/ 27 June 2023

Green economy: A Solution to Africa’s youth unemployment

Green Jobs
The theme for the Africa Climate Summit is “driving green growth and climate finance solutions for Africa and the world”. (Nathan Laine/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It is no secret that Africa is the continent with the youngest population worldwide and that youth on the continent accounts for a large margin of all of Africa’s unemployment. For example in North Africa, the youth unemployment rate is estimated at 25% but is even greater in countries like Botswana, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal and South Africa, among many others. This is rather unfortunate because Africa’s youth hold the key to its development potential, meaning that inactive youth labour leads to low levels of social and economic development.

Youth unemployment in Africa is caused by many factors including poor quality and relevance of education, little to no entrepreneurship culture, skills mismatch, a digital divide, lack of access to capital, inflexible labour market and regulations, etc. Unfortunately, Africa’s youth unemployment has the consequences of increased poor living conditions, fuels migration out of Africa, and contributes to conflict on the continent. In light of this, there is an urgent need to create economic opportunities for youth, such as. job creation, improved investment in the informal sector, entrepreneurial resourcing and so forth. Countries need to push for expansion into economies that have greater potential to reduce unemployment on the continent — one of those being the green economy. 

The African Development Bank outlines that Africa is the most vulnerable continent to climate change impacts and that despite insignificantly contributing the least to global warming and greenhouse emissions, Africa faces exponential collateral damage, posing systemic risks to its economies, infrastructure investments, water and food systems, public health, agriculture and livelihoods. 

Unfortunately the underdevelopment, low adaptive capacity, heavy dependence on climate-sensitive sectors and limited access to finance and technology makes it very challenging for the continent to address climate change impacts. 

However, these climate change impacts should be seen as an opportunity to tap into the green economy to reduce Africa’s vulnerability to climate change and more importantly decrease youth unemployment. 

Climate change provides Africa with opportunities to harness its huge resource potential to achieve the targets of Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals. Addressing climate change through the development of green economies in Africa will create significant market opportunities on the continent, especially for the private sector and institutional investors.

The green economy has been defined as “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”. 

In simple terms, a green economy involves low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive economies and growth in employment and income are driven by public and private investment into such economic activities, infrastructure and assets that allow reduced carbon emissions and pollution, enhanced energy and resource efficiency, and prevention of the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. 

These green investments need to be enabled and supported through targeted public expenditure, policy reforms and changes in taxation and regulation. The notion of a green economy does not replace sustainable development, but creates a new focus on the economy, investment, capital and infrastructure, employment and skills and positive social and environmental outcomes across Africa. 

Governments need to adopt green policies to achieve job creation in a number of ‘green’ economic sectors and through a transition of the economy towards more labour-intensive services sectors, while job destruction especially occurs in “brown” sectors whose activities get replaced by green sectors. 

The knock-on effects on employment in other sectors can also be significant. Existing labour market policy tools are largely sufficient, but can be applied more effectively. Education and training systems that prepare workers for future labour demand needs are especially important to smooth the transition. Special attention should also be paid to regions with a high share of workers in brown sectors. 

Further research is required to quantify all employment dimensions of green policies, not least with respect to within-sector firm-level effects, circular economy policies and the broad interactions with socioeconomic trends.

An effective green economy implementation strategy reflects multi-stakeholder partnerships to accelerate and consolidate sustainable changes in both consumption and production patterns. These multi-stakeholder partnerships encompass governments (mainly for political will, regulations, taxation, policy adoption, nationally determined contributions alignment), civil society organisations (ensuring equal distribution of resources, lobbying for public interest, holding decision makers accountable) and the private sector (promote resource and market efficiency, investment into the green economy, job creation).

Although the expansion of the green economy into the African continent sounds incredible, there are several gaps that ought to be closed before this economy could be explored. Among many, political instability (including conflict and corruption) will be the biggest hindrance to the effective operationalisation of many green sectors. \

Additionally, high illiteracy rates, quality and relevance of the education system and an unskilled labour force will make it challenging to realise the green economy. Therefore, effective investment and resourcing of education, vocational training and political stability are going to be fundamental, among others.

While this piece focuses on the green economy, the circular economy and the blue economy are also industries that have mass potential for African countries to invest in to address youth unemployment. 

For the longest time, the continent has been focusing on agriculture, industrialisation and ICT, it is time to tap into an industry that pushes these three focus areas indirectly. For example, the impact of climate change on agriculture calls for the use of AI technology to mitigate negative production cycles and adapt to climate change. The big question is whether Africa has the political will to push for successful green economies?

Karabo Mokgonyana is an award-winning legal and development practitioner and programme director for the Sesi Fellowship and Skill Hub, a womxn- and youth-led organisation that provides young womxn with mentorship and skills development.