October 14, 2009

African Demographics vs. Green Economy: What Future for Youth?

One African in two is a child. The Economist recently illustrated how Africa’s baby bonanza threatens the continent with meltdown. It reports, for example, that forests in Kenya have shrunk by at least 60% since 1990, mainly because more people are cutting down trees for fuel; doubting whether Kenya’s government will have the strength to save the forests on which Nairobi depends for water and hydroelectric power.

A country’s risk of conflict rises four percentage points for every one-point increase in the youth population, according to the Norwegian demographer, Henrik Urdal. If young people do not get jobs or find productive paths for their lives, they may turn to violence. So, argues The Economist, Africa’s population pyramids, which are wide at childhood and adolescence (see graph) may be more promising than Italy’s, but are also more ‘combustible’. In some African cities, where the rate of unemployment is 70%, people are recruited to militias for a day’s wage. Kenyan politicians and businessmen were accused in last year’s elections of paying young men to turn parts of the country into war zones.

The links between population, the way we produce and consume energy, and the fragility of the natural resource base is at the heart of the problem. But there are also solutions. Innovation can play a key role in cutting through this gordian knot, and is the main goal of the work that the Pathways to Scale Program is doing with the Tallberg Foundation. Just like mobile phone companies could leapfrog development from the crumbling state-owned telecoms, new business models emerging in renewable energies such as wind and solar power, biofuel cookers and rainwater tanks offer similar potential.

In Tanzania, 300 hectares of forests a day are lost to the production coal for cooking, which sustains rural livelihoods. Joint Environmental Techniques (JET), an organization associated to Rework, is promoting a way of producing charcoal briquettes with agricultural waste, which burn longer and are cheaper than coal in the market, providing sustainable livelihoods to poor rural families. Rework aims to convene the clusters of actors that can help JET, among other businesses, scale up the impact of its model on youth employment, faster. Their potential is to change the equation between the demand for energy and the depletion of natural resources, while generating the much needed ‘green’ youth employment.

The transition to a ‘green economy’ will remain a distant promise if young people, which are already the majority of the population in many developing countries, don’t find a way of getting involved. Our partners, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and TechnoServe, are joining the initiative to push this agenda in their respective spaces, whether by creating enabling business environments for these initiatives and accelerating skills building on the ground or by advancing the necessary global public policies, investment opportunities and coordination. Much more remains to be done, not least by putting the challenge of creating youth green employment high on the development agenda.

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