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The Covid-19 pandemic brought widespread suffering in many parts of the world, but it also helped create new economic opportunities for impoverished young people in Kenya’s sprawling informal urban settlements.

“One of the side effects was that technology opened up the chance to get jobs anywhere in the world,” says Nyagaki Gichia, regional hub director for Africa at Team4Tech, a non-profit that funds training to help low income people find jobs — including remote work.

Another charity executive who sees strong potential in digital jobs to lift people out of poverty is Peres Were, director of the Next Steps Foundation, which helps train young people with disabilities in Tanzania and Kenya. “Technology is a game-changer — it enables people to work, wherever they are,” he says. “The skills we provide help young people who were highly marginalised in Africa to work [remotely] for companies in San Francisco.”

However, even among the more privileged students in the country’s elite private schools, Gichia identifies a difficulty in preparing young people for the world of work. “Many students are graduating with really good marks on paper but are not able to get jobs because they don’t have the social skills to know how to begin looking for a job, [or] navigate the market, [or] market themselves,” she says. “There’s still a lot missing.”

While many schemes for young people in poorer countries focus on tackling rural poverty and improving healthcare, there is now a growing emphasis on the importance of urban education programmes. These aim to provide the employment needed for long-term emotional, as well as physical, wellbeing.

“Our economic development work had been largely focused on agricultural projects in rural areas, but we started moving towards cities because poverty and vulnerability [there] has been increasing,” explains Aline Rahbany, a technical director at the charity World Vision. “We’re looking at how to support youth to become entrepreneurs.”

Over the past 12 months, the FT’s Thriving Cities series has highlighted some of the innovations in urban planning and health that have sought to empower young people. In the coming year, however, it will also look to explore the benefits and interactions of wellbeing, education and employment programmes — taking in projects in Tanzania, India, Colombia and elsewhere.

As Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, argues: “If you have a healthy workforce, it benefits employers with economic growth. If you give people work, it offers security and stability. It can be very empowering, giving a sense of purpose, self-confidence and mental wellbeing.”

Job creation for young people is one focus for policymakers. At a conference in Addis Ababa earlier this month, convened by the Economic Commission for Africa, members of a youth panel highlighted the importance of entrepreneurship, while expressing frustration at barriers including skills gaps, limited access to finance and markets, and their exclusion from policymaking.

This approach of integrating economic issues alongside health and urban planning mirrors debates in richer regions. The World Health Organization’s European Healthy Cities Network recently called for a fresh focus on “inclusive and sustainable economic growth, guided by proactive city leadership and a dedication to workforce wellbeing”.

There are fresh efforts to link schooling to employment and the urban environment. For example, “Vilnius is a school” seeks to open classrooms and integrate students into their home city with lessons in partnership with institutions, companies and organisations located in the Lithuanian capital.

Many see the need for a greater focus on education and jobs to support wellbeing. Diego Angel-Urdinola, senior economist for skills and workforce development at the World Bank, says: “Investment in human capital among youth and young adults yields high and positive life-long returns. We need training programmes across the spectrum for those with low skills and who are disengaged [with] higher level [programmes] around innovation and entrepreneurship.”

He argues that the most effective programmes “provide a holistic approach focused on skills relevant to the labour market, and cognitive skills in high demand — including communication and critical thinking”.

Among the challenges, however, are a lack of funding and high-quality training provision, the absence of support for teachers, and poor basic “foundational” skills in schools and working populations, including numeracy and literacy. Even for those in tertiary education, a recent study by the non-profit Education Sub-Saharan Africa noted “the significant skills gap between universities’ offerings and labour market demands”.

Given the high failure rate of start-ups, entrepreneurship has limitations as a source of good jobs. So, too, does digital technology. The coding company Andela, for example, had to close its African training campuses and lay off hundreds of staff in 2019 and 2020. It struggled to sustain its model of paying junior developers who learnt on the job with the promise of well paid employment afterwards.

“There’s a new boot camp springing up every few months, sponsored by different people,” says Gichia from Team4Tech. “But sustainability is a big issue.” She cautions that many tech jobs on the continent are insecure and low paid, and many roles, such as content moderation for social media companies, involve huge mental stress.

As in richer regions, the labour market is becoming more unpredictable and subject to change in response to automation. Artificial intelligence may soon undermine the need for many coders — and the boot camps to train them. If technology has helped spread opportunity, it has also created vulnerabilities.

As Angel-Urdinola argues: “We need to focus on skills that can’t be automated or that can adjust. We must learn to learn.”

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