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Picture: Gallo Images/Dino Lloyd
Picture: Gallo Images/Dino Lloyd

It’s no secret that Africa is the continent with the youngest population and that its youth account for a large part of the continent’s unemployment rate. For example, in North Africa the youth unemployment rate is estimated at 25%, and it is even higher in countries such as Botswana, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal and SA. This is unfortunate, because Africa’s youth hold the key to its development potential, and inactive youth labour leads to low levels of social and economic development. 

Youth unemployment in Africa is due to many factors, including poor quality and relevance of education, little to no entrepreneurship culture, skills mismatch, a digital divide, lack of access to capital, and inflexible labour market and regulations. That fuels poor living conditions and migration, and contributes to conflict on the continent. Creating economic opportunities for youth, improving investment into the informal sector and entrepreneurial resourcing are therefore imperatives.

The African Development Bank outlines that Africa is the most vulnerable continent to climate change and despite contributing the least to global warming and greenhouse emissions, it faces exponential collateral damage, posing systemic risks to its economies, infrastructure investments, water and food systems, public health, agriculture and livelihoods. Unfortunately, underdevelopment, low adaptive capacity, heavy dependence on climate-sensitive sectors and limited access to finance and technology makes it challenging for the continent to address climate change.

However, climate change should be seen as an opportunity to tap into the green economy to reduce Africa’s vulnerability and, more importantly, reduce youth unemployment. Climate change provides Africa with opportunities to harness its huge resource potential to achieve the targets of Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals, while creating significant opportunities,  especially for the private sector and institutional investors. 

The green economy has been defined as “one that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”. In simple terms, a green economy encourages low-carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive activities, and preventing the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

These green investments need to be enabled and supported through public expenditure, policy reforms and changes in taxation and regulation. The notion of a green economy doesn’t replace sustainable development but creates a new focus on the economy, investment, capital and infrastructure, employment and skills, and the environment.

Governments need to adopt such policies in a number of “green” economic sectors, moving  the economy towards more labour-intensive services sectors at the expense “brown” sectors. The knock-on effects on employment in other sectors can also be significant. Existing labour market policy tools are largely sufficient, but can be applied more effectively. Education and training systems that prepare workers for future demand are especially important to smooth the transition. Special attention should also be paid to regions with a high share of workers in “brown” sectors. Further research is required to quantify all the employment dimensions of green policies, not least with respect to within-sector firm level effects, circular economy policies and the broad interactions with socio-economic trends. 

An effective green economy implementation strategy reflects multi-stakeholder partnerships to accelerate and consolidate sustainable changes in consumption and production patterns. These partnerships encompass governments (mainly for political will, regulations, taxation, policy adoption, and nationally determined contributions alignment), civil society organisations (ensuring equal distribution of resources, lobbying for public interest, holding decisionmakers accountable) and the private sector (promote resource and market efficiency, investment into the green economy and job creation). 

Although the expansion of the green economy in Africa may seem incredible, there are several gaps that ought to be closed before this economy can be explored. Political instability (including conflict and corruption) will be the biggest obstacle. In addition, high illiteracy rates, the quality and relevance of the education system and a large unskilled labour force will make it challenging to realise the green economy. Therefore, effective investment and resourcing of education, vocational training and political stability will be fundamental.

This article focuses on the green economy, though the circular economy and the blue economy also industries have mass potential for African countries to invest in to address youth unemployment. The continent has long focused on agriculture, industrialisation and ICT. Now it is time to tap into an industry that pushes these three focus areas indirectly. For example, the effect of climate change on agriculture calls for the use of AI technology to mitigate negative production cycles and adapt to climate change. The big question is whether Africa has the political will to push for successful green economies. 

Mokgonyana is a legal and development practitioner focusing on human rights protection, international trade and investment and peace and security.

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