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Blog: What do mobile phones have to do with youth employment in Africa?

Picture: Michael Pollak/Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0

Oct 2017

Talking with unemployed young people in Africa about their efforts to find work is often dispiriting; sometimes it is heart-rending. This is especially true of South Africa, where the apartheid legacy continues to compound youth frustrations. A quest for good (or any) employment features strongly in so many young peoples’ stories. But is the ‘mobile phone’ turning this quest around?

Mobility, or lack of it, i.e. the ability to access meaningful and decent employment, is integral in the search for and accessibility of jobs. Safe, low cost, reliable transport services along good all-season roads help broaden access to more distant work places/opportunities, while ‘virtual mobility’ (mobile phones/ICT etc.), can reduce need for physical travel, allowing rapid access to information on job openings, enabling contact with potential employers, helping run a more efficient business, etc.

The potential for such ‘connectivities’ to improve Africa’s employment landscape has resonated strongly with states and donors, encouraging extensive infrastructure investments. However, if mobile phones, and such like, are truly going to have a significant impact on young people, they need to enable access to employment opportunities that will pay a living wage.  

Herein lies the crux of the problem – how to expand the availability of quality jobs?

At the upcoming Putting children first conference on identifying solutions and taking action to tackle poverty and inequality in Africa in Ethiopia 23-25 October, I will be sharing the latest findings from my ESRC-DFID funded research on youth mobility and employment in settings where mobile phone usage is growing rapidly

What does the informal sector have to do with employment? 

Comparison of youth employment patterns in Ghana, Malawi and South Africa points to a fundamental difference in the youth employment stakes between Ghana and Malawi on the one hand, and South Africa on the other: the role of the informal sector. 

In Ghana and Malawi (and much of sub-Saharan Africa) most young people are exposed to work in the informal sector at an early age. It’s usually unpaid, may be unpleasant, and is sometimes physically harmful; it often reduces the time children can spend at school, possibly also the energy they have available for school-related tasks. However, limited inputs into informal sector work can bring significant benefits: 

  • It can help children to build a repertoire of knowledge and skills that will help them later to obtain an income (for instance, girls learning how to trade under the tutelage of family members, sometimes even in the school playground during breaks).
  • It can help young people to consolidate social networks that they can draw on when they are subsequently searching for paid work.  

In South Africa, however, the absence of a vibrant informal sector arguably denies low-skilled young people any early work experience and limits their subsequent access to paid work opportunities, whatever mobility-related interventions are in place. In particular, opportunities for low-skilled black youth are very sparse. This is a historical legacy stemming back to bans on informal enterprise during the apartheid era. Because of this, there are few opportunities for training and experience during school years, and few black school leavers have acquired the key skills and networking opportunities that might promote their employability.    

  • Unemployed school-leavers tend to concentrate on trying to find a low-skill job in the formal sector, in the absence of extensive informal sector opportunities.  These jobs, which tend to be concentrated round major urban centres, are widely advertised, but competition is very intense and few succeed.  
  • After numerous rounds of job applications, often in conjunction with city-ward migration, young people are often so disillusioned that they give up and join the ranks of those categorised as ‘actively discouraged, no longer looking for work’.  Without work, many young people have to depend on social grants accessed through family members (child support; pensions).  

While the value of informal sector employment remains contentious (especially given recent incursions of the gig economy into Africa – Uber etc.), it could be argued that South Africa’s failure to grow a vibrant informal sector since the end of apartheid in 1994 has been a massive disservice to its aspirant youth. Neither regular bus services nor mobile phones have much potential to significantly improve young people’s employment prospects when quality jobs are sparse. 

Youth employment in the mobile era

Because of the active informal sector in Ghana and Malawi, open employment among school leavers is relatively low, though commonly poorly paid:  so-called ‘working poverty’ is widespread.  

Over the last decade mobile phones have brought potential new flexibilities into young people’s lives in Ghana and Malawi, enabling some modest livelihood improvements, though mostly only for entrepreneurial young men. For example, many take the opportunity to earn a living directly linked to phones (selling airtime, charging and mending phones, etc.); this is often short-term, low paid work but can facilitate accumulation of funds for further training etc.

In urban South Africa today virtually every household owns at least one phone and smart phone access is growing rapidly, but with little positive impact on livelihoods. Young school-leavers use their phones extensively to search for work, but with a greater emphasis on internet searches than in Malawi and Ghana (where personal networks are key). This is partly due to the need to focus on the formal sector and the more formalised employment procedures that prevail there.   

Just getting by…

Employment prospects for young people across Africa remain depressingly poor.   

In Ghana, Malawi and South Africa many youth are just ‘getting by’, albeit in less than ideal conditions: hope may flourish but frustrations are widespread.  In Ghana, economic migration beyond Africa is an increasingly common youth dream; many Malawians still look for better employment opportunities in South Africa; while among South Africa’s own youth, meanwhile, ‘getting by’ too often means dependence on social grants and despondency quickly sets in.   

It is quite easy to get swept up by the excitement of the new connectivities made feasible by Africa’s mobile phone ‘revolution’. But this emphasis is very much misplaced. The reality is that both the overall basket and the scope of decent job opportunities open to young people has to grow exponentially, across the continent. Only then will these ongoing mobility improvements realise their potential in supporting employment.   




The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


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