By Abachi Ugbo
Recently, I was in the company of four brilliant and innovative young entrepreneurs. It was a fortuitous meeting as a result informal with conversation swinging from business, politics and issue of governance to the ravages of the pandemic. To my consternation, they evinced good judgement, perspicacity and broad-mindedness. I was happy to learn about what they were doing through the agency of their various businesses in reaching out to the vulnerable as well as empowering promising young persons with opportunities of rising from the ashes in the wake of the pandemic. This is against the backdrop of falling revenues occasioned by the slow turning financial wheels hit by the pandemic. It was a demonstration of community over profit in difficult times as one of them will later explain to me. Such actions are driven by the philosophy that – not only does a company have to live in harmony with society, but to be accepted, it must contribute to society. These young people are representative of legion that strewn the country working hard to contribute to society.
However, a phenomenal number of young people are hobbled by the dire socioeconomic challenges which have continued to deteriorate. For instance, the state of unemployment is scaring and was corroborated by the Vice-president in his presentation of the post-COVID-19 Economic Sustainability Plan to the President stating that the unemployment rate could rise to about 33.6% by the end of the year. Already, the unemployment rate has increased to 27.1% (Q2 2020) compared to 23.1% (Q3 2018). The National Bureau for Statistics (NBS) in its report on poverty and inequality from September 2018 – October 2019 said 40% of the Nigerian population live below the poverty line of 137,430 Naira per year. Also, the conditions to foster the growth of businesses remain discouraging and have conduced to the frequency of mortality of businesses. So, there is a groundswell of youth frustration and cynicism. Basically, the youths are poorly positioned and prepared to seize opportunity even when available and thrive in a modern economy.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) revealed that the Nigerian population has risen to 201 million in 2019. The age distribution of 15-64 years is the highest population composition in the country with 54% of Nigerians falling within the age range. 44% of Nigerians are within the age distribution 0-14 while 32% of the population is between 10 – 24 years and the least falls within 65 and above comprising 3%. It shows that the country has one of the highest youth demographics in the world which is in the face of the ageing world population and by implication working-age people with many developed countries working to contend with the reality. For example, quoting a report issued by the Chinese Academy of Social Science, The New York Times stated that China is facing its most precipitous decline in population in decades setting the stage for potential demographic, economic, and even political crisis in the near future.
The young population is an advantage that a British Council supported report described as Nigeria’s single greatest asset and not oil. Obviously, the demographic boom comes with both opportunities and challenges. The failure in harnessing the youth bulge is an effective tinderbox that could explode into social and political instability as seen in many parts of the world. However, economic prosperity is assured with a youthful population and it is contingent on the quality and key actions taken at harnessing the advantage. It is a strong magnet for businesses to relocate or outsource part of their operation apparently to cash in on the large pool labour, and present an important market for businesses in the consumer goods segment.
The extent to which Nigeria will cash in on this asset and reap the rewards will depend largely on favourable policies. Key actions needed are those that will expand opportunities anchored on skills and knowledge through investments on human capital by means of improved expenditure and reforms of the education sector. It is shocking that 35% of the adult population is illiterate which is the percentage of people from the age of 15 years and above who can’t read and write simple statements in their everyday life; this is according to the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and non- formal Education( NMEC). In his article- Pass the Books. Hold the Oil, Thomas Friedman quoted Andreas Schleicher that “Knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies, but there is no central bank that prints this currency. Everyone has to decide on their own how much they will print”. The education system should be such that will supply requisite knowledge and skills to the labour market. The development of agriculture and the entire value chain is key as a vehicle for job creation. Investment in areas like the latent diary industry possesses immense capacity to accommodate so many. Other areas like sports, hospitality, and entertainment should occupy a pride of place.
Furthermore, entrepreneurship development programmes that include training and credit access to set up businesses should be treated as a matter of priority and be made a continuous endeavour. It is interesting that National Youth Investment Fund (NYIF) has been approved basically for persons between 18-35 to access government funding support for innovative entrepreneurs. The programme needs to be protected from the byzantine bureaucracy and from underhanded processes. The development of basic I.C.T infrastructures and services is indispensable. Our ranking on I.C.T on the Global Competitive Index 2018 was low and internet penetration as at January 2020 was 42% which clearly is a wakeup call. Equally pivotal, is the mainstreaming of youth into governance through leadership training to raise a community of inspired, prepared and equipped young political and business leaders. Government should ensure strong and independent institutions to tackle corruption; good governance; tackle the challenge of weak infrastructures like power, transport and road networks; low investment in technology and I.C.T.
Nigerian youth are inherently innovative and passionate but will require the right environment to evince their creativity, work, and become a solution to our many challenges. Therefore, the development of youth should be made to occupy the zenith of the totem pole of priorities. Non-state actors should be incentivized in expanding the space for employment, mentorship, and apprenticeship. There’s the need for continuity in policy implementation that is orientated towards youth development and by extension national development.
Abachi Ugbo is a Public Affairs Analyst.