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It's A Tough Time To Be Young In Zimbabwe

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Harare - To those who look to Africa for investment opportunities, one of the major attractions has been the continent’s young and energetic population. According to the African Economic Outlook, a growing youth population comes with energy, creativity and talents which are also key to future prosperity.

Research has shown that a rising working age population is a major opportunity for economic growth. The United Nations World Population Prospects Report has weighed in, saying Africa will have the second-largest global population by 2050, making it an attractive destination for capital.

The World Bank also estimates that this demographic dividend could generate 11% to 15% GDP growth between 2011 and 2030. It further says that if Africa is able to take advantage and provide adequate education and jobs, $500bn a year could be added to its economies for 30 years.

According to research done by South Africa’s Leigh-Gail Petersen, the presence of a young population signals that there is a working population, meaning more income which leads to better support for citizens and greater improvement in the country’s development.

But this is a tough time to be young in Zimbabwe. The touted potential might come to naught in the case of that country, if efforts are not put in place to take advantage of its young population.

As it did with the commodities boom as well as the scramble for Africa, Zimbabwe risks losing out on the touted benefits of a young and energetic population.

Between 2006 and 2008, and then again between 2010 and 2011, commodity-exporting economies hit the mother lode when commodity prices boomed.

The then brisk pace of global economic activity and rising demand from emerging markets drove up commodity consumption and prices. And the boom, in turn, boosted growth and fiscal balances for resource-rich countries.

Zim misses commodities boat

Sadly, Zimbabwe missed the boat.

Between 2006 and 2008, the country was going through a turbulent time with spiralling hyperinflation which relegated proper policies to the periphery, in favour of survival kind of policies implemented by former Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono. As a result, the country did not benefit much in terms of the boom.

The next boom, between 2010 and 2011, also came out at a time Zimbabwe introduced the controversial Indigenisation laws, meant to empower the disadvantaged locals. Unfortunately the implementation of the law was controversial and drew negative publicity on the country. Investors shunned Zimbabwe and not much investment came into the country; those already invested postponed expansion plans.

There is now serious risk that Zimbabwe might not benefit from the new investor attraction: a young and energetic population. Despite producing more than 30 000 graduates from its universities yearly, the country has not been able to create enough jobs for these graduates, never mind those who completed high school.

The school-leavers at the end of this year are likely to be competing for jobs with most of the school-leavers who left last year, the year before that and most of the years before that.

Many 35-year-olds have yet to be properly employed for the first time. Young people who have been to school, even universities, have not obtained the practical skills employers are seeking. There lies the risk: what kind of future is awaiting them and their children?

But all hope is not lost. Now is the time to act on this time bomb, starting with the education system. There is a need to revise the country’s education curricula to include skills and enterprise development. Young people need genuine education and skills training, but crucially their ambitions need to be matched by opportunities.

The OECD has also chipped in and said governments need to provide job-focused training to help the millions of young unemployed people on the continent. The Brookings Institution argues for a focus on manufacturing, because it is “the industrial sector most closely associated with employment intensive growth among other sectors that employ young people such as construction, tourism and agriculture".

Investment in infrastructure and subsidies for sectors with potential for creating jobs, for example, can also be a way of dealing with the crisis.

We have heard this before, but now is the time to act. We need to get the youth of today ready for tomorrow.

This column by Malcom Sharara was first published in The Herald (Zimbabwe) on August 22.

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