Counting Africa’s invisible workers
sector actors, must develop methods for understanding how the informal economy works and how it can be improved. Only then will it be possible to address unemployment and poverty effectively and unlock the potential of Africa’s youth.
To be sure, some high-potential approaches are already apparent. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa reports that, though the continent boasts 60% of the world’s uncultivated land, it spends $60 billion per year on food imports. Investing in the development of Africa’s agricultural resources is thus a no-brainer.
Young people could play a central role in that effort. By identifying and investing in those parts of agricultural value people by providing skills like digital literacy. Such skills enable young people to move not only out of the informal sector, but also out of undesirable formal jobs, such as in South Africa’s private-security industry, which employs more than 412,000 people.
The industry has faced criticism for poor working conditions; even where that is not the case, it does not develop the types of skills that can support stable and sustainable economic growth.
As more people gain the skills and access the opportunities to fill productive jobs in the formal sector, where they are registered and recognized, governments will get a better sense of the labour market.
But to maximise the effectiveness of efforts to provide those skills and opportunities, not to mention ensuring that those who remain in the informal sector are not invisible, initiatives aimed directly at improving data collection are also needed.
One such initiative is the Africa Programme on Accelerated Improvement of Civil Registration and Vital Statistics, which was formally launched in 2011. While it may not provide instant results, it begins to lay the groundwork for the development and implementation of programmes based on hard data about African populations.
Reducing unemployment and poverty are not the responsibility of governments alone. Private-sector actors and ordinary citizens can also help.
For example, we can support informal activities, such as waste recycling, that give low-skill young people a chance to earn money. And we can encourage and facilitate apprenticeships that provide technical skills and opportunities for civic education.
Africa has addressed complex and far-reaching problems before. For example, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which once seemed insurmountable, has now largely been brought under control. The key to tackling that challenge was cooperation among governments, development partners, and local communities in collecting, processing, and using data to adjust strategies.
We should be doing the same to address the job shortage. If Africa’s economies are to absorb the 122 million young people expected to enter the labour force in the next few years, we must get the accounting right – starting now.