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Young and restless in Ivory Coast

On a grand scale, Ivory Coast’s economy is growing quickly. For young Ivorians, though, those widely touted gains are mere abstractions.

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — On a searing Monday morning, Okaiconi Abe Cyrcille takes shelter from the sun against the wall of a ramshackle residence in Abobo, an impoverished district of Ivory Coast’s commercial capital.

A high school dropout, Cyrcille, 24, has never held a job. And by the sound of it, he doesn’t plan to anytime soon.

“It’s too hard,” he replies when asked why he stopped looking. “I’d like to fix automobiles,” he half-heartedly suggests, before conceding he has no experience working with cars.

The jobless, dispirited young person cuts a common figure here. Like much ofAfrica, Ivory Coast is home to two starkly divergent economic narratives.

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On the one hand, macroeconomic indicators are soaring: In 2012, GDP growth hit an eye-popping 9.8 percent. For most Ivorians, though, those widely touted gains are mere abstractions.

Up to 5 million of the Ivory Coast’s more than 20 million people are unemployed, according to the Ivory Coast General Confederation of Companies, an umbrella organization for businesses, unions and professional groups.

Nowhere is this more evident than among young people in the West African country. Last year, the government pegged the unemployment rate for 15- to 35-year-olds in Ivory Coast at 60 percent.

Africa’s youth population in general is expected to double by 2045. Already, young people comprise about 40 percent of Africa’s working-age population but 60 percent of its unemployed, according to the Brookings Institution, a DC-based policy group.

Ivory Coast is intimately familiar with the perils of mass youth unemployment. It helped feed the ranks of the militias and rebel groups that waged an on-and-off civil conflict throughout the 2000s.

Those tensions exploded into a full-blown crisis in November 2010 following a disputed presidential election. More than 3,000 people died in the ensuing five months of clashes between supporters of defeated incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and challenger — and current president — Alassane Ouattara.

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In the two years since the end of the crisis, Ivory Coast has made considerable strides toward stability. But its abundance of unemployed young people threatens to upend that progress.

“It’s a time bomb, a social time bomb,” said the commerce minister, Jean-Louis Billon, in an interview.

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Many of the unemployed are barely removed from their fighting days. Not far from where Cyrcille sits, Yaya Diara, 31, roams an informal market in a black T-shirt and tattered jeans.

In 2002, he joined the rebel forces that helped install Ouattara into power. After a decade of fighting, he has few employable skills. “There is nothing. Nothing to eat. I only have 500 francs [$1],” he says, waving a handful of coins in the air.


Arguably the most worrisome trend, however, is unemployment levels among some of the best-educated young people.

The percentage of 20- to 24-year-olds across Africa with secondary educations will increase from 42 percent today to 59 percent by 2030, according to an African Economic Outlook report, published by the OECD Development Center, the African Development Bank, the United Nations Development Program and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Economists predict that this swell of educated young workers will accelerate many African countries’ drive toward middle-income status. But high levels of education commonly fail to translate into employment.

University students tend to view education as a ticket to a comfortable position in the public sector. But today, civil service offers relatively few employment opportunities due to downsizings of bloated bureaucracies.

The best prospects for jobs in Ivory Coast lie in labor-intensive and growing sectors like IT and agribusiness. The skills most Ivorian university students acquire in school, though, are poorly tailored to the demands of the market. Just 18 percent of recent graduates in Ivory Coast obtained diplomas in science, engineering or agriculture-related fields.

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Even those who do enter the job market with training in technology or engineering lack basic skills, owing to a university system that has resisted accommodating the job market and suffered deeply from the prior decade’s upheavals.

“They are asked to do things and they don’t where to start,” Diaby Cheick Mohamed, 32, the founder and CEO of technology firm, Waelya, says of Ivory Coast’s young graduates. After one to three months of flailing about, the new hires are often fired.

As the country stabilizes, international investment and jobs are slowly returning to Ivory Coast. And the government has partnered with organizations like the World Bank to train and place young workers.

But the magnitude of the crisis, analysts agree, requires both the government and young Ivorians to embrace an entrepreneurial culture that has long been treated as foreign.

Ivory Coast has a long way to go on that front. The World Bank ranked it 177 out of 185 countries in 2013 for ease of doing business. It fares especially poorly in the categories of “starting a business” and “dealing with construction permits.”

There have been hints of progress. The government recently streamlined the registration process so that new businesses can be established within 48 hours. Before, the process usually took three weeks to a month.

Henri-Bernard Solignac-Lecomte of the OECD Development Center stresses that young people must start creating their own jobs. They could take a page out of Mohamed’s playbook. He founded Waleya in 2000 as a 19-year-old college student, capitalizing on his rare knowledge at the time of web design. Since then, he has expanded the company into marketing, public relations and research and development.

Not all young Ivorians can emulate Mohamed’s example, but even in the trash-ridden streets of Abobo there are signs of life.

Twenty-year-old Miriame Soumahoro sits in front of her wooden stand behind a neighborhood mosque eating lunch. She left her job as a supermarket cashier not long ago to start her own business selling wigs. Sales, she reports between bites of fried plantain, have been brisk.

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