Regional Integration: A gateway to economic prosperity for Africa’s youth

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Students on the campus of Gaston Berger University (UGB) in Saint Louis, Senegal.
Students on the campus of Gaston Berger University (UGB) in Saint Louis, Senegal. Photo: Sarah Farhat/The World Bank

After settling back home in Cameroon for almost a year, one of the biggest preoccupations I’ve heard youths have on their minds is whether they will have access to quality jobs and economic opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential, and more importantly to be able re-invest in themselves, families and communities. These concerns are prevalent among young Africans throughout the continent and not unique to just Cameroon. Such preoccupations, are what also drove the main messages in the latest edition of the World Bank’s Africa’s Pulse, which examined the future of work in Africa, especially as it relates to economic recovery post-COVID-19 (coronavirus).

The surge of the global pandemic, along with the social and economic effects the virus has inflicted in many African countries, has yet again reaffirmed youth unemployment as one of the most urgent challenges African governments need to address. It is no secret that the failure to find viable solutions for the millions of unemployed youth will lead to more international migrations by the skilled and privileged ones , or greater engagement in radical extremist groups by those more vulnerable and marginalized. For this reason, it is imperative now more than ever for youth groups, African governments, the private sector, and civil society organizations to work collectively towards promoting quality employment opportunities for young people throughout the continent.

Reflecting on opportunities for the youth to leapfrog regional integration in Africa

It is through a sense of urgency that nearly 200 young people from diverse background, together with African researchers, public and private sector representatives and World Bank experts gathered in a recent virtual roundtable to reflect on the opportunities for the youth to leapfrog regional integration in Africa. The initiative, led by two African youth networks –the Youth Transforming Africa and the Youth Alliance for Leadership and Development in Africa (YALDA) invited participants to deliberate on how regional integration can drive Africa’s socioeconomic transformation by addressing the youth unemployment issue.

Two crucial conclusions arose from the discussion:

  1. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), if properly leveraged, will be a gamechanger in providing youth with vast opportunities to trade, network, and secure jobs. Initiated by the African Union and effective since January 1st, 2021, the AfCFTA aims to “create a single continental market for goods and services as well as a customs union with free movement of capital and persons.” This important agreement brings hope to Africa’s youths in several ways.
    As outlined by Dr. Francis Mangeni, Head of Trade Promotion & Programs at the AfCFTA Secretariat, the agreement pushes for digital platforms that allow young Africans to commercialize their ideas. For example, across marketing and business tools such as the Africa trade observatory and Trade Barriers, youths can easily identify all trading and investment opportunities within Africa and across the world, regardless of geographical location. For young African entrepreneurs, access to different markets widens opportunities for technological development, economic diversification, networking, and collaboration among peers from diverse countries and a plethora of investment opportunities . All of these ultimately facilitate quality job prospects, access to capital, and create conducive environments to develop entrepreneurial ventures that will positively transform the continent.
  2. Youth should develop their skills in the key scientific and technical areas that are most relevant for Africa’s integration agenda. Access to skills, information and education is vital for Africa’s youth as this will embolden them with futuristic capabilities (skills of the future) to engage in evolving professions and important sectors such as tourism, hospitality, agriculture, agri-processing and many more. These were ideas repeatedly highlighted by Claire Kfouri, Regional Integration Manager for Africa at the World Bank, and Nicolatte Mutuku, founder of the youth development organization, Walking the African Journey. Providing comprehensive formal and vocational training to Africa’s youth rooted in business management and entrepreneurship, empowers them to translate their ideas into practical products and services that could bolster the economic and social development of the region. This is particularly true, during this COVID-19 era where African youths have yet again proven their ingenuity when it comes to finding creative responses to the challenges of the pandemic with various inventions.
    Africa is in dire need for key, high-level skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Dassidi Nideou, a post-doctorate researcher at the African Regional Centre of Excellence for Poultry Science (CERSA) hosted by the Université de Lomé in Togo, has demonstrated the importance for higher education institutions in Africa to focus on regional specializations in such areas to help develop the skills critically needed for the continent’s economic transformation.
    Dassidi’s example of the African Centers of Excellence (ACEs) –70 of these, including CERSA, are currently being implemented across Africa—generated strong interest among participants. The ACEs are remarkable assets that facilitate the regional integration process. This is because they promote networking between youths from different nationalities who share common challenges while bolstering the creation of skills networks that could be deployed throughout the continent to serve the market’s demands. More importantly, they provide incentives to attract more women to pursue post-graduate degrees in the STEM areas. These are all necessary steps towards securing Africa’s youth with the economic opportunities they deserve and desperately need.

Regional integration efforts should be stepped-up to offer viable solutions to the youth unemployment crisis and to harness the great and untapped potential of Africa’s youth.  By enhancing collaboration, countries will allow the youth to play an incredibly important role for the continent’s socioeconomic development process. A more integrated Africa will offer the youth more economic opportunities along with access to capital, investors, and wider networks to navigate.

There is hope. Many of the youth that attended the virtual roundtable may have come curious about how regional integration can solve some of the pressing challenges they face collectively. However, they certainly left with a better understanding and better perspective, irrespective of their areas of interests, of how to fully exploit these evolving opportunities. Whether that be investing in their own human capital by accumulating additional skills and vocational experience or educating themselves on sectors that are important to Africa’s growth. Roundtables such as these are timely, relevant and serve to motivate Africa’s young people.

Authors

Ruti Ejangue

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

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