COVID-19: African youth get into action for innovation and resilience

As we celebrate International Youth Day (IYD), we look to young people that have led the charge in responding to COVID-19 through their innovations. The global education community can support them through strong education systems that build individual resilience for future crises and the skills to innovate our way out of the current one.

August 12, 2020 by Mohamed Sidibay
5 minutes read
The computer section of the Oneputa Combined School (in Namibia) where students often have to double up in class
The computer section of the Oneputa Combined School (in Namibia) where students often have to double up in class.
Credit: Photo credit: John Hogg/World Bank

The COVID-19 pandemic is testing the resilience of national education systems, economies and job markets, highlighting the digital divide, income inequality, and workforce fragility around the world.

In Africa, the virus has kept millions of children and young people out of school, exacerbating an existing education crisis. According to the International Labor Organization, youths have been disproportionately affected, suffering rapid increases in unemployment since the pandemic’s onset.

Yet, despite these setbacks, youth-led innovations in education, health and other sectors have flourished.

Young people worldwide have taken action to prevent the spread of the virus and mitigate its impact.

This was the focus of my IYD Twitter Chat on how youth innovations have led to global action against COVID-19, in collaboration with FAWE and GIMAC.

These initiatives highlight the need for immediate and significant action to mitigate the long-term educational effects of this crisis.

Young people will ultimately lead countries in the COVID-19 recovery. But every day a child or young person is out of school, without the opportunity to learn, further diminishes their lifelong earning potential and future quality of life. We must start investing in young people today.

Tackling the crisis with young people as strategic partners

Young people between the ages of 14 and 24 make up one-fifth of Africa’s population, with numbers projected to increase over the next three decades. Africa’s young people are therefore the most important source of human capital for the continent and constitute its engine of growth.

To successfully respond to this crisis and “build back better” for the long term, African leaders must strategically partner with youth to leverage their innovation, creative ideas, labor and resourcefulness.

The most important way that African leaders can purposefully engage with young people is by investing in quality foundational education. To do this, the pedagogy of education in Africa must change.

Foundational learning must reflect the needs of the local economy, but also help youth compete globally. Education must focus on key competencies, such as literacy, numeracy, problem-solving and critical thinking.

These skills are necessary for completing higher education and vocational training, as well as increasing employability. These skills are also the foundation for the innovations needed in the COVID-19 recovery.

Punching metal is Hileni Amulungu who wants to be a boilermaker
The Windhoek Vocational Training Centre in Khomasdal is a training centre for artisans. Here, Hileni Amulungu is punching metal.
Crédit photo : John Hogg/Banque mondiale

How African youth are innovating in response to COVID-19

COVID-19 has proven the ability of young Africans to innovate in the face of a crisis. Community-based responses are an important part of the fight against COVID-19, and this is where many youths have emerged as leaders and front-line responders.

They have risen to the challenge in diverse ways, from combatting the spread of misinformation in their communities to conducting handwashing awareness campaigns. They have generated ideas and led actions, hosted discussions and disseminated information through social media and public awareness campaigns, saving countless lives.

In Ghana, where GPE’s COVID response is supporting continued learning, recovery and resilience for basic education, young engineer Richard Kwarteng and his brother Jude Osei developed a solar-powered hand-washing basin.

The basin is equipped with sensors and an alarm to ensure that hands are washed for 20 seconds in accordance with guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO). The brothers are also working with the Ghanaian government to determine if additional basins can be produced and placed in cities throughout the country.

In Cameroon, where GPE’s COVID response is supporting a return to safe and protective schools though hygiene measures such as disinfection of schools and handwashing programs, the Local Youth Corner association launched the One Person One Hand Sanitizer campaign, which has produced and dispensed over 10,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to communities.

The campaign also emphasizes raising awareness of hygiene practices to halt the spread of COVID-19 and receives support from the Cameroonian Ministry of Youth Affairs and the Ministry of Health.

GPE’s partner, the African Union, is also promoting youth-led innovations, including through the Office of the AU Youth Envoy, which recently launched the African Youth Front on Coronavirus with support from the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

Now is the time to protect education financing to #Save Our Future

If we do not radically change our approach to how we fund education, at the end of this pandemic, we will suffer a generational loss, the size of which we have never seen before.

Facing a crisis of this magnitude, we can no longer afford to tap dance around the issue of funding education. Therefore, we need to galvanize support and fund education at a rate never seen before.

COVID-19 has shone a light on how fragile global education is. We need to rethink and reimagine how we educate our young people. We should put these ideas on a better foundation so that they do not get wiped out by future disasters, pandemics, wars and the like.

To further stimulate innovation, education systems need to be transformed to build the skills young people need for productive lives, for the future of work, to thrive as innovators and to drive a new continental growth path. A path that builds on equity, climate adaptation and resiliency, as we must not lose sight of the huge challenges of climate change and the need to create new and sustainable jobs to replace those lost.

The world was already experiencing an education crisis before COVID-19 and Africa was at its center. It is no exaggeration to say COVID-19 is a generational catastrophe as the world lives through the largest shock to the global education system in modern history. To prevent another lost generation and ensure young people reach their full potential, sustained investment in education and human capital is necessary.

Our immediate priority must be to safeguard education spending even in the face of fiscal shocks, so children can learn the skills and knowledge they need to thrive as young adults.

This means donor finance to catalyze transformation, protecting domestic finance - the most sustainable source of finance - debt relief to move resources back into social sectors like education, renewing our focus on equity through progressive spending and seeking efficiencies, because now more than ever every dollar counts.

Now is not the time to step back from education but to stand with young people as we tell the world education is key to the recovery, essential to protect and save our future and fundamental to our ability to innovate our way out of the pandemic and mitigate future crises.

The Global Partnership for Education (GPE), working with its partners, is the pre-eminent mechanism to help millions of children and young people recover from the pandemic as it helps countries build stronger and more resilient education systems.


Read other blogs from young African innovators and winners of the African Union Innovating Education in Africa Expo, featured on the AU-GPE blog series.

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