“Young people need to play an active role in seeking qualitative changes”
François Niada, an experienced advisor in education, vocational training, youth employment and rural development, talks about the urgent need to improve Africa’s educational opportunities, and explains how younger Africans can play an important role in advancing societies and economies.
Irina Hotz: Why did you become involved in youth training and employment in sub-Saharan Africa?
François Niada: Africa is the continent with the world’s youngest population, and about 60% of its people are under 25 years of age. Roughly 420 million young people are between the ages of 15 and 35. This figure is expected to rise to 830 million by 2050. While these youth constitute one of the continent’s greatest assets, they are also a potential danger if poorly educated or trained and, most importantly, unemployed.
Every year, 10 to 20 million young Africans enter the labour market. However, nearly 16 million young Africans are unemployed. Young people struggle enormously to find jobs, owing to a significant lack of vocational training programs and internships. What’s more, the limited programs that do exist are often poorly aligned with market needs and dynamics. Some obvious consequences of this lack of opportunity include migration to uncertain regions and the temptation to join terrorist groups. In 2017, 53% of members of African terrorist groups surveyed were between 17 and 26 years of age and cited the lack of professional opportunities as a reason for joining those groups.
This being said, I truly believe in a dynamic and prosperous Africa, which will have a crucial role to play in the community of nations for decades to come. The necessary governance will only become reality when young people are educated and trained, are aware of their rights, and play an active role, both locally and nationally, in seeking qualitative changes.
IH: You have been active in this field for 25 years. What has changed during that time?
FN: A lot has changed for the better, despite the persistence of cultural constraints, the resurgence of wars, and terrorist attacks affecting education in many West African countries. Until the 1990s, education systems in Africa were divided into two separate areas: formal education, mainly in the official languages, which was a legacy of the colonial era and intended for children between the ages of 6 to 17, and adult education for people over the age of 15, which focused on literacy in local languages. Education was not provided for young people who had never attended school or who had dropped out early – who were, in a sense, a lost generation.
“The necessary governance will only become reality when young people are educated and trained, are aware of their rights, and play an active role, both locally and nationally, in seeking qualitative changes.”
Nowadays, the gap in education for 8- to 15-year-olds is filled by a variety of innovative educational alternatives developed by associations, NGOs and foundations (e.g. in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Benin, and Senegal). These innovations focus on teaching in the language spoken by the learners rather than in the official language, revising the curriculum to introduce socio-cultural elements of the environment or themes related to the aspirations of young people, as well as improving the learning process.
These innovations are giving young people a second chance and facilitating more rapid acquisition of knowledge and skills. Together with increased, albeit still limited, access to vocational training, this has helped bridge the learning gap and integrated more people into the labor market. As a result, literacy rates have gone up. The literacy rate for 15- to 24-year-olds increased from 67.8% to 75.5% between 1999 and 2016.
IH: To what extent, if at all, is the so-called “demographic dividend” benefiting the 500 million young people in Africa?
FN: Despite the efforts made by various countries, population structure is changing very slowly. Africa’s total population, which was 1 billion in 2010, will increase to 1.6 billion by 2030 and 3 billion by 2065, and 30% of that number will be between the ages of 15 and 24. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of children per woman remains high, and 60% of young people are unemployed.
“Only if states and other funders invest massively in health, education and training, with a focus on improving girls’ access to secondary school and employment, will it potentially be possible to harness the demographic dividend.”
Young people are not yet benefiting from the demographic dividend, owing to unstrategic or underinvestment in sectors such as health and education, poor governance and corruption, as well as unbalanced international trade. Only if states and other funders invest massively in health, education and training, with a focus on improving girls’ access to secondary school and employment, will it potentially be possible to harness the demographic dividend.
IH: What is the best approach for tackling this challenge?
FN: In many countries in Africa, the security situation has led politicians to prioritize spending on security, rather than on education and training. As highlighted by the immigration crisis, many youths migrate for lack of prospects in their own country. Job creation is currently limited, in part because of the underdevelopment of the secondary and tertiary sectors. In the words of Karim El Aynaoui, Executive Director of the OCP Policy Center, “Africans are rich in their subsoil, but cannot borrow on this basis, and find themselves exporting raw materials without added value”.
“Human resource development through quality education and training is essential to build the skills that will contribute to the advancement of the secondary and tertiary sectors.”
Human resource development through quality education and training is essential to build the skills that will contribute to the advancement of the secondary and tertiary sectors. Only in this way will Africa be able to generate additional employment through the creation of small and medium-sized enterprises for processing raw materials, starting with agriculture. Finally, exploiting the potential of new technologies must be at the center of education and training efforts.
IH: What gives you hope?
FN: Despite the numerous challenges, I remain optimistic that change will come, thanks to the continuous improvement of access to education, the rapid evolution of new technologies with the potential to reach large numbers of young people, the fact that young people are aware of their role, and these young people’s determination to drive future changes.
Tengandé François Niada has worked in the field of international development cooperation since 1993. With a master’s degree in linguistics, he has coordinated and advised projects in a range of sectors in Africa and Switzerland, focusing on education, vocational training, youth employment, rural development and conflict prevention. He currently works for Helvetas, based in Switzerland, as a senior advisor for Skills Development and Education.