The Changing Concept of Youth in Africa: From “children” to harnessing them as a demographic dividend

I recall the words so vividly: “You are a mafikozolo – the just arrived”! What did I know about women’s human rights? What did I know about human rights broadly? Who did I think I was to come into an already defined space and attempt a transformation of how things were done? Young “girls” were supposed to know their place and let adults make the decisions. I was just a “youth” after all.

There is an intergenerational obligation of support and reciprocity, and governments have failed to harness the youth demographic dividend.
There is an intergenerational obligation of support and reciprocity, and governments have failed to harness the youth demographic dividend.
Grace Chirenje's picture

Feminist Leader

March 8th, 2018

I recall the words so vividly: “You are a mafikozolo – the just arrived”! What did I know about women’s human rights? What did I know about human rights broadly? Who did I think I was to come into an already defined space and attempt a transformation of how things were done? Young “girls” were supposed to know their place and let adults make the decisions. I was just a “youth” after all.

The more I played around with the words that had been hurled at me, the more I got angry and resolute to ensuring that young women created a space to know themselves better and make a difference; the more I also wanted an urgent transformation of the status quo. In a bid to unpack my struggle, internal conflict and situation, I thought it best to have a conversation with my mother. I shared with her my situation and the wordsI had been told. My mother told me that it is the way things are – “children ought to obey their parents”, after all that is what the Bible said. What she told me is that things are the way they should be. I realised then that unless I worked with other like‑minded young people, we were doomed to relegating our destiny to adults who seemed unaware and unconscious of the existence of an alternative world – of creating that reality, then making it happen. My story is not unique – it resonates with very many young people today. They need to be knowledgeable, to be heard, to amplify voices and to make a difference as growing souls. However, most of this will remain a mirage if African leaders, the young people themselves, and other players take no practical steps in bringing youth to the centre of the development agenda.

In this21st century, young people have been transitioning, both in the definition of the term youth and their fitting into the development agenda. There has been a clear trajectory that can be traced in placing youth on the development agenda and ensuring that they become key players in the contemporary development discourse in Africa, and not just spectators. The recent acknowledgment by the African Union (AU) in dedicating 2017 as a year of “Harnessing Demographic Dividend through Investment in the Youth” enhances the youth agenda across the development sector in African countries. In the next few pages, I will seek to explore what all these notions mean, and how they relate to the youth as a critical mass in Africa’s contemporary development discourse. It is critical to develop comprehensive programmes that facilitate the enhancement of the youth’s capacities and facilitate cohesion to ensure their meaningful participation in transforming the development realities of Africa.

Defining youth in the African context

A cursory look across Africa will reveal that youth in the African traditional culture are broadly and traditionally regarded as “children”. Perhaps the most outstanding unpacking of the concept of youth is one closely linked to understanding the definition of the concept of children in Africa. Ncube (1998) argues that the notion of understanding traditional concepts of childhood is different from that of the developed world. He goes on to explain that in Africa, it is not age that is of paramount importance, but “inter‑generational obligations of support and reciprocity”.

The UNDP (2006: 12) supports Ncube’s argument, noting that youth is a social construct and is less about age than it is about status and behaviour. A “child”(of what average)in the African tradition has certain expectations attached to them by their parents. As long as a young person is still of a certain social status and behaves in a certain way, they are deemed as youth and are under the care and protection of some guardian or parent – they  are expected to follow what their guardian considers ideal. This means that young people in African traditional society have essentially no rights outside those of children. This puts young people in a somewhat precarious position, as they face tremendous pressure to prove that they are no longer children but can fend and care for themselves. However, policy‑related documents have shifted the definition of youth in Africa.

The definition of youth can be understood broadly to mean young people, although the age bracket may differ from context to context. The African Charter (2006: 11) explains that “youth shall refer to any person aged between fifteen to thirty five years”. The UN defines youth as “those persons between the age of fifteen and  twenty‑four years, without prejudice to other definitions by Member States….” Furlong (2012: 300) defines youth as a “social construct, detached from biological criteria”. He goes on to agree to the aforementioned point that “youth is constructed differently across time and space”.

As a social construct, youth defines a time of transition and confusion. Young people are trying to get a grasp of their identity and are journeying into adulthood. For many, it is a time to discover who they are and who they want to be. It is a critical time to grow and define their worldview. As described by UNDP (2006: 12), the youth phase of life is when an individual needs “protection, sheltering, and guidance to self‑determination, maturity, independence, responsibility and accountability for decision making.” This is never easy, especially when coupled with low economic status and lack of freedom. Youth is a time to learn, unlearn and relearn, and relationship issues become central to the youth. Youth are susceptible to many forms of abuse as they seek to chart their future course with very little experience. However,youth are also a force to reckon with. Young people are expected to be trained and acquire skills that will contribute to their economies (Ball et al 2000). This provides an opportunity for young people to thrive, explore, and contribute to Africa’s development.

