Mandela Washington fellows visit the United States to undergo six weeks of intensive executive leadership and academic training at some of the country’s top universities and to participate in the Young African Leaders Initiative Summit, an event that precedes the inaugural gathering of African heads of state and government in Washington, D.C. from Aug. 4-6, 2014. Photo by: Exchanges Photos / CC BY-NC-ND

African youth, like many around the world, are hungry to solve their own problems.

Not content to wait for institutions to take action, young people in Africa are taking charge of their futures today. They are creating jobs for themselves and their communities. They are expanding the services nongovernmental organizations offer from job skills development to psychosocial care. And they are raising their voices to influence policy changes in their countries.

This week, I had the honor of chairing a session on economic development with some of the Washington Fellows, a diverse group of 500 Africans who are in the United States as part of President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. Within this amazing cohort, more than 150 already own a business and, as a group, they employ over 2,000 individuals.

During the series of rapid fire micro “Ted-like” talks and in numerous conversations IREX has had with the fellows and our university partners, a list of concrete recommendations is emerging for how we, the global community, can support African youth and accelerate their economic success:

▪ Invite youth leaders and groups to participate in policy design and implementation.

▪ Urge African governments to dedicate a percentage of annual gross domestic product for youth employment programs and startups.

▪ Launch or expand incubators, free trade zones and startup incentives for African youth.

▪ Increase partnership opportunities between international corporations and youth-owned businesses in Africa.

▪ Encourage financial institutions to increase access to capital for youth-led initiatives.

▪ Incorporate practical classes into secondary curricula including entrepreneurship education.

▪ Destigmatize vocational education (also an issue here).

▪ Expand internships across the continent in order to give youth practical experience and allow employers to scope out new talent.

▪ Make sure that all training and assistance programs are sensitive to gender-based economic barriers.

Some of these approaches are already underway, but not nearly to the scale needed to address youth unemployment rates, which are generally twice that of adults in most African countries.

However, we’re seeing a surge in private sector engagement. Companies like Microsoft, Coca-ColaIBM and others view these opportunities as strategic investments. Youth are where the smart money is. They have the talent businesses need for their workforce and the innovation to improve operations. They’re business partners and suppliers in corporate supply chains. And, of course, employed youth represent a powerful consumer base.

We need to share widely what is working and augment approaches that demonstrate the most promising results in employing youth and in helping youth become employers as well. When we amplify and listen to the voices of youth, work in partnership with young leaders and youth-led organizations, and act on their innovative ideas, we help young people to forge their own futures to the benefit of all.

The Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is a program of the U.S. government and supported in its implementation by IREX. For more information on President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, please visit

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About the author

  • Joyce Warner

    Joyce Warner is senior vice president and chief of staff at IREX. She serves as a senior technical advisor to a portfolio of public- and privately-supported education and youth programs totalling over $85 million, in addition to providing leadership to a team of 80 education and development professionals worldwide.