Investing in Gambia’s youth

In June, The Association of Non Governmental Organizations (TANGO) and the African Capacity Building Foundation brought the Gambia’s Minister of Trade together with development organizations and bankers for the Top Employers Forum in Banjul. The aim was to discuss strategies for job creation, especially among the youth.

The big question was, how can Gambia produce productive human capital?

It’s an important one to ask. Gambia ranks 165 out of 177 nations on the UNDP Human Development Index. More than half of the population are youth and more than 70 percent of them are poor. Currently, youth unemployment in the country is at 22 percent.

A problem in the Greater Banjul area is there are many foreign operated businesses, and while most world economies are struggling many expats are moving to Banjul to seek more easily obtained employment and lower living costs, said Buba Misawa, an American living part-time in The Gambia.

Some hotel representatives said jobs should go to the most qualified candidates, no matter where in the world they come from. But therein lies a problem: How can Banjul develop and strive for economic empowerment if companies are willing to overlook Gambian citizens for jobs?

Attendees noted the problems with skills shortages. A representative from the Kairaba Beach Hotel commented that she receives applications for “any vacancies” but no one can be a “jack of all trades.”

Joseph Peacock, the high table panellist, commented on the need to engrain a focus area of skills or study early in life and stick with it. But this might not be the best solution since individuals’ interests change over time and many seek to expand their educational horizons, opting for many possibilities.

Education challenges

Challenges to finding skilled employees are rooted in a lack of access to education. A 2003 government initiative offers free lower basic school (up to grade 6) for children, but most students do not go past that level.

Literacy rates for females in Gambia are 37 percent, while literacy rates for males are about 60 percent, according to Gambia’s National Youth Policy. School enrolment has improved since 2003 but retention remains a challenge, according to the policy document.

President Yahya Jammeh recently invested $1.1 million in youth development, and has urged the youth to involve themselves in the agricultural sector. Unfortunately, agriculture is not an option for urban youth like those living in Banjul.

To meet the needs of the youth beyond the agriculture sector, Gambia’s government drafted the National Youth Policy 2009-2018. Through it, the government plans to invest in youth through national budget support, and evenly distribute skills centres around the country in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the National Training Authority, and facilitate adult education classes for male and female youth to ensure greater participation in national development.

Skills centres offer a good way to battle underemployment for those aged between 15 and 30, agreed most participants at the forum. But these are not a long-term solution for youth unemployment.

Eventually, there will be too many tailors, too many caterers and too many hairdressers (the three focus areas of skills-training centres) in a city like Banjul, where demand is just not high enough.

Bottom-up approaches will bring more rewards, and at this point Banjul needs to win the lottery.

This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series.

Main image: Newly trained hairdressers at the YMCA skills training centre in Banjul. Emily Smith.



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