Sub-Saharan Africa’s growth performance over the last decade has been astounding, though they mask underlying job creation challenges facing policymakers. The unemployment rate for sub-Saharan Africa remained fairly stable over the period. In 2015, it stood at a slightly high 7.4 percent, compared with over 9 percent in the European Union and 5.3 percent in the United States. However, the figures on vulnerable employment and the working poor in Africa tell a different story—averaging 69.9 percent and 64.0 percent in 2015, respectively. Indeed, of those who are employed, four in five workers are not in the wage economy, but in the informal sector, with no access to workers’ benefits, social protection, and job reliability. In addition, many workers—both formal and informal—are underemployed or overqualified.
The conventional knowledge of structural transformation—labor migration from agriculture to high-productivity, labor-intensive industry—has been turned on its head in Africa. Instead, Africans are moving to jobs in the services sector, which some experts argue is a less productive path. Then again, unique opportunities in African digital jobs are opening up doors the world has never seen before.
The need for decent job creation in Africa also provides both threats and opportunities to the United States. For example, a lack of viable jobs could make the turn to crime, violence, and even extremism—with the promise of steady income from these activities—more appealing to economically marginalized individuals, especially among the youth. Furthermore, job creation boosts the growth of the middle class, expanding the base of consumers for American products, at the same time creating new, stronger trade partners able to supply goods to American consumers. Already, the United States and other countries are creating a myriad of programs to boost entrepreneurship on the continent.
On Monday, June 27, the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative and the Congressional African Staff Association hosted an event to discuss why Africa is struggling to create the quantity and quality of jobs it needs and what policies—both African and U.S.—can turn that trend around. Ernest Danjuma Enebi, founder and managing partner of The Denda Group, moderated the discussion. Panelists included Dr. Eyerusalem Siba, research fellow at the Africa Growth Initiative; Hassanatu Blake, co-founding director and president of the non-profit Focal Point Global; and Nicolas Cook, a specialist in African Affairs in the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division of the Congressional Research Service.
The discussion touched on multiple key points, including what Africa’s unique structural transformation path means for the region’s employment landscape; how development partner efforts affect job growth on the continent; how Africa can avoid a potential “demographic timebomb” of youth unemployment and instead benefit from a “demographic dividend”; and how the United States is addressing the challenges these trends pose for both the continent and the U.S.
Enebi began the dialogue with a Q&A with Siba on an overview of African economic trends, youth unemployment, and formal sector jobs on the continent.
Blake argued that the high youth unemployment is due in part to the region’s struggling educational systems where Poor quality education leads to poor grades on periodic tests and thus students are being pushed out of school, she said. Once out of the formal schooling system, they enter the workforce underprepared without the skills they need to succeed in the job market.
Blake continued to argue this point through a description of Harambee, a private South African organization that works towards improving prospects of youth employment. The program has placed over 20,000 youth into jobs over the past 5 years by testing job applicants on literacy and mathematical ability and matching them with employers. Harambee addresses a broader skills mismatch that Blake argued is holding back job creation. More broadly, Blake argued, public-private partnerships must be created to help youth find jobs and employers find employees.
A major theme of the discussion was that a shift away from aid and towards the support of labor-intensive industries and enabling environments for business can spur job creation.
Of course, causes of unemployment are largely driven by the demand-side factors, acknowledged the panelists. A major theme of the discussion was that a shift away from aid and towards the support of labor-intensive industries and enabling environments for business can spur job creation. Indeed, Cook discussed the importance of the mantra “trade not aid” in addressing these issues, as there are many large American firms with an economic interest in expanding to Africa; however this interest is miniscule compared to Africa’s trade with the rest of the world. Increasing global investments in Africa is, thus, a key part of any job creation, he emphasized.
Cook also touched on global relationships with Africa. He noted that only 1 percent of U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) goes to Africa, and only one percent of American trade is with Africa. Now, several economic development programs, like the U.S. Electrify Africa Act of 2015 and the USAID Power Africa Initiative, exist but are in need of continued funding. To boost trade, the United States has launched the Trade Africa program and has established trade hubs in western, eastern, and southern Africa.
Investments in infrastructure, greater participation in the export market, interventions on improving managerial and marketing skills and the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to access global markets can help clear the way for greater job creation.
Siba agreed with the idea of a focus on trade and FDI as major factors in job creation. In fact, she shifted the discussion toward a focus on investments in supporting industry because, as she emphasized, the biggest predictor of business performance including job creation is export market participation. Investments in infrastructure, greater participation in the export market, interventions on improving managerial and marketing skills and the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to access global markets can help clear the way for greater job creation, she said.
There are clearly many opportunities for foreign investors to support African industry, but challenges to development remain due to poor infrastructure and a lackluster environment for business.
Blake agreed that ICTs and infrastructure hold great potential for spurring job growth, but pointed out that ICT and infrastructure investment “look different” in different parts of the continent. In some countries in central Africa that she worked with and Cameroon, she suggested, ICTs are not always the best vehicle to drive job growth due to the prohibitive cost of ICT devices and emphasized that keeping local conditions in mind when exploring potential job-creating programs and investments is essential for success.
Cook then pivoted to a discussion on the importance of small enterprises and technology in boosting job growth. He pointed out the importance of WhatsApp as a new means of communication that has helped spur job growth and productivity, and the mobile money transfer platform m-Pesa as a key component of the increase in micro-lending in Kenya. Offered by Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile network, M-Pesa allows mobile phone users to transfer money, pay bills, and deposit money. The World Bank highlighted the service in 2009, concluding that “The affordability of the service has been key in opening the door to formal financial services for Kenya’s poor.” The service has also allowed financing of micro-enterprise to take off, but Cook acknowledged that ascertaining the precise impact of these technologies on job growth is very difficult due to the scarcity of data.
The small credit card market and rarely used banking services exclude a wide percentage of the population from the financial system. The widespread presence of mobile phones has now opened up this system.
Fifty to 80 percent of new jobs in Africa are created by small businesses that are not likely to survive more than five years.
Siba elaborated on Cook’s description of the vital role of small businesses in creating jobs on the continent. She argued that any job creation programs in Africa should focus on solving the challenges of small businesses in job creation because they dominate the market structure. Unfortunately, at the moment, small businesses there are not robust. Fifty to 80 percent of new jobs in Africa are created by small businesses that are not likely to survive more than five years. Since small and medium enterprises comprise over 90 percent of all firms in sub-Saharan Africa, this volatility affects the whole economy. As a result, any potential solutions must take this market structure into account. In addition, as Siba suggested, increased focus must be paid to the integration of African businesses into regional markets and domestic and global value chains so that small and medium enterprises have more opportunities to grow.
The discussion concluded with a focus on opportunities for growth: Governments should focus on processing raw commodities for local uses, like timber, coffee, and cocoa; small- and medium-sized enterprises should be scaled up with stronger access to financing and skill development; governments should pursue partnerships with private companies to address the skills mismatch; and education funding should be deliberately targeted to address missing skills, correctly processed, and carefully monitored. Continued job creation in Africa depends on it.
On Monday, June 27, the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative and the Congressional African Staff Association hosted an event to discuss why Africa is struggling to create the quantity and quality of jobs it needs and what policies—both African and U.S.—can turn that trend around.
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