Much has been predicted about Africa’s youth bulge. One of the most significant is that by 2050, Africa’s youth population is expected to reach over 830 million. As it stands, almost 60% of Africa’s population is currently under the age of 25, making the continent the youngest on the planet. 

Despite recent high economic growth rates, youth unemployment remains more than double that of adult unemployment, without even accounting for high participation in the informal economy. The current setup, in which the youth population is rapidly increasing, despite lack of access to jobs, could be cause for instability going forward if policy makers do not get their decisions right. For instance, the lack of economic opportunity contributed to the protests of the Arab Spring and the potential for agitation remains apparent further south. With so many youths on the continent in “waithood,” meaning educated, but without meaningful employment in the formal sector, many are forced into under employment or into the informal economy. Further, a mismatch between skills available, and the needs within the employment market has exacerbated the problem.

While much of the conversation around this issue has been centered around whether this demographic expansion will be a “gift or a curse,” it is clear that national statistical agencies on the continent may not be properly prepared to play their role in keeping track of population growth. Strong national statistics agencies should be the first step towards developing an evidence-based culture for policy making, but the status-quo on the continent leaves much to be desired. 

In 2012, Jaynet Kabila, Member of Parliament in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and sister of then President Joseph Kabila, raised the issue of how the government planned to implement its social and development objectives without knowing how many people actually lived in the country. In fact, the last census in the DRC dates back to 1984, meaning that statistically speaking, we know very little about the country. The fact that a census has not been conducted in over thirty years has forced analysts in the country to rely on estimates instead.

While the DRC is just one case in point, the picture for the rest of the continent isn’t much brighter. In fact in 2015, 65% of the indicators for Millennium Development Goals for countries in Central Africa were based on estimates or numbers derived from dated statistics. More broadly, the quality, availability, timeliness of data on the continent has long been in question. 

Data should be at the center of government decision making. Across the globe, census are used to allocate funds for roads, schools and bridges, determine political representation, and fund health and wellness programs, all things deemed necessary to spur development for future generations. They not only allow policy makers to better understand how a country’s population is shifting, but they also help ensure that all citizens receive their due. They are in many ways, a core element of the policy-making and business decision making process and should be used to assess shifts in health, education, and economic policy to better handle the youth bulge. At the end of the day, the fundamental issue is that if governments do not know whether a person actually exists, it is all too easy to ignore their rights to many things including their right to healthcare, an education or a job.

There are indeed impediments to carrying out a census. To begin, they’re expensive. With the estimated price for implementing a census in the DRC believed to be around $173 million, it is clear that this is no small bill to foot. They are also often contested, with debates raging across the continent about how accurate these counts are, considering their capacity to guide decision making for years to come. The question is where do we go from here?

What is clear is that the status quo isn’t tenable either. The need for improved national statistics on the continent is so stark that in 2010, due to improved data sources and a shift in counting methods, Ghana’s GDP was found to be 62% higher than originally believed. This shift in analysis led to the country being upgraded to middle income status. A very similar situation occurred in neighboring Nigeria, indicating just how widespread the issue actually is.  Such gaps in knowledge are not only harmful to the policy-making process, they encumber it.

Again, governments in Sub-Saharan Africa need not look far, to understand the potential problems this youth bulge presents. The Arab Spring was ushered in due to lack of opportunity for youths just north of the region. Further, protests against joblessness pushed youth in Senegal to press for the ousting of then president Abdoulaye Wade. Further, it has been reported that 40% of people who join rebel groups, which the continent is no stranger to, do so because of lack of economic opportunity. Thus, the potential for upheaval is clear.  

The path forward seems similarly clear. The government of Ghana, in order to help transform its informal economy, as well as to spur development, looked to hold a digital census at some point this year. While the technology necessary for this project still needs to be fine tuned, the government is looking to send enumerators out into the country with tablettes in order to ask detailed questions about resident’s households. Naturally, an initiative such as this will not come cheap, with the Ghanian government looking to spend $84 million on this operation. The dual benefit of this digital method of data collection is not only that population figures and detailed information on household conditions will be collected, but also that GPS coordinates will allow for a formal addressing system to be developed. 

It is often said that “demographics equals destiny.” While we don’t know how Africa’s youth bulge will play out, what we do know is the choice is clearly in African policymakers’ hands. As it stands, while some estimates claim Africa’s youth population may reach 830 million by 2050, others say it may reach around 400 million by 2045. These are estimates and naturally must be taken somewhat with a grain of salt. But it is clear that whether or not this massive spike in the youth population on the continent is a gift or a curse, will largely depend on the policies they chose to put in place, and those policies should depend on the data they have on hand. 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Future Africa Forum.