The gendered dimension of youth

The UNDP (2006) recognises that the meaning of“youth” varies across societies, and has a gendered dimension, with girls and boys experiencing being young differently. In defining the youth, Ellis (1999) argues that there should be a clear gendered definition that shows that the world contracts for girls but expands for boys, who are often regarded as men more than girls are regarded as women during the same transitional periods. Africa has many rituals and ceremonies that are rites of passage, marking the transition from child hood to adulthood, and these differ for boys and girls. It is sufficient to note that girls are often relegated to the domestic sphere whilst boys are left to chart their own course. Girls often lack safe spaces to collectively co‑create alternatives for their participation and advancement. This has resulted in fewer women than men making it in leadership or participating in spaces where developmental decisions are made. When looking at the possibilities of harnessing the youth as a critical partner to development, stakeholders need to be aware of the reality that patriarchy continues to affect youth development and participation. Issues around gender equality and equity should be central as players go about their work with the youth.

The youth: a mere nuisance or change agents?
In Africa, the youth have been at the centre of resistant movements and transformation. In South Africa, the youth were very active in dismantling apartheid and today we see them challenging the status quo. Zimbabwe’s war against the Ian Smith regime was won with the active support of the youth of yesteryear and today in Zimbabwe the most restless people challenging President Mugabe are once again the youth. Uganda after the overthrow of Idi Amin saw a youth take over; PresidentMuseveni was then a youth and today he faces the wrath of the youth as they seek a better narrative for the Pearl of Africa.

Recalling the various resistant movements and why the young decided to get involved in the liberation struggles of the day, Nieftagodien (2011) explains that “the movement gave hope to a generation of black youth that they could change society by liberating themselves. Emancipation for them [the youth] was all‑encompassing: economic, social, political and cultural. They were audacious and had a vision for freedom”. The same aspirations are true for the youth today.

Youth at the centre of resistance movements in Africa


In unpacking the notion of waithood, Honwana (2013) explains that this isa “prolonged period of suspension between childhood and adulthood”. This period is filled with a lot of uncertainties, and young people have to improvise, especially around economic realities and personal relations. This puts §young people in a precarious position as they grapple with bad governance, corruption, state capture, loneliness, poor gender response of social services, and conflicted notions of identity. Young people are desperate for something better than what the status quo across Africa seems to provide.

Waithood is a “prolonged period of suspension between childhood and adulthood” filled with uncertainties, andyoung people have to improvise, especially around economic realities and personal relations.

In my introduction, I shared my personal experience, and this resonates with very manyyoung people – this is what the waithood is all about. Young people yearn for a transformation of their realities, with no one caring enough to offer an alternative. The youth then begin to attempt to utilise their power to usher in a new narrative.

North Africa

The Maghreb region in Northwest Africa includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania (Burckhardt 1997: 7). This region considers itself more Arabic than African because of their history. Islam is widely practiced, with some instances of religious fundamentalism. The Maghreb is associated with the Arab Spring that took place between December 2010 and December 2012. The Arab Spring was a result of authoritarianism and a deep desire of the youth for a brighter future (Davies 2014: 307). Other causes of the Arab Springs include kleptocracy, human rights violations, unemployment, political corruption, and structural demographic factors that include the failure to harness the youth bulge.

The Arab Spring resulted in many transformations. In Morocco, constitutional reforms were implemented as a result of the protests. In Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, governments were overthrown. Young people used creative ways of mobilising and organising, such as protest camps, civil resistance, social media, and sit‑ins. The youth were tired of their current reality and took matters into their own hands. The governments of the day failed to harness the youth’s energy so as to develop an alternative that would result in a win‑win situation. This shows the need for dialogue if the youth are going to have their realities transformed. The Maghreb region remains generally unstable.

Hassler (2011) examines the role of religion in the Arab Spring. He explains that individual faith and religion cannot be overlooked in the protests. The interpretation of the Quran and use of Mosques as sites of the struggle for “democracy” is key in this analysis. What is critical to note is that religion is central in Africa when talking about youth. Religion is sometimes used as a way of blinding young people, encouraging complacency by promising a joyful future in a paradise to come, and young people are duped by religious leaders into giving up their hard‑earned income in a bid to “seed” a brighter future. Religion plays a major role in Africa, and it is important to explore ways of using religious spaces strategically to further the youth’s political consciousness (as in the Arab Spring).

