Chema Caballero (Castuera, Badajoz, 1961) is an expert on Africa. His first contact took place in 1992 when he arrived in Sierra Leone as a Xaverian missionary. In that country, which was in the midst of a war, he spent almost a decade directing a successful rehabilitation programme for child soldiers. The end of that stage in his life did not end his commitment to Africa. He currently coordinates DYES, an NGO that visits several nations for six months a year. He sets out his experiences in the reports he writes for some blogs: “Bajo el Mango” for Mundo Negro Digital, and “Africa no es un país” for the daily newspaper, El País. He is also the author of a book titled ‘Los hombres leopardo se están extinguiendo’ (The Leopard Men are Becoming Extinct), among other publications. A person, in short, who is well-versed in the reality of Africa. In this interview, he describes the economic and social situation of the continent, with its good and bad points, the obstacles young people have to overcome to find jobs, and he debunks some of the many topics that exist.  

– Does African Youth have a specific profile?
African youth is very heterogeneous, just like in any other continent. What characterises them right now is that they are increasingly educated and informed because there is greater access to quality education. Mandatory primary education is now available for almost 100% of the children in many countries and, in others, the figures are quite high. They have also achieved a balance regarding gender equality, although the closer we come to the end of that primary period, the number of girls decreases due to child marriages, pregnancies, etc.
Secondary education, however, is an unresolved issue because students have to pay and there are few centres. Nevertheless, it is also true that the numbers of boys and girls are increasing and there is also a growing number of young people studying at university. The problem is that all that education cannot be absorbed into the labour market; thus, the high unemployment rates among young people aged 15 to 24 in almost all the countries on the continent.

– What is the unemployment rate in this age bracket?
It varies from country to country, but it can be up to 80% in some of them. You must realise that most of these young people survive in the informal economy: girls who cook and sell food on the street, many young people live in the country with their families but do not get paid or contribute to public systems, people who have studied and set up businesses dedicated to repairing and selling mobile phones, or those who use a generator to recharge mobile phones wherever there is no electricity. This poses a significant limitation because they find it difficult to increase their income, they do not pay into public systems, and these are not activities that contribute to the economic growth of a country.

– Do entrepreneurs receive any assistance?
Becoming an entrepreneur is difficult because it is difficult to obtain funding. A person without guarantees is unlikely to get a bank loan, so the find it very difficult to open small businesses without help from a friend or mentor, which is what usually happens.

– Do the governments have policies in place that exclusively focus on young people?
Thanks to the 2063 Agenda of the African Union, there are increasing numbers of training policies for young people. More specifically, vocational training has been introduced because they have realised it is one of the great strengths of African countries; the potential of young people bringing higher quality to the workplace if they are better qualified. Another challenge set out in this Agenda is the industrialisation of Africa so that the economy is not so dependent on commodities such as cocoa, rice, or coffee, or on natural resources, such as gold, diamonds, or oil. The idea is to work towards industrialisation so that those commodities can be processed in Africa. However, to achieve this you must invest and create the right conditions for industries to set up plants and, above all, you need to have a well-trained workforce. Many African countries are investing in this field.

– What countries are currently leading economic growth?
The country with the most stable growth is Ethiopia, followed by Nigeria and South Africa. The latter two represent almost 50% of the continent’s GDP. The fall in the price of raw materials together with political problems, strikes and, in the case of Nigeria, the activities of Boko Haram, have caused the economic growth to stall in recent years. However, it began to recover towards the end of the second half of 2016, and you can see the effects. There are countries that are also doing very well, such as Ghana or Ivory Coast, and there are others that, despite their great poverty, like Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea, are growing; but that economic growth rarely goes hand in hand with a reduction in poverty and the population’s access to resources.

