Originally published in the APRM.
At the intersection of preserving lives and livelihoods, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented an opportune moment for Africa to learn from past mistakes, confront glaring inequalities, as well as look progressively forward, in redirecting continental foci towards engaging policies and practices that affect tangible change on the ground. Now more than ever, innovation is needed to buttress and catalyse efforts in e-health, e-learning, agri-tech, and many other areas to upscale production and the continent’s development trajectory. Recognising this, the Re-Launching Africa Series, a research partnership between myself and TechHer NG, sought to engage in policy consultations with 21 African experts already doing the work on the ground. The experts hailed from 15 different African countries, and spoke on seven different thematic areas, in attempts to understand how best to catapult Africa onto the next phase of productivity in the aftermath of the current global health pandemic.
The preliminary findings of the report show that innovation cannot be separated from the need for solid commitment to infrastructure investment, social protections, as well as the inclusion of technocrats and entrepreneurs – many of whom are under the age of 35 – working to shape Africa’s developmental future, into policy spaces. Historical concerns regarding human capacity development trajectories and sustainable economic opportunities continue. COVID-19 has simply amplified these challenges. State commitments to progressive, transparent, and inclusive governance remain necessary, if Africa is to change its development trajectory in line with the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as the objectives for the African Union (AU)’s Agenda 2063.
African technocrats and innovators whose mandates are founded on social protection, and sustainable economic opportunities, must both be rallied together, and funded, to upscale the work they are currently doing. Whether it is engaging with organisations such as WomEng which is on a mission to train 1 million girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); Lüla which is revolutionising the way Africans commute within urban spaces; Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) which is making sure that young girls continue to receive education in the fragile state; or Shujaaz Inc. which engages 7.5 million East Africans under the age of 25 regarding their civic duties; there must be coordinated efforts at mainstreaming the voices of such organisations within continental policy spaces in a show of political will towards investing in, and compiling data for, the Africa we want.
The State of Affairs
Africa’s 1.3 billion inhabitants currently account for 17% of the total world population. In the next seven years, the continent’s working age population is set to account for 57.7% of the total population. Additionally, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) notes that in the next 30 years, “young Africans are forecast to form over a quarter of the world’s labour force”. Such data is a call for states, and continental governing bodies, to provide clarity in tangibly planning for the economic security of Africa’s largest demographic. To reiterate, non-tokenistic representation remains vital as Goal 18 of AU Agenda 2063 – which promotes targets to create socio-economic opportunities for Africa’s youth – as it cannot be achieved in the absence deliberately progressive political will from member states.
Generationally sustained progression lies amplifying the agency of Africa’s youth demographic. The dissonance arising from young people resting both as Africa’s biggest resource, and most precarious demographic, is simply unsustainable. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 40% of young Africans considered their “living situation to be very bad or fairly bad”. Also, in 2018, only 19.1% (one fifth) of young sub-Saharan Africans received formalised working wages. Moreover, “only 26.4% [had] their own account at a financial institution”. This precarity remains concerning at best given the additional nuance of uncoordinated, small scale entrepreneurship, in most African countries. Where people are self-employed and informally vending in urban areas, fiscal safety nets suffer where transactions contribute little to the tax base. Additionally, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the limitations to movement to reduce contact, at the intersection of the need to safeguard livelihoods for this group, is a balancing act many governments are still struggling to deal with.
In a survey conducted by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in June 2020, 143 young and mid-level career African citizens from 35 countries, cited economic instability (at 79%) and unemployment (at 66%) as the biggest challenges to young people in their countries. Addressing the three main social and economic impacts of COVID-19 in their countries, 100% of the respondents cited unemployment; 99% cited food insecurity coupled with rising food costs; and 95% cited gender based violence and crime. With unemployment rates having been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, governments must quickly work through safety nets to ensure social security for its citizens as buying power decreases. Likewise, with 73 million of the 135 million food insecure people in the world living in Africa, and economic crises bearing a “growing influence… on acute food insecurity levels”, this call is seemingly louder now more than ever.
Where scarcity – through unemployment, resources, and others – breeds conflict, key lobbying government stakeholders must leverage mandates through political economy analyses that forecast data providing the potential benefits for both governments and citizens. Nuancing the end goal for the African Union’s year of “silencing the guns” in African development; systemic representations of ‘guns’ through pervasive patron-client relations that cripple economies must not be used as ammunition to further subvert African citizens’ access to sustainable economic opportunities. Corruption runs parallel to disinvestment in infrastructure. Challenges to overcoming COVID-19 will persist where, only 20% of Africans have access to water inside the house. Where similar data regarding sewerage is concerned, only 30% have access. Additionally, one in five Africans “who tried to obtain utility services from government during the previous year report they had to pay a bribe”. Such disinvested, clientelist ways of governance are systemic and their prevalence must be overhauled through accountable adherences to transparency and the rule of law across jurisdictions which must be vehemently advocated for. Innovation will not solve the systemic barriers to Africa’s progression – that requires political will.
Allowing Opportunities for Innovation
There is a role to be played by the AU, and various continental stakeholders, in coordinating and upscaling localised efforts by young Africans who are tackling the continent’s biggest challenges. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, sharing of best practices both need to be revised, and shared beyond high-level continental fora, to inform coordinated progression. More importantly, representation of young people in policies, as well as monitoring and evaluation processes that concern them remains key. Here, the African Peer Review Mechanism’s (APRM) Youth Network must play a vital role in identifying key representatives. Where exclusion is effected, apathy is the result. Africa cannot afford to cultivate a culture of apathy.
Many African innovators and entrepreneurs who come up with solutions to infrastructural, and other continental challenges, continually face bureaucratic bottlenecks and lack funding to upscale projects. The politicisation of access, as an impediment to development, must be reviewed if Africa is to progress. With basic infrastructure such as electricity bearing positive correlations to digital literacy – a vital component of social integration especially with remote social conduct given the COVID-19 pandemic – funding priorities, as well as guidelines to what constitutes social protection must be revisited in each state. Innovation cannot intercede where disinvestment in all its forms persists.