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Leveraging N-Knowledge to address youth unemployment

By Geoff Iyatse, Assistant Business Editor
14 February 2022   |   4:28 am
The global economy is at the feet of those who dare, in the entrepreneurship space. That space has become increasingly virtual, giving birth to an entirely new model known as a digital economy...

The global economy is at the feet of those who dare, in the entrepreneurship space. That space has become increasingly virtual, giving birth to an entirely new model known as a digital economy – a concept believed to hold the key to solving the upsetting youth unemployment.

The World Bank had, at the start of the decade, estimated that less than 50 per cent of one billion young people expected to join the labour market up till 2030 would find formal jobs, leaving the rest either under- or unemployed. That projection was, of course, made without the foresight of the knock-on effects of COVID-19, which, in 2020, pushed the unemployment rate to the worst level in over seven decades.

If unemployment, in its general term, is a social challenge, the youth variant is a crisis of debilitating consequences. Indeed, it is what it is across the globe – fueling social upheavals, challenging efforts to achieve sustainable growth, eroding positive values while breeding unhealthy culture, including gangsterism and drug addiction.

Every region – Asia, Eastern Europe, South America, Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and others – is grappling with its fair share (at varying degrees) of the social ills triggered by a growing army of unengaged youths.

Violent crimes, historically, are an increasing function of youth unemployment. South Africa’s situation has confirmed this over and over. With 34.9 per cent unemployment rate and about 60 per cent of jobless youths, the former apartheid country has the worst labour market statistics in Africa. Violent attacks, especially against foreigners who are often blamed for joblessness, seem to mirror the growth of unemployment, which President Cyril Ramaphosa once described as “deep and serious”.

In Nigeria, also, lingering frustration of several decades over poor attention to youths was unleashed during the #EndSARS protests, which were hijacked and turned against the state and private businesses in a self-destructive manner. Till date, many businesses and public entities are struggling with the ruins of the unfortunate incident. As it is during similar attacks in other parts, unengaged youths became readily available for the wanton destruction that followed the protests.

Different governments have realised that youth idleness could only be ignored at the peril of the society. A few countries have also admitted that the brick-and-mortar economy can only engage a limited number of the exploding young population. The World Bank, United Nations, International Labour Organisations (ILO) and many other institutions have acknowledged the dwindling opportunity in the conventional economy to rein in the troubles.

This has informed the emerging switch to the ‘Knowledge’ economy. In Nigeria, there had been talks on how the energy of the youths could be positively explored to drive the migration. A few years ago, the process started in the form of N-Power, a programme that seeks to create and expand a pool of employable youths through skills acquisition and community service, in addition to a guarantee of monthly stipends.

A subcategory of N-Power —N-Knowledge—was designed as one of the more recent additions to the National Social Investment Programme (NSIP) to equip Nigerian youths who have not received tertiary education with useful and relevant skills and certifications that will turn them into catalysts of innovation, entrepreneurship and job creation. It resonates with the aspiration and energy that drive technology and innovation hubs at Computer Village, Yaba, Wuse and different parts of Nigeria.

In a statement announcing the latest implementation of the initiative, at the end of 2021, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouq said the programme would focus on making Nigerian youths globally competitive as innovators and entrepreneurs.

The minister added that the initiative was designed for non-graduates, to give them opportunity to acquire skills to enhance their lives and turn them into entrepreneurs, and not just an add-on to existing safety nets.

“N-Power (N-Knowledge) programme will upskill 20,000 young Nigerians on the global radar as exporters of world-class services and content in the creative and information technology sectors.

“It will develop the skills and capacities along the skills set in the value chain of mobile apps and website development while boosting the talent development effort for the growth of the information technology industry in Nigeria. The programme consists of centralised in-camp training for three months with a six-month apprenticeship across the six geo-political zones,” the minister said.

As part of the training module, beneficiaries were introduced to soft skills, attitude re-orientation and work ethics to enhance their interpersonal skills, which are useful for career development and entrepreneurship.

In the first three months of the maiden edition, which was a boarding programme, trainees had a three-month training in the four thematic areas – animation, scriptwriting, software and hardware.

The maiden edition, with 20,000 young Nigerians as beneficiaries (including people with disabilities), was carried out in the six geopolitical zones of the country.

On arrival at the training camps, each participant received N42, 000 to cover transportation in addition to a monthly stipend of N10, 000. The stipend would continue for nine months, a six-month apprenticeship period inclusive. The programme also comes with starter packs, which included a laptop to help the benefiting youths set up.

Perhaps, the approach suggests that N-Knowledge, if sustained, will not only democratise the Yaba potential but will also create an incentive to make the engagement more appealing to a large number of young people who would otherwise have been sold out to drugs, cultism and other social vices, thus becoming burdens to their families and the entire society.

The culture of apprenticeship is being elevated to the national level, as a prioritised policy of the Federal Government. Also, this is a remarkable departure from a culture of handout giving. Of course, 20,000 youths pale into significance when weighed against the millions of peers currently wallowing in joblessness or working poverty. But it is, certainly, significant for troubleshooting the joblessness challenge across national, state and local government levels.

That number, replicated across space and time, could make a remarkable change in the Federal Government’s ambition to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in the next decade.

Regulation of digital economy services is tricky, making the market somewhat borderless. That makes it a burden for countries that are deficient in modern technology capacity, as it worsens capital flight.

For instance, reports say that Nigeria’s software market is 77 per cent dominated by foreigners while hardware used by local companies is 86 per cent imported, with only 14 per cent sourced locally. Meanwhile, in terms of human capital, a professor of entrepreneurship and e-Business and the Head of Entrepreneurship and Business Studies, Federal University of Technology, Minna, Niger State, Olalekan Busra Sakariyau, has noted that the ratio of Nigerians to foreigners in the industry is as high as 98 per cent to two per cent.

This imbalance has triggered a search for workable solutions to bridge the obvious capacity gap, no doubt. There are a number of federal schemes and initiatives designed to benefit creative individuals, including IT workers, and domiciled in different ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).

What might be lacking, however, is a centrally-coordinated and realistic national policy thrust for harnessing the potential of the youths and developing them into an army of talents for local need and exports. The N-Knowledge, perhaps, will provide that missing link.

Interestingly, Nigerian youths have demonstrated that they can share the global stage. Amid declining apathy for overseas investments in October 2020, a Silicon Valley-fintech, Stripe, took a bet on Nigeria’s Paystack for head-scratching $200 million (N83 billion using today’s exchange rate) – an amount almost twice the entire monthly internally generated revenue (IGR) of Lagos, the most economically-viable state in the country.

When Paystack was acquired, it was already servicing 60,000 customers, including multinational companies. But the most intriguing aspect is the credentials of the founders. The combined age of Shola Akinlade and Ezra Olubi, the founders, was about 60 years as at the time the transaction was sealed. They were also not particularly in the league of Harvard business managers. But they had what the contemporary world needs – energy, digital talents and the courage to dare.

With more attention, individuals have suggested, the country can produce many more Paystacks that businesses and individuals from all over the world would want to partner or acquire. When that happens, millions of innocent young Nigerians would have a rare opportunity to earn a decent living and be pulled away from the company of career criminals. And one is hopeful that N-Knowledge will feature prominently in those emerging new narratives.