West Africa

An interesting case study in West Africa would be the Gambia, where Yahya Jammeh involuntarily left the throne after a twenty‑two year rule. The youth of Gambia worked on a campaign, , mobilising, organising themselves, and supporting the formation of a progressive coalition that eventually ousted Jammeh. The youth were frustrated and tired of the status quo, and a frustrated youth is a recipe for disaster. Governments can indeed be toppled.

In Nigeria, the young people continue to actively challenge the centres of power and demand transformation. Boko Haram continues to threaten Nigerian youth participation, as unemployment, weak family


There is an intergenerational obligation of support and reciprocity, and governments have failed to harness the youth demographic dividend.

structures, illiteracy, and poverty make young people vulnerable to radicalisation (Onuoha 2012). Young women are used as prisoners of war by the fundamentalist groupings, with the girls of Chibok being at the centre of recent narratives. Again we see the vulnerability of youth during the period of wait hood.

East Africa

East Africa has been regarded as a militarised region, with many leaders who came to power in a coup of some sort. In Uganda (considered the most stable and peaceful country in East Africa), young people form seventy seven percent of the population. They live in dire poverty, defined by high levels of corruption (Furlong, ibid), and are increasingly restless. Governments need to explore ways to engage and work with the youth to avoid instability in the region.

In Kenya, al‑Shabab continues to wreak havoc on the country’s peace and security with terrorist attacks on Westgate Mall in 2013 and the Garissa University in 2015. Again, religious fundamentalism is threatening the lives of the youth, and in Kenya a new type of Pentecostalism threatens young women’s bodily integrity as they police what women should wear and insist on the marriage of young women.

Southern Africa

This region has been regarded as the most stable on the African continent, with most civil unrest in most countries having ended after the fight for independence. Zimbabwe has seen a fair share of youth unrest in resistance to the three‑decade rule of President Mugabe. Young women and men have taken centre stage in the struggle for emancipation.

The University ofZambia has been known as a centre for struggle and resistance, but the government has now put in place stringent measures for those caught participating in protests. Mozambique has a fair share of youth who have come together to protest the status quo, with some joining forces with Dhlakama. In South Africa, the leadership of Julius Malema has ushered in the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who use unconventional methods to challenge power and the status quo.

These regional examples show how the youth are taking their place to define what they want to see in their countries. The concept of wait hood has a direct link to the youth’s restlessness. Most of these interventions are unplanned and could have dire outcomes, because there are sometimes no planned alternatives to the status quo.

The youth as a demographic dividend

What is the youth bulge?

“A youth bulge is a common phenomenon in many developing countries” (Lin 2012), and this notion is especially linked to the least developed countries. It is a result of a country successfully reducing infant mortality, while still having high fertility rates. This results in a high proportion of young adults and children in the population.
The youth bulge has often been associated with restless youth. Hendrixson (2003) explains that the notion of a youth bulge is a situation where twenty percent of the population is defined as youth. Where the population also has high percentages of men, the threat of violence is high.
What is the youth dividend?

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA 2016) defines a demographic dividend as “the economic growth potential that can result from shifts in a population age structure….”. This has to do with the age of those who are involved in productive work being higher than those of the non‑working age in a population. Williams (2012) explains that a demographic dividend

The leaders in Africa are mostly old men who frame their leadership in strongly patriarchal terms. They still believe that youth are children and, whatever the AU decides, their attitudes and behaviors remain the same.

has to do with a workforce that creates an opportunity for more investments in education and health care, and increases out puts for investments and economic growth. A demographic dividend has to with a population having its youthful population engaged in productive work, and less resources are allocated to caring for a younger population, This results in economic growth. Lin (2012) adds that:

In a country with a youth bulge, as the young adults enter the working age, the country’s dependency ratio…will decline. If the increase in the number of working age individuals can be fully employed in productive activities, other things being equal, the level of income per capita should increase as a result. The youth bulge will become a demographic dividend.

In order for youth in Africa to actually become an economic dividend, there are many conditions that need to be in held place. Audiopedia (undated) identifies four critical aspects that facilitate the translation of a demographic dividend into economic development. Firstly, there should be an increased labor supply and an economy able to employ workers. Secondly, there needs to be an increase in savings due to decreased dependence, resulting in capital development and higher productivity. Thirdly, human capital has to be able to cope with economic pressures and enhance better education for their families. And fourthly, there must be increased domestic demand due to increased Gross Domestic Produce (GDP).

The question for Africa is whether these four conditions can be met so as to effectively harness the youth as an economic dividend.

