Africa’s young people look forward to bright future on the world’s most vulnerable continent
By Sophie Yeo in Marrakech
With two-thirds of its population below 24 years old, demographically Africa is the world’s youngest continent.
The figure is expected to double by 2045. There are difficulties linked with this—unemployment is high, and the youngest unable to fend for themselves in the case of climate disasters.
But speak to Ibrahim, Justine and Andrianarison, and it is not their problems that they highlight, but their energy, their dynamic approach to taking on the challenge of climate change.
“Young people are very energetic. They are the powerhouse of every nation,” said Ibrahim Ceesay, a 29-year-old from Gambia.
Ceesay speaks for 20,000 young people across 45 countries in Africa.
He is head of the Africa Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC), the continent’s biggest climate youth organisation.
He has come to Marrakech to the Fourth Climate Change and Development in Africa (CCDA-IV) conference to bring the message of Africa’s youth to those who still hold the reins of Africa’s climate response in their hands.
If that response fails, the consequences will be catastrophic. The latest Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change report says Africa could face a triple whammy of extreme weather, crop failures and disease if temperatures rise unchecked.
The omens don’t look good, but Ceesay he knows that the policymakers and scientists gathered in Marrakech won’t be the ones in charge forever.
Soon, he says, his own youthful demographic will be the ones carving out a new future for Africa, finding ways for its to overcome the climate threats that hang over its nations.
“Our members are spread within communities, universities, schools, and of course professionals like scientists, journalists, artists,” he says. “Because we are young and energetic our response to climate change now is going to help create the system of the future.”
Young people who are alert to the problems of climate change are also taking the education of their cohorts into their own hands, says Andrianarison Miora, a 30-year-old Madagascan, who is her country’s commissioner for Girl Guides, which works with AYICCC.
The group aims to “form, societise and educate young people to use different renewable energy every day,” she says. “We teach young people to advocate with governments. Our problem is we already have youth policies, but it’s not translated into activities.”
What Africa has is a “youth dividend”, says the World Bank in a 2013 report. But the payout will not be automatically deposited into the continent’s account.
Africa must figure out how to develop in a way that harnesses the vigour of its exploding population of young people. Agriculture offers a particular opportunity, as a sector which millions of youth will enter as they begin working life.
The challenge should be seen alongside the need to secure food supplies for its added millions over the coming years.
Across the rest of the world, rural populations are decreasing, while in Sub Saharan Africa, there will be 150 million more people living rural lives by 2050.
Many of these will be young people—yet to many, an agricultural career is not a glamorous prospect, particularly as climate change degrades land and disrupts weather patterns, making it harder for farmers to grow enough to feed even their own household.
For these young people, the correct approach to tackling climate change can also provide a general opportunity for a brighter future, explains Ceesay.
One idea is to encourage young people to advocate climate-smart agriculture, a concept where agriculture, forestry and fisheries become part of the solution to climate change rather than the problem.
This means using resources more efficiently, taking greater care of the surrounding environment and planting trees and crops that can ensure the land copes better with extreme changes in weather.
This reduces emissions at the same time as creating more resilient smallholdings as changing weather patterns disrupt traditional methods of cultivating the land.
And it’s an initiative that young people are ideally suited to help develop and grow, says Ceesay.
“Smart agriculture is important because it will change the agriculture sector, and if we encourage young people to go into smart agriculture that is the only way we can have food security and a sustainable environment. It is also linked to agribusiness,” he says.
As a newcomer to development, Africa has a particular advantage—its potential to create better lives and livelihoods in a way that doesn’t also wreck the planet, says Justine Braby, a 31-year-old from Namibia, who also works with AYICC.
“Against the global north, we are in a beautiful space in Africa at the moment, and that’s a beautiful part of our generation – we’re at the crossroads at the moment,” she says.
“We can either copy and paste the development path that has been taken by European and North American nations or we can foster our own development path and find a new definition of what it means to develop and how to do that sustainably.”
The challenges are immense. Africa lacks the financial resources, technical capacity and global political clout to drive change on its own.
It will require careful diplomacy and networking from today’s political leaders and the youth of tomorrow. It’s the latter that have most to gain, and lose.
Last year, the African Union set a master plan for Africa’s development over the next 50 years: Agenda 2063.
The Union acknowledges that Africa’s “young bulge” is one of the opportunities to be harnessed as it works towards a peaceful and more prosperous Africa over the next 50 years.
That’s hardly surprising, considering that today’s 20-year-olds will be in their 50s by the time the plan comes into fruition.
By then these three activists may well hold important positions of power in government, business or civil society. And they are all aware of the heavy burden that rests on their slim shoulders.
“We are the custodians of the future,” says Ceesay. “For the past 50 years Africa has faced a lot of challenges from conflict to bad leadership, but now Africa is rising.
“In fact,” he adds, “Africa has risen.”