Malawi is facing a massive youth bulge, with more than half the population under the age of 18 – a share that is growing fast. This can be a boon for development, as a dynamic young working-age population propels the economy into the future. But, if the country fails to provide adequate educational and employment opportunities to its youth population, such a demographic structure can become highly destabilizing.
For Malawi, the risk of the latter outcome is high. A landlocked country bordered by Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia, Malawi has ranked among the world’s poorest countries since it gained independence from the British in 1964. In 2016, a staggering 70.3% of the population was living below the World Bank’s poverty line of less than $1.90 per day (in purchasing-power-parity terms). Last year, the country ranked 172nd out of 189 countries and territories in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report.
Against this background, Malawi’s booming population – which is set to double, from 17.5 million in 2018, by 2038 – poses considerable challenges, as it strains the country’s limited resources, from investment capital to food. The result could easily be widespread unemployment, malnutrition, and conceivably large-scale migration. Climate change will only exacerbate these resource pressures, making mitigation policies all but impossible to implement.
The first step toward ensuring that the Malawi demographic boom does not stunt its development potential is to curb the fertility rate through better family planning. This means both delivering contraceptives and educating the population on how to use them. More broadly, education – especially of girls and women – is closely correlated with declining fertility rates.
But Malawi can do more than limit its youth bulge; it can harness its demographic dividend to spur economic development. What the country’s young people lack is not talent or ambition, but the training, resources, and opportunities needed to apply them. For many young Malawians, the best hope of escaping poverty is migrating to much more economically dynamic South Africa.
To build a thriving economy that makes the most of local talent, Malawi can draw inspiration from Rwanda. Until the summer of 1994, Rwanda was locked in a vicious civil war, in which more than a million people were brutally murdered.
And yet, from 2011 to 2014, Rwanda’s annual GDP growth averaged about 8%, propelled by investment in construction, agricultural modernization, mining, and manufacturing. More recently, Rwanda has focused on building up its information and communications technology (ICT) sector, which can provide solutions in a range of areas, including health, transport, environment, and energy.
Malawi should take a similar approach, employing prudent economic planning and management and sustained investment in human capital to spur growth and development. It can even channel resources toward the same sectors as Rwanda does, in order to diversify an economy that now depends largely on traditional rain-fed agriculture, with tobacco as the main cash crop.
Young people can spearhead this transformation. But ICT, in particular, demands improved education and training, not only in school, but also once workers are already in the labor force. Furthermore, targeted employment and health policies should be introduced, to ensure that young people share in the dividends of private-sector success. And the government should aim to nurture talent in the arts, including fashion, and sports, thereby providing young people with another potential path out of poverty.
There are reasons for optimism. Since 2017, Malawi’s government has been working with UNICEF to expand the use of drones and data for development and humanitarian purposes, from delivering medical resources to collecting aerial imagery for predictive analytics. In order to ensure that there are enough skilled workers to seize the opportunities offered by drone and data technology, UNICEF established the first African Drone and Data Academy this past January in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
Moreover, Malawi has built a robust democracy since independence. When last year’s presidential election, which delivered a narrow victory to the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, was shown to have been marred by “widespread” irregularities, the constitutional court overturned the result and ordered a new vote.
Many other African countries could learn much from Malawi’s democratic process, in which young people play a crucial role by campaigning, voting, and, when necessary, protesting. Their government must now respond with the necessary steps to ensure that their economic prospects are as promising as their abilities.
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