Restless, unemployed, unemployable, inexperienced, poor attitude, unfocused etc. are some of the most common descriptions or characterizations of young people today. Some could be true, while others could be grossly misleading. But one thing is clear; the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the young people in epic proportions. It presents a monumental challenge and yet, it is the much needed reality check and comes loaded with opportunities and imperatives to test the applicability of the common saying “we the young people are the future leaders and the future is now”.
For those who watched the Terminator Franchise, the COVID-19 is like the reverent soldier sent back from the future to save mankind against machines in a post-apocalyptic future. Yes, it’s very confusing for those who watch it for the first time without watching the trailer or reading any preview. COVID-19 doesn’t have a trailer and it is that reverent soldier sent from the future and we are seeing the future play in front of us now. For the purpose of this article, I will restrict the discussions of young people to those 30 years and below. This is our future.
As things stand, not even the Nobel Laureates of economics can predict the future of work. While the scale of the pandemic impact remains uncertain, one certain thing is that a “new normal” is ushered in. Jobs and work might undergo a radical change. As young people, it is our duty to drive this radical change. We are and should be in the driving seat in every aspect of it. Gone are the days when they would use phrases like “youth should be included in decision making spaces” or that youth should be mobilized. By who? Today, we mobilize ourselves. The new normal now dictates that the youth should search, find and place themselves at the heart of everything.
For avoidance of any doubt, such spaces do not mean political or governance spaces. It includes; technology, entertainment, and production systems and every field of human endeavour.
In Uganda, more than 75% of the population is below the age of 30. In the East Africa Community (EAC), around 63% of the 150 million people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania are below the age of 30. Almost 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 30, making Africa the world’s youngest continent. By contrast, Asia and Africa are in the midst of substantial changes in the size of their youth populations. Africa’s youth population is however expected to continue to grow throughout the remainder of the 21st century, more than doubling from current levels by 2055.
Youth are the key constituents of human resource for development, social change, economic development and technological innovation. The ideas, inspirations, aspirations, considerable energy, vision and even the dare devil attitude of the youth are essential ammunition for the breakthrough and transformation of society. They always say that with every challenge you face, there is an opportunity hidden that will lead you towards the path of wealth and abundance. We need to rise up to the occasion now.
First and foremost, youth must ensure that they have representation on the National Task Forces. This to me is a call to action because COVID-19 is and will continue to affect young people more than any other age group. The National Youth Advocacy Platform (NYAP) calls upon the youth to mobilize and find their place at the National Task Force. The National Youth Council (NYC), though mandated to facilitate such engagements is not doing enough. This leaves the onus on the youth to find alternatives. Youth should explore every opportunity such as (social) media actions, physical engagements to demand for and install themselves on the decision making tables at all the Task Forces in the country. Nobody can know our problems better than us. If and when the NYC decides to lead the initiative, the better. But we should be prepared to sidestep it because formal bureaucracy is often used to exclude the young people.
There is a low hanging fruit in Technological innovation: Today, young people have in their hands, mobile phones whose computing power is one million times more powerful than the computer NASA used in Apollo 11 manned mission to the Moon in 1969. With the power of internet, there is no knowledge out of reach. The opportunities to self-learn has never been any better than it is now. The greatest incentive for innovation is peril or hardships. Several leading innovations arose from the global financial meltdown of 2007/2008 such as Uber. The economic and energy crises of the 1970s spurred problem-driven innovations that transformed Telecommunication. Right now, many innovators are designing apps and web based platforms for delivery of services and goods to the customers. The opportunities are limitless.
However, young people sometimes get caught on the undesirable aspects such as gossips, accessing immoral platforms and engaging in other criminalities. The choice is ours and we should not blame government or society, In any case, the world leading businesses and technologies such as Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft were all started in garages with barely much capital support at the start. The creativity of mind mobilizes capital. Not the other way round.
The agriculture sector is yet another opportunity young people must be ready to grab and drive the agenda of value addition and prime export markets. The pandemic has disrupted the agricultural production and supply chains in developed countries more than it has done in Uganda and Sub Saharan Africa. Global demands for foods will increase and exports receipts will not only provide employment but boost our economy.
The pandemic has led to global scale halt in nearly all games. Majority of young people in Uganda would spend in excess of 12 hours in sports betting facilities. So far, there is funeral level disquiet in that sector. This is an opportunity for young people to switch from gambling to farming. Long gone are the days when farming means tilling large tracks of land. Horticulture or kitchen gardening can take place virtually anywhere, anytime and on any sort of land. The capital requirements are low and yet demands for them are high. You may not even dig any piece of land except to collect soil in sacks and buckets for planting your vegetables. Other medium term produce like avocado are in high demands and can be planted on idle lands and around homes. Youths in Uganda can dominate global supply chain because we have the best climate, soils and fresh waters in the entire region.
Logistics and transport sector provides another monumental opportunity in the wake of this pandemic. As our economy becomes more and more urbanized, there is need to ensure efficient and effective delivery to the customers. More people are embracing online businesses and the youth can use their energy to run errands such as shopping and delivery for clients. Formalizing businesses has become easy and with online platform, there is no need to hire expensive office spaces in prime locations. You can even operate from your sitting room as your warehouse. Nobody will hand things to us on a silver platter.
The pandemic is casting more doubt on the relevance of the conventional education system. No one knows whether the education system we have will still be relevant and as such youth in Africa will need to tap more opportunities in the vocational skills and especially those that meet the needs of the 21st century labour market. The pandemic threw manufacturing and processing systems off balance. Production lines had to be re-tasked or repurposed to suit the needs of new essential commodities like personal protective equipment. As young people, we have to acquire practical skills that can enable re-tasking or repurposing as and when the need arises. Most of these skills are not very costly to acquire. Some of them cost just as much as the price of the phone we are holding. The small cars we drive can actually be a small cottage business. It’s just a matter of mind-set and priorities.
The pandemic has disrupted everyone. We either stand tall and be counted or they will count us as statistics for all the wrong reasons. Let’s harness our collective energy and power to imagine things and create business that will rise from the ashes of the pandemic. However, as young people, we cannot afford to whine and lament. Our future is now and we are the reverent soldier in the Terminator Franchise sent from the future to save mankind.
AUTHOR: James Cleto Mumbere, Coordinator of the National Youth Advocacy Platform (NYAP) – Uganda; Policy and Advocacy Department Community Integrated Development Initiatives (CIDI).