Empowering Africa’s youth to thrive in a digital economy

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Digital skills can help young people in Africa get better jobs. Photo: Shutterstock Digital skills can help young people in Africa get better jobs. Photo: Shutterstock

In June 2022, a young man in Benin’s Sèmè City—a government-sponsored innovation campus for technical and vocational training (TVET), higher education, and research, as well as a business accelerator and incubator—proudly displayed what he had made using design software, 3-D printing, laser cutters, and other digital tools.  He was bursting with excitement about his newly unleashed creativity to envision, design and build precision products in plastic, metal, or wood.

In Ghana’s Design and Technology Institute, a private TVET institute, young women and men are acquiring practical hands-on experience and soft skills to produce and market high-quality goods and services.  Its programs in digital innovation, precision fabrication and entrepreneurship, which are also offered to train master craftspersons, exemplify a nascent trend in the modernization of TVET in Ghana.

These two innovative models exemplify TVET programs that can help young people get better jobs, but they are an exception in in most of Africa today.   Often TVET is seen as the last resort for youth who are failing in general education, offering few pathways to better jobs or further education.  Enrollment in TVET programs is low, averaging less than 4 percent of secondary students in Western and Central Africa. Traditional apprenticeships still account for 80-90 percent of youth engaged in some sort of training, but this training is not geared to jobs in the modern age. At present, more than 90 percent of the region’s youth aged 15-24 work in the informal sector where jobs are typically poorly paid, if at all, and involve low-skill and low-productivity work with limited opportunities for advancement.

For World Youth Skills Day, we are focusing on what can be done to equip African youth with skills for jobs, as well as results achieved in realizing their countries’ aspirations for growth and better lives for all through skills development.

Learning from Asian countries

Today, many African countries look to Asian economies with a record of fast growth driven in part by highly skilled workers (e.g., Singapore, South Korea, China, and Malaysia), for inspiration and understanding of the transformation of their skilling systems. For a small country like Singapore, which lacks natural resources, the country’s leaders have consistently recognized that people are their greatest asset and have crafted policies explicitly to equip their workforce with skills to help grow the economy. It took years of sustained effort to build the organizational infrastructure, design governance frameworks, and create incentives to align these programs with labor market needs and ensure agility in responding to new challenges in workforce development as the economy evolves.

Skills for a digital economy

Digital skills are a key enabler for inclusion and the efficient use, adoption, and creation of digital technologies in Africa’s growing digital economy. Such technologies can transform the nature of both formal and informal work across various sectors. For example, they are beginning to disrupt aspects of the informal economy, increasing access to existing and new markets, promoting financial inclusion, and accelerating cross-border trading.

The World Bank’s Western and Central Africa Regional Education Strategy proposes an ambitious target of training at least 1 million more youth in digital skills by 2025, with 60 percent of them obtaining better jobs .  Realizing this target will require governments to collaborate effectively with the private sector and with development partners to invest strategically in the formal, non-formal and informal TVET sectors. For youth who are already in the workforce, innovative avenues will be needed.  Given the ubiquity of mobile phones in Africa, mobile-friendly digital platforms offer an especially attractive option to train a critical mass of youth in digital skills —over a reasonable period, at a reasonable cost—and connect them to appropriate job opportunities.  Examples include Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator (South Africa), Najja7ni (Tunisia), and the African Development Bank’s Coding for Employment program.

The solution must go beyond short-term fixes. True transformation of skills development requires strategic leadership, depoliticization of skills development, and sustained investments in job-relevant TVET at both the secondary and tertiary levels to give youth the chance to thrive in their jobs in an increasingly digital world. The good news is that innovative and effective skilling models exist across Africa. Underscoring the importance of digital skills, the World Bank currently has some 80 projects in Africa that promote such skills, including Benin’s Vocational Education and Entrepreneurship for Jobs Project and Nigeria’s Innovation Development and Effectiveness in the Acquisition of Skills Project.


Ekua Nuama Bentil

Senior Education Specialist

Jee-Peng Tan

Education Advisor, World Bank

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