Harness youth innovation to meet development goals

With 70 percent of Africa’s population under the age of 30, the continent has the largest youth population that presents immense potential for growth. 

Moreover, it depends on how we look at the large youth population; is it a glass half full or half empty. We should not look at the number of young people as a challenge or a problem to be managed.

With the largest youth population in history, the continent has the greatest opportunity in history, because, with each young person, we have new ideas and new energy.

The fact is that a large number of young people means that Africa has immense potential and unusual ideas coming from different backgrounds and culture. 

Fresh ideas can be found in the younger generation. Africa must invest in youth to secure the future. There’s a need to invest in, take action and amplify opportunities for young people. 

Young people must be at the center of development. Across the continent, there are great examples of achievements of exemplary young inventors and innovators that represent the very best of what happens when we partner and invest in young people.

A good example is M-Pesa, the Kenyan innovation that has revolutionalized financial services and is now being replicated elsewhere on the continent. 

There are also solutions like m-Pedigree, an application invented by a young Ghanaian to enable consumers to identify counterfeit drugs – a major problem affecting our countries.

If the 2019 Global Innovation Index (GII) is anything to go by, a poor standard of education, low investment in research and uneven adoption of innovative processes, products and solutions by businesses have held back innovation in many countries in Africa.

Speaking recently at the Youth Connekt Africa in Rwanda, President Paul Kagame reminded Africa that to develop, we must innovate.

Indeed, governments in Africa must foster an enabling environment for youth innovation and participation in development – meet their innovation needs, promote and support required legislation and policies, mainstream youth in all relevant aspects of development, and work with them as partners and not mere beneficiaries. 

At the same time, young people should be equipped with the education, innovation skills, confidence to innovate and be competitive globally – to drive development and solve some of the challenges that we see in Africa and in the world.

Governments should set up innovation hubs to provide working spaces and research centers on technology trends, knowledge and strategic innovation management and industry-specific insights.

There is a need to put a robust mechanism for acquiring scientific ideas, projects and innovations among the youth, and invest more resources in innovation - increase spending on research, science, technology, and innovation. 

As recommended in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2018, low-income economies that are looking to innovation for employment should prioritize the creation of a favorable education system, extensive information and communication technologies (ICTs) adoption and domestic market competition. 

It is important to harness the benefits of technological development, to tap into the insights of youth, communities, and small entrepreneurs to help define challenges and implement solutions. 

As UNDP former head, Hellen Clark remarked, and it is true, with youth comes energy, vibrancy, and optimism. Young people are only asking for a supportive environment and opportunity.

Yet a failure to invest in opportunity for youth can quickly lead to the opposite –to alienation and to energy turned in destructive rather than constructive directions. 

Make no mistake, young people are key to the success of development plans in Africa – the success is contingent on how youth are engaged. 

The author is a Public Policy Specialist.

The views expressed in this article are of the author. 

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