Access to Mobile Phones Won’t Magically Fix Youth Unemployment in Africa

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Many in the international development community view technology –not least, mobile phones – as a possible panacea for Africa’s youth unemployment crisis. Their use is sharply on the rise. Mobile phones reduce the need for physical travel, allow rapid access to information about job openings and enable people to contact potential employers. They can be used to help run more efficient businesses.

Research my colleagues and I conducted as part of a study funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development found that some young people in Africa are using mobile phones successfully to access or create employment. But mobile phones are failing many more young people in their search for employment and livelihoods.

The study, conducted in Ghana, Malawi and South Africa, suggests some important reasons why phones may be unable to help young people fulfil their employment dreams. Our findings demonstrate that phone connections are not enough. Connectivity is only useful if it opens up access to employment opportunities that will pay a living wage.

That’s the crux of the problem: there simply aren’t enough quality jobs available. Ghana and Malawi have extensive informal sectors which have long provided at least some work for young people. Mobile phones have opened up some new opportunities in the informal sector – young people sell airtime or repair handsets, or may grow their service and trading businesses through the phone.

South Africa, meanwhile, has failed to grow a vibrant informal sector since apartheid ended in 1994. Its young people tend to be looking for work in the formal sector, and most do not have the employability skills that might make mobile phones useful to achieving this goal.

In reality the extent to which the mobile phone can support and sustain real improvement in young lives is depressingly finite unless significant interventions occur – particularly in the education and technology sectors.

Informal versus formal sector

Our respondents were aged between nine and 25 and came from 24 diverse sites from poor urban neighbourhoods to remote rural locations. We conducted more than 1500 interviews face to face and in focus groups, and followed this up with a questionnaire survey of about 4500 young people.

In Ghana and Malawi – as in much of sub-Saharan Africa – most young people are exposed to work in the informal sector at an early age. There are many problems with this. But limited inputs into the informal sector can bring significant benefits.

It can help children to build a repertoire of knowledge and skills that will later help them to obtain an income. It’s also a way to consolidate social networks young people can draw on when they are subsequently searching for paid work.

Over the last decade, mobile phones have brought potential and new flexibility into young people’s lives. This is especially true for those who are entrepreneurial. Some of the people we interviewed earn a living directly linked to phones: selling airtime, charging and mending phones. This is often short-term, low paid work but can help them to earn money for further training. They also used their phones extensively to build up personal contacts in key support networks while looking for jobs.

The situation in South Africa is very different. In the poor urban neighbourhoods where we conducted the study, virtually every household where we interviewed young people owns at least one phone and smart phone access is growing rapidly. But the devices have had remarkably little positive impact on young people’s livelihoods.

Work opportunities of any kind for low-skilled youth are very sparse, and especially so in the absence of a vibrant informal sector. This is a historical legacy stemming back to bans on informal enterprise during the apartheid era. Unemployed school leavers tend to concentrate on trying to find low-skill jobs in the formal sector. Most formal jobs, however, require higher skill levels; so competition for low-skill jobs is very intense and few young people succeed in their search for work.

Poor young people in South Africa also lack access to productive social networks that could provide them with information about the formal job market. Few have had the opportunity to gain work experience during their school days, which would help them to acquire the key skills and networking opportunities that might promote employability. Many look for volunteer posts which they hope will give them the experience and skills to find paid work.

All of this emphasises a fundamental difference in youth employment stakes between Ghana and Malawi on the one hand, and South Africa on the other: the role of the informal sector. In the first two countries the informal sector dominates. Despite its very many deficiencies, it provides a training ground for learning basic skills and a labour absorption mechanism.

In South Africa the near absence of informal sector openings arguably denies low-skilled young people any early work experience and limits their subsequent access to paid work opportunities.

Access to mobile phones cannot change this reality. Bigger changes at a societal level are necessary.

Moving on?

Both the overall basket and the scope of local livelihood opportunities open to young people will have to grow exponentially, across the continent, if mobile phones are to realise their potential in local employment arenas.

Researchers at the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit and the Children’s Institute who were involved in this project suggest various interventions that might help, particularly in South Africa.

For instance, travel vouchers could help young people who currently don’t have enough money to move from deprived areas to areas with labour demand. And, given the stronger demand for skilled over unskilled labour, there’s obviously an urgent need for skills development and training at secondary, post-secondary and workplace level. There are some opportunities to build experience through the country’s public works programme, National Youth Service and NGO volunteering. But these need to incorporate stronger skills training for young people from poor communities.

South Africa could also consider extending social assistance to the chronically unemployed through a basic income grant or a comprehensive support package for poor youth. This would make sense when many young people are currently trapped in poverty, often exacerbated by the need to contribute to their family incomes – a reality which could hinder their ability to invest in training or business expansion.

The full paper on which this article is based is available here.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.