Many in the international development community view technology –not least, mobile phones – as a possible panacea for Africa’s youth unemployment crisis. Their use is sharply on the rise. Mobile phones reduce the need for physical travel, allow rapid access to information about job openings and enable people to contact potential employers. They can be used to help run more efficient businesses.
Research my colleagues and I conducted as part of a study funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development found that some young people in Africa are using mobile phones successfully to access or create employment. But mobile phones are failing many more young people in their search for employment and livelihoods.
The study, conducted in Ghana, Malawi and South Africa, suggests some important reasons why phones may be unable to help young people fulfil their employment dreams. Our findings demonstrate that phone connections are not enough. Connectivity is only useful if it opens up access to employment opportunities that will pay a living wage.
That’s the crux of the problem: there simply aren’t enough quality jobs available. Ghana and Malawi have extensive informal sectors which have long provided at least some work for young people.
Mobile phones have opened up some new opportunities in the informal sector – young people sell airtime or repair handsets, or may grow their service and trading businesses through the phone.
South Africa, meanwhile, has failed to grow a vibrant informal sector since apartheid ended in 1994. Its young people tend to be looking for work in the formal sector, and most do not have the employability skills that might make mobile phones useful to achieving this goal.
In reality the extent to which the mobile phone can support and sustain real improvement in young lives is depressingly finite unless significant interventions occur – particularly in the education and technology sectors.
Informal versus formal sector
Our respondents were aged between nine and 25 and came from 24 diverse sites from poor urban neighbourhoods to remote rural locations. We conducted more than 1500 interviews face to face and in focus groups, and followed this up with a questionnaire survey of about 4500 young people.
In Ghana and Malawi – as in much of sub-Saharan Africa – most young people are exposed to work in the informal sector at an early age. There are many problems with this. But limited inputs into the informal sector can bring significant benefits.
It’s also a way to consolidate social networks young people can draw on when they are subsequently searching for paid work.
Over the last decade, mobile phones have brought potential and new flexibility into young people’s lives. This is especially true for those who are entrepreneurial. Some of the people we interviewed earn a living directly linked to phones: selling airtime, charging and mending phones.
This is often short-term, low paid work but can help them to earn money for further training. Access to mobile phones cannot change this reality. Bigger changes at a societal level are necessary.