Over the past year, I’ve spent time listening to adolescents and young men and women in urban slums and rural villages in Senegal, Uganda and Kenya.  Most of them were between the ages of 12 and 25, and their families were surviving on less than $2 a day.

Why this group?  Because of the enormous opportunity they present to advance economic growth, social progress and leadership in Africa.  In many countries, half or more of the population is under the age of 25.  While populations elsewhere in the world are aging, Africa is getting younger.  By 2025, there will be an estimated 258 million Africans between the ages of 15-24.  These demographic trends lend urgency to needs in education, employment, health, environment, and governance.  The continent has the highest rate of young people living in poverty, along with the lowest secondary and tertiary education enrollment rates. 

While these are sobering facts, appropriate investment in human capital could potentially create a virtuous spiral of sustained economic growth and job creation in Africa.  Even small wins have lasting impacts.  For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, each additional year of schooling increases an individual’s earning by 11.7 per cent.

While data is a valuable resource, we also need perspective about how young people see themselves and opportunities to change their lives. This comes from listening.  Almost always, young people want their views to be heard.  Poverty may constrain young voices but it doesn’t need to deny their dreams of going to school, learning a skill, helping their families or leaving the slums.

Most of the young people I met were economically active, usually helping in a family business, while also going to school.  Nearly all had completed primary education. Some were in secondary school.  A few had one or two years of university education. I posed the same questions to all of them.

“What’s important to you?”  The answer was swift.  “To be trusted.”  “To be respected by my family and community.”  And often, “Helping other young people.” 

How do you see yourself now?  “As the head of household.”  “A mother.”  “A role model for my younger siblings.” “Owner of my business.” “ A leader.” 

Why do you need to earn money?  “To help my mother or grandmother.”  “To pay for school fees.”  “To buy medicine.”

What do you need?  “An opportunity to learn.”  “A network that gives me ideas and encourages me.”  “Information about jobs.”  “Skills that make me employable, like learning to use a computer.”  “Knowing how to handle money.”  “A safe place to save money.”  “A mentor.”

Listening to African youth isn’t innovative. It should be where programs start.  And, their insights are often surprising.  Understanding their motivations for change was just as powerful as understanding their aspirations.  I had expected the hopefulness and hunger for knowledge and learning, but was surprised by the powerful motivations to help their families and willingness to make personal sacrifices. 

Listening is a powerful act.  It’s an act of respect as well as pragmatism for anyone looking to work with young people.  We need to confront the realities and desires of people living in poverty from their perspectives and on their terms if we are to be effective enablers of change.