Harnessing the youth as a demographic dividend

On 30 January 2017, the AU met under the theme “Harnessing Demographic Dividend through Investment in the Youth”. This was in line with a decision taken by the same meeting in January 2016 to facilitate the harnessing of youth in Africa as central to the development discourse (AU 2016: 1). This decision gives a sense of commitment by leaders in Africa to stop treating the youth as“children” at the development table. However, actions speak louder than words.

Despite the progress that has been made in ensuring that glossy‑paged documents with progressive thoughts are produced, much still needs to be done to translate those progressive thoughts, decisions and roadmaps into reality. The lived realities of the youth in Africa show a totally different picture. There is so much more that is missing for the youth.

The leaders in Africa are mostly old men who frame their leadership in strongly patriarchal terms. They still believe thatyouth are children and, whatever the AU decides, their attitudes and behaviors remain the same. These are men (and occasionally women) who are committed to holding onto power, and they very rarely care to think what the youth actually want. After all, these are their children, nieces, and nephews – mere “youngsters”. Power is what is at the top of their agenda.

A true harnessing of the youth as a demographic dividend, facilitating economic development in Africa, means treating young people as equals (which in fact they are). The narrative of youth has shifted, and the youth are now regarded as critical players in the contemporary development discourse.

Much has beens aid about the youth bulge and the demographic dividend. The main issue now is exploring how to make the AU decision count for the youth. The four main themes preferred in the roadmap will be used as a way of framing the way forward. I recommend the following:

  1. A transformation of mindsets by leaders so they see the youth as equal players in the development discourse. There can be shared multi‑generational learning. Active listening could be of critical importance for both the leaders and the youth
  2. Comprehensive sexuality education – governments should facilitate awareness‑raising around young people’s sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR), because this directly affects the youth bulge, More than that, understanding theirSRHR will enable the youth to make decisions about their future and not contract diseases that will be detrimental to their role in economic development.
  3. Education and skills development – governments should ensure that the education that is being offered in schools is in line with global demands for labor. Educational systems currently seem to produce employees instead of entrepreneurs.
  4. Entrepreneurship and employment – closely linked to the above recommendation is ensuring that youth(as key partners to the contemporary development discourse) have access to financial resources to fund entrepreneurial enhancement and development. This should take into account the fact that the youth may not have the necessary experience, track records, or even understanding of becoming “borrowers”. Stringent methods of repayment need to be developed to foster a culture of accountability and transparency
  5. Rights, governance and empowerment – governments should promote a non‑partisan and objective awareness of rights for young people, coupled with good democratic governance and ensuring that the youth are at the centre of their own empowerment. Literature should be packaged in a youth‑friendly way and be disseminated using the mediums of communication preferred by the youth.

Governments across Africa have made much progress in ensuring that they harness the youth as a demographic dividend. A clear example is in the ratification and domestication of the Youth Charter by African countries, and now the adaptation of the roadmap of “Harnessing Demographic Dividend through Investment in the Youth”. The progress in Africa is commendable, but more needs to be done to see the narrative of African youth transformed.


The youth in Africa have journeyed through many stages of definition, from being regarded as mere children and spectators to their own development, to them occupying the centre stage in contemporary development discourse as a result of the demographic dividend factor. However, more needs to be done to translate the demographic dividend into something meaningful for young people in Africa. The AU declaration of 2017 as the year for “Harnessing Demographic Dividend through Investment in the Youth” offers a major opportunity for young people to come together with their leaders and assert their role as critical contributors to the contemporary development discourse.


Grace Ruvimbo Chirenje is a feminist known for her magnanimous African energy and strong dedication to her work. She is the youth advisor at Action Aid International Uganda. Her background is humanities. She holds an Honors degree in African languages and culture, a Masters degree in leadership and management, and a PHD in gender, feminism and sexualities (with a minor in leadership). Grace’s passion is working with young people and facilitating for their highest level of human potential development. She is a writer, mother, wife, sister, talk‑show hostandlives a fulllife. Grace loves reading, bodycombat, aerobics, swimming and communing with nature.


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About the author(s)

Grace Chirenje is a growing feminist leader from Harare, Zimbabwe. Her background is in the humanities. She holds an Honours degree in African Languages and Culture, and a Masters in Leadership and Management. She is currently studying towards her PhD in Gender, Feminism and Sexualities with a minor in Leadership. Grace’s passion is working with women and girls and helping them reach their full potential. Grace is known for her magnanimity, energy and strong dedication to life and her work in all its facets. She is also a writer, mother, wife, sister and talk-show host. She works hard to juggle her athletic and relaxation activities with her work, research and role as a black African feminist leader. Twitter handle:


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