Developing Human Capacity Should Prioritize The Continent’s Growing Youth Population

Published 8 months ago
By Forbes Africa | Letlhokwa Mpedi– The writer serves as Vice- Chancellor and Principal at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa
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Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings.”

Einstein’s words deeply resonated with me as I pondered Africa’s human capacity.

The continent’s population, particularly its youth, are arguably a vital but often untapped resource in Africa’s story.


Africa’s population is growing at an astounding rate. The African Development Bank estimates that it has increased by 2.42% per year for the past 30 years. By 2050, it is projected to grow to 2.4 billion and is expected to expand to 4.2 billion in the next century. Currently, of the more than 1 billion people who live in Africa, half are under the age of 20. As the bank declared: “Human capital promises to be the key driver of African growth.”

Alongside this promise, there are expectations of access. Yet, a growing population presents its own risks. For example, access to healthcare, education, employment and sustainable development are fundamentally challenged. How do we begin to address these growing challenges?

The African Union (AU) has outlined a human capacity development plan based on six key factors: transformative leadership, citizen empowerment, tapping into Africa’s potential, skills and resources, evidence-based knowledge and innovation, capacity developers and integrated planning.

Yet, a key question is how do we begin to implement this plan when the continent is demonstrably lagging behind in science, technology and innovation – prerequisites for global competitiveness? Our burgeoning youth population is not enough – we need to begin reframing our understanding of human capacity development to leverage it as a resource effectively.


In recent months, I have argued that our adaptation to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), which refers to rapid changes to technology, industries, societal patterns, and processes, needs to be accompanied by societal impact. In other words, as we embrace intelligent technologies, we must remain human-centric in our approach. This entails ensuring that this technology complements our human capacity.

It calls for the application of technology to ameliorate some of our most pressing humanistic challenges. Necessary in this process is an investment in education that equips the youth with the necessary skills, fostering ethical, technological development, promoting localized research and development, promoting human and intelligent technology collaboration, addressing disparities, and facilitating responsible technological adoption. This ensures that we tap into the potential of the 4IR while prioritizing the wellbeing and empowerment of humans.

As Africa continues to grapple with developmental challenges, merely embracing the 4IR is not enough. Policymakers and institutions must ensure that the shift is mindful of the knock-on effect on society. This calls for an ubuntu approach to leadership. In the African Journal of Social Work in 2020, Jacob Rugare Mugumbate and Admire Chereni defined ubuntu as: “A collection of values and practices that people of Africa or of African origin view as making people authentic human beings. While the nuances of these values and practices vary across different ethnic groups, they all point to one thing – an authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world.”

An ubuntu leadership style goes beyond the traditional hierarchical notions of leadership and focuses on building strong relationships, fostering social cohesion, creating purpose, and encouraging environments that promote collective well-being. Ubuntu offers an alternative approach to current leadership models in that it prioritizes interconnectedness and seeks to build bridges between different communities and groups. There is an argument to be made that this is the very lens we should be viewing the 4IR through. This is how we ensure that our approach emphasizes humanity and allows for a more just and equitable world to emerge. Critical in this process is seeing the continent’s growing youth population as a tool for 4IR with societal impact. Africa’s youth have the potential to become active participants and beneficiaries of technological advancements. We have to begin investing in our youth to realize this potential fully.


As the founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, phrased it: “The Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to empower individuals and communities, as it creates new opportunities for economic, social, and personal development. But it also could lead to the marginalization of some groups, exacerbate inequality, create new security risks, and undermine human relationships.”

Ubuntu, and by implication, investment in human capacity, I would argue, emerges as the great divider between these realities.