WALA CHABALA writes
ZAMBIA at 56 years of age is not such a young country anymore. If she was a person of that age, she would have children of age ranging from the teens to early thirties.
Children in the prime of their youth. What would she have done to prepare for the life of these youth? That is the question we need to look into as we grapple with the notion of Zambia leveraging the youth dividend.
The 56-year old parent would have strived to make sure that her children did not only get a decent education, but that such education was relevant for their employability. The same ought to be true of Zambia as a country with her youthful population of median age under 17 years and the proportion of the population below 24 years of age being more than 65%. What has Zambia done to prepare for the absorption of this youthful population into economic activities? With unemployment high in the 15 to 24 years age category, Zambia ought to have done more to ensure a greater absorptive capacity of the youth in her economy.
There are many aspects to the situation we find ourselves in. And unlike for a parent who can most probably only look at the supply side, the country has to look at both sides of the equation.
On the demand side, I keep going back to this aspect. The Zambian economy is predominantly structured for the primary extraction of raw materials to feed other industrialising economies. The classical structural development path of economies is to go from low skill and low productivity to high skill and high productivity. It is to use resource endowments and comparative advantage as a starting basis for the country’s economy and develop into competitive advantage.
It has been such structural transformation of economies that have ensured that unemployment among the youth is kept low. China is a good example of a country with hundreds of millions of youths with a very low unemployment rate among them as a result of the economic transformations the country has been pursuing over the last 40 to 50 years. The same is true of South Korea.
It should therefore come as no surprise that as a country, our economy’s absorptive capacity for the youth is low since it has not undergone much transformation over the last 40 to 50 years. We should by now be an industrialising country that absorbs as much of its raw materials as possible in its industrial production. It ought to have been a natural evolution path of the structural transformation of our economy.
The truth of the current reality of our economy is therefore that it is not structured to absorb high numbers of youth into the productive sector. This is not the fault of the youth. And to keep reprimanding them and demanding that they go and start their own businesses or entrepreneurial activities is not being realistic. While a few youths may indeed capture headlines with an innovation here or there, the fact is that the youth are naturally the most inexperienced members of the active population and indeed, many a financing entity is very unlikely to finance their entrepreneurial attempts. And if they did, they would need to brace themselves for very high failure rates.
Thus, the impetus for the absorption of the youth into the economic activities of the country should primarily come from the demand side. And it is not too late to start embarking upon the structural transformation of our economy. Or put another way, we have no option as an economy but to embark upon this structural transformation for the youth to be a dividend and not a threat.
Apart from the economic transformation required on the demand side, there is also need to invest in activities that can quickly absorb the youth into the economy. The Arts and Sport are examples of such activities that can quickly be developed and in not time absorb many youths. This would also be an instance of responding to the dictates of a youthful population since they would be both the players and consumers.
But other areas for the economy to venture into would also require transformations on the supply side. With literacy levels among the youth being generally high and penetration of technology not so low, software development, both in terms of applications for mobile devices as well as for enterprise software is an area that can be pursued to absorb the youth. However, this would require significant transformation of curricula development. It would not be farfetched to hazard a thought that our curricula are more suited to the old untransformed economy, since that is what we live with anyway. There is need for curricula development to be dynamic and reflect the skills among the youth that are relevant for taking the economy into the future.
With current global emphasis on sustainability, there are other areas of economic activities that are opening up that are more likely to be easier for the youth to integrate into. Clean and green energy, re-use and recycling of materials are examples of such. There are for instance opportunities to address the deforestation due to consumption of charcoal and substitute that with a more sustainable energy source. And such sources could include generation of natural gas from solid waste for use in applications such as cooking, etc. This is an example of “new economic activities” that would be more suited to a youthful population not steeped in tradition and culture, both to work in as well as being consumers.
Indeed, our youths are more than ripe to be leveraged as a dividend for our economy, but the onus lies on the custodians of the economy, and not on the youth, to drive this.
Dr Evans David Wala Chabala counts among his Alma Mater prestigious and top global institutions such as Cambridge University, McKinsey & Company and Institute of Development Policy and Management (IDPM). He is former Secretary and Chief Executive of the Zambia Securities And Exchange Commission (SEC)