To Harness Africa’s Demographic Dividend – Invest in People!



Naledi Modisaatsone is a CIPE-Atlas Corps Think Tank LINKS Fellow at the Urban Institute.

The demographic dividend is the accelerated economic growth that may result from a rapid decline in a country’s fertility and the subsequent change in the population age structure.

According to the latest UN population projections, Africa will have two billion people by 2040, with the share of 12-to-24-year-olds growing from 18 percent to 28 percent. The increment in size of this age cohort in Africa will be parallel to a decline in the same age group in every other region of the world. This anticipated rapid growth of the labor force possesses serious development challenges, as well as opportunities. The rising question is: how should Africa best prepare in order to benefit from the demographic change in the coming generation?

Africa’s demographic transition provides opportunities for the continent to become the next global center for manufacturing and service industries; and the future, indeed, looks bright. Yet in the  present context, African countries are facing growing challenges in meaningfully absorbing young people into educational systems and labor markets.

In Africa today, employment creation – youth employment in particular – must be among the principal goals of macroeconomic frameworks and a priority for fiscal policy. Policies for creating jobs and inclusive and sustainable growth must be a part of the economic agenda.

If Africa can properly mobilize its young workforce, it can also enjoy the benefits of expanding its mass consumer market at scale. This consumer market will be concentrated in those fast-growing and large-population economies such as Ni­geria, Kenya and Ethiopia. However, the rise of the mass consumer market in Africa over the next 15 years is conditional on the ability of governments to generate a sufficient number of job opportunities for these individuals. Governments should ensure that the role of urbanization in development is optimized, and enhance rural development and modernization of agriculture.

The African Institute for Development Policy argues that for Africa to harness the demographic dividend, governments and stakeholders “must ensure universal access to quality and labor-market oriented education focused on developing innovation and economic skills, with particular focus on secondary and higher levels and closing all gender and related inequities.” Against this background, education in its broadest sense – from primary through secondary and tertiary and professional skills and training – is increasingly considered the multi-focused lever that can drive the region forward.

Let’s look at Nigeria as a case study. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and its third largest economy. It is also home to a large youth population — 42 percent of Nigerians are under 15 years of age and this share is growing rapidly, expected to number 185 million by 2050. These figures suggest the magnitude of investment needed in education, especially education that is of a high quality and relevant to the needs and aspirations of the country. They also suggest the importance of enabling the country to be an economic powerhouse for the rest of the continent.

Yet the strain on the country’s limited resources is seen across all educational levels. Nigeria accounts for a third of the estimated number of children of primary school age that are not attending school in Sub-Saharan Africa. A report from the Harvard School of Public Health did a close analysis of Nigeria’s education system in 2010. The report revealed that the fraction of students enrolled in primary school has hovered around 95 percent for the past decade; the corresponding figures for secondary and tertiary education are about 30 percent and 10 percent, respectively. By contrast, only about half of Nigerians in their mid- forties have had any education at all. But these figures hide deeper problems. The education that most Nigerians receive is of dubious quality, and illiteracy remains high, even among those who attend school. Only 45 percent of primary school children in urban areas and 19 percent in rural areas can read a simple sentence. Large numbers of children are regularly absent from school and must repeat years.

Furthermore, many of the children enrolled are beyond the official age for the level of education they are receiving. At the tertiary level, of the over 1 million applications received each year, Nigerian universities have the capacity to admit only 20 percent. Nigeria needs many more teachers; existing ones are unevenly distributed across the country. Traditional approaches to education delivery – which focus on teacher-led instruction (using curriculum that does not address the skill requirements of employees) within physical classrooms no longer meets the challenges faced by the nation’s educational sector. To meet the challenges faced by the educational sector, use of technology to deliver content and capacity building of teachers are key to ensure that the educational system improves and prepare the future generation for better job opportunities.

Attaining the demographic dividend is not an overnight process. It is something you build today and to reap the benefits later. Timing is therefore critical. The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second best time is now! If African nations are to benefit from demographic dividend, the time to invest in education is now. The most important resource for development is human capital — investment in people.

CIPE-Atlas Corps Think Tank LINKS Fellowship brings talented young professionals with strong research backgrounds to shadow researchers and experts at leading U.S. think tanks for six months. Naledi Modisaatsone is part of the Fellowship, serving at the Urban Institute.