The New Land of Opportunity

An Conversation with Nachilala Nkombo, ONE's Interim Africa Executive Director

While African countries still wrestle with food shortages, political unrest, and unemployment, signs point toward a brighter future.

Young girls (and apparently Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys fans) on a farm in Zambia. (Paul Morse / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

The Catalyst asked Nachilala Nkombo, ONE’s interim Africa executive director, to share her views on Africa’s middle class, the continent’s youth bulge, and the realities presented by famine. Born in Zambia, Nkombo has lived and worked in several African nations. She draws upon these experiences in explaining the emergence of a middle class and the challenges to its growth.

What are the best strategies to grow jobs and expand Africa’s middle class?

Across Africa, young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. The continent will face major social and economic turmoil if we do not find economic opportunities for these young people and the millions more who will be born in the coming decades. One strategy is to recognize and help young self-employed workers or informal household enterprises so they can stabilize their income and grow their businesses.

Agriculture offers a wealth of untapped job-creating opportunities but faces two challenges. First, farming suffers from a lack of popularity as rural young people prefer to migrate to cities hoping to find wage jobs. Second, it suffers from low productivity. Those employed in the agriculture sector get meager returns for their labor and do not benefit from social protection. However, agri-business in Africa still holds great promise, with the necessary investment and policy reforms, the sector is estimated to grow to a trillion dollar industry by 2030.

Creating national rural youth employment strategies that equip them with productive skills and key services needed to respond to the agriculture and agribusiness opportunities unlock agriculture's potential. African states also need to create a business-friendly environment and build reliable transportation and power infrastructure. This will help attract foreign direct investments and benefit industrializing African regions.

Finally, and probably most importantly, young girls and women should become the number one target of every reform for economic empowerment. Being the hardest hit by extreme poverty, they are also the best chance for Africa overall to end poverty in our lifetime. Providing female farmers with the same access to productive resources as male farmers could reduce the number of people living in chronic hunger by 100 – 150 million.

Young girls and women should become the number one target of every reform for economic empowerment. Being the hardest hit by extreme poverty, they are also the best chance for Africa overall to end poverty in our lifetime. Providing female farmers with the same access to productive resources as male farmers could reduce the number of people living in chronic hunger by 100 – 150 million.

What impact will Africa’s growing number of young people have on the continent’s political and cultural future?

When young people of working age become more numerous than the dependent population, the continent has the potential to reap the so-called “demographic dividend.” By 2085, for every dependent person, there will be two young workers able to provide for them. These young people could help build a great labor force and, if employed, foster the domestic demand for goods and services. 

However, a growing number of unsatisfied and frustrated young people could lead to divisions and conflicts, with severe consequences for the continent’s poverty and security. Of Africa’s nearly 420 million youth aged 15-35, one-third are unemployed and discouraged, another third are vulnerably employed, and only one in six has a steadily-paid job

The consequences of such a situation were exemplified in Senegal’s 2012 election violence with the subsequent defeat of former President Abdoulaye Wade. Protests were led by frustrated youth rebelling against high unemployment rates.

Of Africa’s nearly 420 million youth aged 15-35, one-third are unemployed and discouraged, another third are vulnerably employed, and only one in six has a steadily-paid job.  The consequences of such a situation were exemplified in Senegal’s 2012 election violence with the subsequent defeat of former President Abdoulaye Wade.
Senegalese opposition challenger Macky Sall's supporters celebrate their candidate's victory at campaign headquarters in Dakar, March 25, 2012. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

Moreover, in most African countries, age hierarchy embodied in local culture hinders the participation of young people in political activity. Conversely, where young people were given the opportunity to participate in the policy-making, they have demonstrated their transformational power. In countries such as Mali, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, young people have become human rights observers and peacebuilding officers.

To sustain, replicate, and maximize youth transforming power in society, African governments should ensure youth’s employability by creating training programs in agribusiness and modern, innovative, and sustainable agriculture techniques. Empowering the youth cohort is also key. Youth collectives could help give political voice.

Where young people were given the opportunity to participate in the policy-making, they have demonstrated their transformational power. In countries such as Mali, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, young people have become human rights observers and peacebuilding officers.

What challenges are presented by famine in such places as South Sudan?

The famine in South Sudan is man-made, born from conflict and poor governance. The effects of this conflict are continually aggravated by not only the shortage of funding available to meet people’s needs but also the challenges inherent in delivering aid to the worst affected.

First and foremost, the immediate challenge is loss of life. Some of this loss of life comes from starvation and war, but much of this also comes from increased vulnerability to infectious diseases and lack of key social services. Yemen, also at risk of slipping into famine, recently hit the shocking mark of 300,000 cholera cases since April 27th this year. More than 1,700 people have died from the disease in the same time period. South Sudan, meanwhile, has seen at least 6,633 cases of cholera reported since the beginning 2017, with 104 deaths arising from those cases - a fatality rate of 1.5%.

Across the four countries that remain at risk of famine (Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria), over 20.7 million people are in need of immediate assistance to cope with the effects of extreme food shortage - and the number is growing at every new count. Although South Sudan is no longer technically classified as being in the midst of famine after a significant scale-up in humanitarian aid, an unprecedented 6 million people remain severely food insecure there.

South Sudanese children get the daily ration of water in 2014. (Shutterstock)

Second, the combined and long-term effects of such food, nutrition, and health insecurities can cripple a community for generations. Severe food shortages force communities and families to sell off assets to pay for food. With the deaths of livestock in these situations comes the inability to continue farming and loss of income insurance that livestock provides. Food shortages that continue for an extended period of time lead to chronic malnutrition.

When children suffer from chronic malnutrition, they are likely to experience life-long physical and cognitive damage as a result. If someone has suffered undernutrition as a child, they are likely to make less than 20% in earnings compared to someone who has not suffered undernutrition as a child,while also leading to a 33% higher likelihood of living in poverty in adulthood. When girls and women who are malnourished become pregnant, this perpetuates the vicious cycle by impairing their babies’ chances of survival and healthy development, too.

The challenges of famine, then, are two-fold:  immediate humanitarian crisis that leads to death in most cases and the long-term crippling effects to generations of people and future productivity.

Leave your feedback with The Catalyst editors