one idea no matter how brilliant it seemed. In many cases they were quite literally betting the farm, which was more likely to be a small plot of land on which an extended family depended.

Ndungu Kahihu, executive director of CAP Youth Empowerment Institute in Nairobi, agreed, saying more vulnerable people could not afford to take a chance on something others would hardly think of as a risk. He said young people in Africa today needed an income but they also needed to make sure that this income did not disappear.

Kahihu, who has more than 25 years experience in international development, added that in the community he served mixed livelihoods were so entrenched that hardly anyone did just one thing. In many communities that was not new. People did a variety of income-generating things even when they did not need the income. He cited himself as an example, telling delegates that he kept chickens at home, something he started doing when he was younger, and probably needed the income. Now he did it out of habit, he said.

For others it is seldom about habit or choice, though. In many cases young people are forced into mixed livelihoods. Harji noted that mixed livelihoods were a way of income smoothing, of managing risk.

Kahihu said the biggest risk young people faced today was the lack of job security, not even police and teachers had job security anymore, and young people coped with this risk by spreading it. If one channel did not work out there was a fallback.

So this was not really unusual or new, said Kahihu, but there was a counter narrative that told young people they should choose a course and stay focused on it. Education especially pressured young people to specialise.

This was one of many reasons why policymakers at the conference stood accused of “climbing the tree from the top”, in the words of an audience member grilling delegates. She said growing up in rural Kenya she was always told to choose a profession, to specialise in something and get a job, rather than rely on the land as her parents had done. Now, she said, the pressure was being applied in the reverse.

There was wide agreement that the educational system needed to change, that policy needed to be reconfigured to take into account the reality of mixed livelihoods.

Another key theme that came out of the conference was that policy was decisive, it was critical in every sense. The role of private sector engagement was widely described as crucial, but private sector efforts would be constrained or enabled by government policy.

The MasterCard Foundation is doing its bit, working with a number of other organisations to provide greater access to education, skills training, and financial services for people living in poverty, primarily in Africa. Since 2010, the foundation has committed US291 million to 29 multi-year projects across 16 countries in Africa. More than 455,000 young people have been reached through the youth livelihoods programme.

One can only hope that the policy-makers are listening to the voices of the youth as well as taking note of the statistics; 50.9 percent of which might be made up on the spot and 99 percent of which could be masking reality.

Workers who can’t afford to get jobs

Many are not “job-seekers” because they cannot afford to get a job and leave their many existing roles and responsibilities.

A theme that emerged during the inaugural MasterCard Foundation Young Africa Works Summit in Cape Town on Thursday and Friday was “formality bias”, which is a severe stumbling block to youth employment in Africa, the most informal of continents.

Scores of young Africans are way ahead of the curve in terms of real work experience and the resultant skills. They are able to spot opportunity and solve problems, yet this collateral is invisible to many employers who seek more formal qualifications to do a job. A neat file of certificates is often seen as far preferable to life experience, which can be so messy and real.

BrightContinentFormality bias, a term coined by journalist and author of The Bright Continent and a keynote speaker at the conference Dayo Olopade, was frequently mentioned, by name or implication, at the summit that brought together hundreds of experts, practitioners, young people, and policymakers to discuss youth unemployment in Africa.

Discussion about this generation of workers brought to mind images of people currently marching across Europe, many of them with their children in their arms, only to be told when they finally reach the gates that they are not wanted there. People who have risked everything to make a better life, who have shown such dedication to their children, and extraordinary levels of tenacity and courage, who would surely be an asset to any country.

Similarly, many young Africans who are frequently the sole carer for younger siblings (great skills for management and human resources, one might think) before they are teenagers, grow vegetables (agriculture, horticulture) for the household and sell surplus to people in their community (marketing and sales), among many other things.

This is to mention just a few of the roles they tend to juggle and the soft skills they develop as a result. Many African youngsters take on all kinds of work – manual labour, cleaning, caring, anything that will keep the family alive. They frequently produce and trade goods and services and seed ideas that would be called entrepreneurial anywhere else. Yet they would fall at the first hurdle in many a job interview – where did you go to university?

They are disciplined and punctual because they know the cost of being disorganised or missing a bus or an early customer; they are skilled at spotting opportunities and are accomplished at solving problems; they are generally mature communicators because they must negotiate with adults and as adults from a very young age.

These people often possess soft skills in abundance, the very skills that are so in demand at modern companies, yet harder to measure and put on a CV than a degree in this and a certificate in that. The many lessons from the University of Life and the College of Hard Knocks are so in demand, yet they do not fit in neatly with formality bias, which characterises employment.

As mixed livelihoods become more entrenched as the norm, largely through necessity, companies will find themselves less able to pick and choose between people toting degrees and certificates seeking full-time work. The private sector would be well advised to start embracing the part-time worker or consultant with an abundance of soft skills and life experience but few certificates.

A good place to start for information would be the MasterCard Foundation’s Youth Livelihoods programme, which has seen the foundation commit US291 million since 2010 to 29 multi-year projects across 16 countries in Africa, reaching more than 455,000 young people.

Preliminary results of the foundation’s Youth Diaries Livelihoods project were released at this week’s conference. The project, which used peer-to-peer interviews and an innovative diaries methodology to examine the day-to-day employment activities of young people in Ghana and Uganda over six months, highlights the extraordinary lengths that young people go to as they try to achieve sustainable livelihoods.

How agriculture became cool

From more traditional farming practices, such as breeding livestock, but with a modern twist, to creating credit profiles for previously unbanked rural farmers using complex algorithms to process data submitted by SMS, young Africans are changing the agricultural landscape. Perception will soon catch up with reality, as it normally does, and young people will see the myriad opportunities along the value chain in the agricultural sector as great opportunities, some of them super cool.

In his welcome address, Buti Manamela, South African deputy minister in the presidency with a portfolio focused on youth, was the first of many to note the incongruity of the critical importance of agriculture to the African economy and its poor image, particularly among young people, who see it as old-fashioned and irrelevant even.

Reeta Roy, president and chief executive of the MasterCard Foundation, was quick to emphasise the first point. She said that the agricultural sector in Africa was set to add on at least 8 million stable jobs by 2020. If the sector was accelerated, she added, that could be as many as an additional 14 million jobs.

Roy emphasised the potential role of young people, “Africa’s greatest renewable resource”, in making that happen.

She was followed on stage by some young, cool, innovative farmer-entrepreneur types who would look right at home on the pages of glossy fashion magazines. They set the audience, which included more than 50 youth delegates, alight with their hot shoes and cool ideas. – African News Agency (ANA)

Siobhan Cassidy

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