The scramble from Africa

What is the price we’ll pay for hope?

Oftentimes, people are forced to leave their homes, families, places of comfort, and the roots that shape their identities, in pursuit of freedom and education or economic opportunities. The pursuit sometimes comes with the risk of exposure to conditions that leave desperate people even more vulnerable. This is particularly evident on the African continent, a land that was plundered and pillaged for centuries for both its natural resources, and indeed its most precious commodity, its people.

The tale of migration is not a foreign concept for the children of Africa. For years, forced migrations in the form of slavery took Africans off its shores from their homes to strange foreign lands, where they were forced to endure perpetual subjugation and dehumanizing conditions across whole generations. Despite slavery having been abolished many moons ago and African countries having attained political independence, there is a new and more worrying form of migration taking place that threatens to rob Africa of its future and deplete one of its most precious resources, its young people. What is this new migration then, and what are the implications?

Searching for Opportunity

From the sandy, snow-white beaches of Vilanculos, Mozambique, to the tree-canopied rainforest of The Congo; Africa is full of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world. Sandton, Cairo, and Nairobi are but a few examples of African cities that hold both beauty and modernity, demonstrating that Africa has it all, and is a continent full of life and potential. However, unemployment is a plague that runs rampant throughout the continent, forcing young people to travel out of their countries to seek work. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon or a uniquely African problem but it’s an ongoing issue that has become more pressing.

It is a grave concern in many parts of Africa that the quality of employment is poor, meaning that those few young Africans who do have work, earn wages that barely cover basic living costs. Some enterprising youths strive to eke out a living through creative entrepreneurship activities and while this has the positive effect of creating resilient and innovative leaders, lack of access to finance or venture capital, fluctuating markets, and unstable economies, result in the majority of start-ups dying a natural death before they get a chance to flourish.

A quick scour of social media tells of the tense emotions that young people feel about the situation on the ground. Timelines are filled with lamentations about the failings of their countries’ governments to provide opportunities, while simultaneously trying to find joy in the simple things that they have in common. In more stark scenarios, youths in some African countries end up resorting to illicit drugs for an escape, albeit fleeting. 

It would be irresponsible to not acknowledge that sentiments vary across the continent as the issue is more nuanced, but a recent report showed that there has been a decline in Afro-optimism amongst young African people over the last few years, and much of this is attributed to a feeling that things are not, and may not get better.

The Psychological Impact

In African culture, one's worth and autonomy are based on their ability to look after themselves and support their family. This adds immense pressure on young people who are burdened with the expectation to assume big responsibilities when they can barely look after themselves. This is often because the parents and adults within their households are also facing the same challenges of unemployment. Failure to live up to these expectations and the inability to secure a job that matches one's skills and qualifications can take a significant toll on young people's mental health and lead to feelings of frustration, hopelessness, and anxiety. Additionally, the feeling of being trapped or stuck in one's current situation can have a significant impact on self-esteem and may lead to young people feeling that they have no control over their lives, leading to a sense of helplessness and low self-worth.

Malawi, the country I call home, has a significant lack of jobs and while opportunities do exist, competition for the little employment that exists is extremely high, and the difference between employed or unemployed often comes down to ‘who you know’.

As it stands, Africa is a continent full of complex and often contradicting stories of success and failure with too many variables that can dictate which end of the spectrum one can end up at. While some seem to be living lavishly despite the harsh conditions, others find themselves in a constant state of anguish without any hope of a breakthrough which then leads to taking desperate measures to escape.

Those who have been lucky to escape to the diaspora tend to sell images and lifestyles that portray (sometimes falsely) boundless pleasure, well-being, and the ability to easily make colossal amounts of money. It is no wonder then that young Africans feeling stuck on the continent are drawn to the false promises of joy that they are led to believe are easily attainable abroad. Even though the significant challenges of moving from anywhere in Africa to the West such as discrimination, culture shock, and language barriers are well documented, the perceived promise of a better life often outweighs the known risks.

Collective effort

Despite all of this, young Africans have a strong desire to see their homelands prosper and remain hopeful that things will indeed improve. Many young people have an unshakeable resolve to improve their own situations. However, this can only be done with a coordinated effort from governments, private sector organisations, and civil society.

Governments play a critical role in creating more opportunities and addressing unemployment; however, the tale of modern-day Africa cannot be told without mentioning its leadership which is generally viewed as weak and corrupt. There is a clear lack of trust with many young people sharing the sentiments that Covid-19 death tolls were exaggerated to further political ambitions.

Africa’s solution is its youth, who must be given the right foundation to build a corruption-free, more prosperous Africa. Investment in education is particularly important, as it provides young Africans with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the job market. Job creation is also crucial, as it provides young people with a pathway to economic independence and a better future. Investment in infrastructure is necessary to create resources and an enabling environment for entrepreneurship and economic growth.

Hoping against hope

While the allure of the global north and the promise of opportunity may be too tempting, the struggle to survive and integrate once abroad can create its own challenges. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, African youth’s ingenuity and resilience can be leveraged for positive outcomes. Addressing the challenges above with investment in education, job creation, and infrastructure, as well as a coordinated global approach to supporting them can help to create a brighter future for all young Africans, both at home and abroad.

No doubt Africa's young people hold the key to the continent’s development potential with its global population expected to have reached 8 billion by November 2022 and constituting 42% of global youth by 2030. It is up to African governments to appreciate the value of their young people and prioritise them in fiscal policies. They need to find ways to keep the youth and lure back those that might have settled overseas with meaningful incentives.

With or without government support, African youth have proven to be anything but passive. The millennial generation has lived through the continent’s meteoric rise in mobile and internet penetration rates. So given a fair chance, they will certainly play a key role in shaping their future as seen in the exciting and disruptive tech start-up scenes in places like Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, and Ghana. Afrobeats music is now almost a mainstream music genre, and it's young people that are leading the charge, creating opportunities for themselves.

Migration is not inherently a bad thing, there just needs to be a balance.  Migrants do make important economic, developmental, and cultural contributions to their home countries through remittances, but the long-term impact of African youth brain drain could be disastrous for Africa.

The opportunity cost of youth migration is complex and multifaceted so the true price can only remain to be seen. However, no one can argue that Africa’s future is bleak without an educated, proud, empowered, and hopeful youth.