“There are more doctors from Cameroon in France than in Cameroon because of the low wages”

– Is this growth leading to greater employment opportunities for young people?
It depends on the country. In Kenya, Tanzania, or South Africa we are seeing new markets opening and young people finding a place in them, and where extreme poverty is falling. In other countries, this is not the case. In the case of Equatorial Guinea, economic growth depends on oil and this industry is controlled by the government, which is the only body that benefits; or in Sierra Leone with the iron and diamonds. It is also true that wherever an educated and critical population has developed, and we must not forget the role played in this by social media and the Internet, which have reached the farthest regions of Africa, it is civil society that is controlling the governments and demanding investments in the countries. This access to information and the power to control governments is playing a key role for young people to have the chance to improve their lives and find qualified jobs.

– What barriers must young people overcome to find those jobs?
The main barrier is that there is such a high demand for them, so many young people join the labour market each year that there are not enough jobs to go around. That is one of the great challenges of African countries. Hence the need to industrialise, to diversify the sources of employment. Another problem the experts mention concerns the difficulty in Intra-African trade relations. It is easier to sell to and deal with London, Paris, or even Spain than with the country next door due to a lack of infrastructure, the rates they have to pay… Precisely one of the goals of the 2063 Agenda is to deal with this problem. With this in view, they are investing a lot in infrastructure; they are centralising and computerising all the customs processes, etc. This is resulting in the emergence of a very important services sector in ports, customs, freight… that is absorbing a lot of skilled labour. The main countries that are committed to this are chiefly those that belong to the Economic Community of West African States, i.e. Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia…
A third obstacle is that many of the companies working in Africa are foreign and their managers are not African. This means that qualified people cannot access these levels. Finally, another barrier has to do with the fact that certain professions, such as engineers or doctors are not paid enough, so there are no attractive jobs, and young people prefer to go abroad. For example, there are more doctors from Cameroon in France than in Cameroon, and these are people who trained in the country, but the wages are so low that it is not worth their while to stay.

“What is really needed is more justice, less exploitation of Africa in order to get more employment and wealth”

– Should Europe invest more in Africa?
We always have this dilemma. Europe is investing quite a bit, but the fact is that Africa may not need so much investment. The Honess Account 2017 report was published a few days ago. It found that the continent needs to prevent the loss of resources by avoiding tax evasion and the repatriation of capital and profits by companies. If African wealth were really allowed to stay in Africa, Europe would not have to continue investing. They are telling us that Africa is poor, that we need to send help to save little black people from dying of hunger when what is really happening is that Western companies are transferring home all the profits they make there. In addition, all these neo-liberal policies that are being imposed through World Bank and IMF adjustment programmes, that are resulting in lower taxes to attract investment, and the liberalisation of markets; all this is left in the hands of foreign companies. What is really needed is more justice, less exploitation of Africa, allowing the raw materials to be processed in Africa; this would result in more employment and wealth.

Niños en una escuela de Mintom

Children in Mintom school (Cameroon) / Chema Caballero

– What are your thoughts when you see thousands of young Africans risking their lives every day in search of a better life?
What can I think… I feel angry and helpless. These are people who are seeking a better future, one they cannot enjoy in their countries. In their family environment, if one of them manages to come here and do well, that can possibly mean that an entire family can survive, the younger members can study, if they are ill, they can go to the doctor, etc. It is all caused by this system that we have created and let’s not forget that we also benefit from these people coming over as cheap labour.

– What impact is this emigration having on their countries?
The first effect is positive because they send money back. In fact, in some countries, this money exceeds the official aid they receive from the West. The problem is that this money does not really contribute to creating wealth because it is not usually invested to set up a business but to build a house, buy a car, pay for school…
On the other hand, you have the brain drain. The people leaving are those who have studied, skilled labour that can work in companies. There is even a significant level of rural exodus. The great wealth of Africa, which could be in agriculture, is being wasted because the governments are not investing, there are no agricultural reform programmes, no access to means of production, to the modernization of the countryside, to funding…. Young people do not find this sector attractive and decide to leave. Consequently, farms are being abandoned and they need to import staple products.