The future of work may be the defining issue of our time. Africa will fast become the world’s work force as 375 million young Africans will enter labour markets by 2030. The question of how they will find meaningful, dignified livelihoods is on the mind of every young person, every parent, and every president.
The continent’s youthful dynamism is poised to make this an African century. But helping this rising generation fulfil that promise will require transformation - not only of particular economic sectors, but of how we think about work itself.
The nature of work is changing – fast. We need to keep pace. It will not be enough to focus only on our traditional image of formal, white-collar work in established sectors for established firms or the government. Instead, we must reckon with how young Africans actually work today and how they are most likely to find work tomorrow.
The good news is that work – hard work that can earn respect and money – is all around us. The challenge is that too often, these possibilities remain invisible and, therefore, go unexplored. How, then, do we make the invisible visible? How do we to help young Africans create work where it did not exist before?
Making the invisible means supporting young people like the urban farmers I met in the Kibera section of Nairobi. Instead of lamenting about the difficulties of bringing fresh vegetables to city dwellers, Purity Kendi and Phenny Omondi saw a huge untapped market to make money, create work, and deliver safe, fresh vegetables for their community by starting an urban farm.
In five months, they went from dirt and dreams to a thriving business. The two young farmers, who are Mastercard Foundation Scholar alumni and are now our partners in the field, have already broken ground on new sites. They have trained more than100 women and young people, many of whom are eager to follow their lead into urban farming.
Purity and Phenny changed the frame of what we traditionally envision as “work.” This means considering not just salaried jobs, but a wide spectrum of activities: Entrepreneurial start-ups, self-employed tradesmen and women, the digitalisation of entire industries, part-time farming, and combining multiple income streams to make ends meet.
Alongside salaried jobs, all will be essential aspects of the future of work and should be part of our strategies today.
Making the invisible visible requires everyone engaged in shaping Africa’s economic future to be at once more pragmatic and more imaginative.
For example, it means treating gaps in African economies, not as reasons to trim one’s ambitions, but as opportunities for entrepreneurship and “leapfrogging” innovation. It means seeing not just the value of existing work, but the potential additional commercial and social opportunities around it.
Often these work-creating innovations draw on technology. Because, just as our lives are becoming digital, so is work. Every occupation involves technology – from construction to sales, carpentry to nursing.
Across Africa, there is an insatiable demand for young people with digital skills. Digitalising Africa’s businesses can create new businesses and entire new sectors, as work begets work and opportunity begets opportunity. But that will only happen if people have access to information, knowledge, and skills.
There can be a thousand more stories like Purity and Phenny’s.
But, only if we invest in Africa’s greatest natural resource: the limitless talents of its young men and especially its young women. To that end, we at the Mastercard Foundation have set the goal, in partnership with African organisations and young people, to co-create strategies that will help 30 million people across Africa to find dignified, fulfilling work over the next decade. There is no silver bullet, but success is closer than it might seem.
Mr Roy is the president and CEO
of Mastercard Foundation.