By: Zamayirha Peter for ACTIVATE! Change Drivers.

Transformation in Africa will not happen outside of the deliberate presence of young people. Young people are not just a parcel to the future they are the only bridge to arriving there.

Responding to this, last week Tuesday 18th of April 2023 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in South Africa hosted the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for Africa, Ms Ahunna Eziakonwa at Milkplum Café – Pretoria National Botanical Gardens.

Ms Ahunna was in South Africa to participate in several engagements, and further strengthen the partnership between UNDP and South Africa. As part of her program in the country, she engaged with key stakeholders in the development sector, including youth in a youth-led dialogue themed “Leaving No One Behind: Role of Youth as Agents and Drivers of Africa’s Transformation to Achieve Agenda 2030”.

The objectives of the dialogue were to learn more about the grassroots opinions of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDGs) and how young people in Africa can be used as a tool to transform the continent and inform UNDP on how best to accelerate its youth empowerment interventions.

Youth development and empowerment is not a foreign concept to the UNDP as it is central to the organisation’s Strategic Offer in Africa, as well as the South Africa Country Program, which is anchored on Youth and Women Employment and Empowerment, as the bedrock and pathway for reducing poverty and inequality.

Youth in Africa

‘Not a small fish in the pond, Africa is the world’s most youthful continent, and Africa’s youth population is projected at 460 million by 2050. This necessities recognition of the centrality and agency of youth as a driving force for equitable socio-economic transformation’ – Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in South Africa, Dr Ayodele Odusola highlighted.

Youth Dialogue

The dialogue was made up of youth drawn from several civic society groups and number who had been beneficiaries of UNDP programmes. The youthful dialogue began on a heated note. The panel members representing several sectors of society such as climate change, the arts, civic society as well as the digital divide, held no words back as they reiterated the plight of young people in Africa and the need for intergenerational knowledge sharing as well as representation in key platforms of influence and decision making.

Civic Education

National youth network’s Executive Director, Ms Tebogo Suping challenged the room to not leave anyone behind in the quest to change the world which should begin young in our communities.

“Next year is the general election. Do not use that day as a holiday to catch up on sleep because your collective vote alone as young people can determine the outcome of the elections. So take every family member with you to vote on Election Day young people alone could turn the scale and outcomes of the elections if they go and vote in numbers.

Suping added that young people have direct obligations in their communities. “I always say to school kids that I mentor that if you have two pens, share one with a kid in your class you see is without. Access to just that one pen will change their reality. If you have two loaves give one away.”

Digital Divide

Reflecting on his entrepreneurial journey Mdaswifi CEO, Songezo Mhambi, described how he chose the narrow road filled with uncertainty and responded to a need in his community for access to information and the Internet. “Someone has to do it”, that deep belief was to give way to a long and difficult journey paved with risk and personal sacrifices. But the resolve and perseverance resulted in the township of Mdantsane giving birth to its first ISP (internet service provider) headquartered in the Mdantsane, by a team of young, vibrant professionals, a majority of which came into the company straight out of varsity and, underwent vigorous training to become the winning team looking after the needs of their clients through their 24/7 customer support centre, keeping hundreds of homes, schools and businesses connected to high-speed internet and other ICT services.

Climate Change

Ms Shamile Reid, South Africa Country Coordinator for 16th UN Climate Change Conference of Youth, Shamiel Reid emphasised how Climate Crisis can be traced to every corner of society. Reid passionately pointed out how it can be identified in every sector of society. Reflecting on the views from the Secretariat of the UNFCCC estimates that US$ 220 million per year will be required by African countries to adapt to climate change by the year 2030, Reid emphasised how throwing money at a problem is not the sole solution to resolve the climate crisis, but literacy and engagement with it from a cultural and behavioural point of view was critical.

Creative Industries

Tendaishe Chitima who is an actress and contributor to the UNDP ‘The Futures Report’ highlighted the opportunity the arts present the content with. To offer an alternative approach to development through wealth creation potential, socioeconomic development, employment opportunities, and promotion of cultural diversity and knowledge sharing, first within the continent and to the globe.

The conversation was opened to the floor where several youths raised their hands and grievances directing the room to several matters they felt had been ignored including mental health and the downfall of the entrepreneurial journey.

Youth voices

Also addressing the elephant in the room one of the young people in attendance asked why such a dialogue was been held in a closed-off space instead of a public area where all youth can afford to reach it and access the opportunity to learn and teach the space about their lived experience.

Another young person in the room reminded attendees that mental health plays a critical role in the competency young people carry,  to transform their content. ‘If our mental health is being impacted by the decay in the continent we have to understand that the moral to lead transformation will be low’.  

Several young people raised the energy crisis in South Africa, causing load shedding and how this has impacted day-to-day activity for young people across racial and social classes. The youth pleaded with Ms Ahunna to raise this in her engagement with the leadership of the country.

Responding to the room Ms Ahunna Eziakonwa referred to the dialogue as having been the highlight of her visit. She said she walked into the room hoping to get energised, and indeed she got energised.

“I was hoping to arrive here and meet young people and be revived and energised as I have spent the entire trip in boardrooms and meetings with several dignitaries, listening to you all this afternoon has simply done just that, it has revived and energised me.”

Ms Ahunna is deeply passionate about equality, inclusion, reshaping narratives on Africa, and mobilizing for youth entrepreneurs and the dignity of Africa’s people.

Her vision “Africa’s Promise: The UNDP Renewed Strategic Offer in Africa” employs an opportunity lens to development practice in Africa. She established the Africa Influencers for Development (AI4D) to ensure that Africa’s Money works for Africa’s Development; the Africa Young Women Leaders Initiative; Africa Innovates Magazine; and the Africa Borderlands Centre.

Ms Ahunna reiterated how young people are not likely to experience an unchallenged handing over of opportunity or the country to them and that they must take up space and use their vote as their voice.

‘You are telling me to speak to your ministers, I can’t do that, and you have a voice use your voice. This room is filled with passionate, educated, informed, skilled and eloquent young people. You guys have won the mental nights and are liberated mentally. You must organise as a youth cohort who lives in the most unprecedented of times and alive with possibilities because you have already won the first war, mentally.’

‘Failing forward is a reality that you will encounter, we have created grants that if you were to look at you will see the success rate and return on investment is not high and we have made provision for that’, she added.

It was resolved by the entire room who commented on the challenges with the limit of time that a secondary dialogue of this nature was needed and a more inclusive youth cohort needed to be in attendance and that the UNDP must give a thought to this.

Responding to the engagement Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in South Africa, Dr Ayodele Odusola, thanked the young people in the room for reaffirming the opportunities the UNDP still has to contribute to the development of youth in Africa and emphasised how the realisation of transformation in Africa will happen with young people.


About the author

Zamayirha Peter is a Communications Practioner, Speaker, Journalist and Social entrepreneur.

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