Africa’s young people can reform the status quo during COVID-19

This page in:
Africa?s young people can reform the status quo during COVID-19  Africa’s young people can reform the status quo during COVID-19

When I landed in Cameroon mid-March just before the COVID-19 (coronavirus) government-mandated lockdown, one of my key preoccupations was ensuring my family’s health and wellbeing. However, cousins my age and other young relatives were primarily concerned about their financial security: Will they be laid off by their current employer? How will they continue to run their start-ups with limited cash flow and how do they provide for themselves and families, especially for those operating in the informal sector?  

 As a young African, if at any point you’ve felt anxious over what the future holds, know that you are not alone. However, this pandemic presents an unprecedented opportunity for us to re-strategize the urgent economic, social, digital and medical changes our continent needs, and how  we implement them for ourselves and future generations.  

The second roundtable hosted by the World Bank Africa Region and Youth Alliance for Leadership and Development (YALDA) spoke to the very essence of this sentiment. On June 13th, more than 300 young Africans and civil society representatives virtually gathered to discuss the economic impacts of COVID-19 in Africa and World Bank support to countries. With the severe economic challenges young people throughout the world are predicted to face, this roundtable that served to support and elevate African youths’ voices, along with inspire youth-centric solutions to these problems could not have been timelier.  

By now, you’ve probably heard that Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is headed towards its first recession in 25 years. What exactly does that mean for a continent where approximately 70% of the region’s population is aged below 30? It signifies that young Africans will bear the economic brunt of this crisis. With an estimated 20 million African jobs that could be lost due to the pandemic, young Africans are disproportionately at risk of reduced earnings, less disposable income, underemployment, missed learning and job training opportunities. While youth unemployment and the challenges linked to it are not a novelty for us, the COVID-19 pandemic has simply accentuated them and brought them to the forefront, making them impossible to ignore. This is where the opportunity lies.   

As young Africans, we won’t always be given a seat at leadership tables in our own countries. Our potential and passion will often be overlooked, our voices stifled, and our priorities not included in national budgets. Nevertheless, this global crisis is unequivocally revealing to us that we can no longer afford to wait for anyone to make the big leaps for us in terms of the employment, education, skills development, health or digital challenges that we face. Diarietou Gaye, Director of Strategy and Operations for Eastern and Southern Africa, made a very critical point during the roundtable by saying, “If you're sitting and waiting for someone to do it for you, I can tell you it's not going to happen.”  

Bravo to all of the young Africans who are already creatively responding to the consequences of COVID-19 or other daily development challenges in the region. Now, imagine how unstoppable we would be if all 226+ million of us took collective action to create new markets, new businesses and new networks? What if we all dedicated ourselves to finding ways to dismantle or exploit social, economic and political systems that do not favor us?  Instead of trying to conform, what if we all collaborated together to create our own unique spaces, designed to uplift all of our voices equally, especially the ones of girls and marginalized young Africans among us?  

Since the lockdowns began in Cameroon, I have friends who have taken this opportunity to develop their own businesses and projects, such as home delivery services which waive delivery fees for healthcare workers and orphanages. My social media influencer friends are using their platforms to encourage the application of social distancing and hygiene regulations, along with highlighting ways to maintain one’s mental health during a global pandemic.  One friend in particular is laying the foundation for her agri-business, which would promote domestic food production and provide employment opportunities for rural women and youths throughout Cameroon. The latter echoes what Jeremy Riro, a 2016 World Bank Blog4Dev Winner from Kenya noted during the roundtable; the need for youths to be key participants in the continent’s agricultural development cannot be emphasized enough. This is especially imperative given how this crisis is negatively impacting food supply chains throughout Africa. There needs to be an urgent shift from relying on external to internal food production to feed our own people.  

There is significant space left for Africa’s young people to occupy, each with our individual talents and perspectives, but with one collective passion to bring forth the socioeconomic transformation of Africa. If we don’t do it, no one else will. The roundtable reminded me how important such platforms are and how instrumental networks such as YALDA and Youth Transforming Africa are in fueling the solidarity and creativity of young Africans, and ensuring that each and every one of us feels personally responsible for Africa’s development success.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted even more the glaring injustices and disparities within our societies, and is giving us the chance to reflect on what is important to us. This is an opportunity that we should not squander. Instead, we should use it to recharge, refocus, reorganize and reinvent our ideas, to reform the status quo for a more inclusive and resilient Africa. 


Ruti Ejangue

Communications Consultant for the Africa External Affairs & Partnerships department at the World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000