A lot has been said about the six University of Zambia students who staged a demonstration over the high rate of unemployment in this country. To begin with, I would like to express my utmost relief at such brevity. Indeed it is about time that youths protested peacefully in order send a strong message to our leaders. Do not be intimidated. It’s your right and it’s legal.
While many are hitting the airwaves and social media to talk about this issue, I was thinking about the six million Zambians who are jobless, underemployed and underpaid. As it stands, Zambia’s formal sector employs less than one million people out of the working age population of over seven million people. That’s a six million shortfall. Why are we not talking about this group?
Looking for employment or starting a business in Zambia is an absolute nightmare. I have treaded on that path of unemployment and even traded on the streets of hopelessness in Lusaka. It’s exhausting, expensive and dehumanizing. This is why I totally support the students. Their experiences now resonate very well with me. It’s not very long ago when I landed in Lusaka, equipped with my American education and looking forward to contribute to this country that I love so much. Unfortunately, foreigners were offered jobs even when I had better education and work experience. In addition, contracts were awarded to foreigners and subsequently frustrating my efforts to do business.
The idea therefore, of saying graduates should not wait for government to provide jobs is easier said than done. To start a business in Zambia is not a joke. Needless to say, one needs the money to do so. The other options available such as banks, Youth Development Fund and the Citizen’s Economic Empowerment Fund are marred with corruption and nepotism. Only MMD officials and their relatives accessed the government related funds during the time I was applying for one. I remember an official from CEEC suggesting that I appeal my case through the Minister and Commerce or the MMD Secretariat. Sadly, that’s how things work in Zambia and the six million jobseekers face these obstacles on a daily basis.
Zambia’s labor force is growing extremely fast while the labor market is registering minimal or near zero growth. It is estimated that 100,000 prospects of employees are added to the labor force every year creating a huge deficit. What exactly is the current government’s plan to ensure that the six million people together with the six graduates are given a chance in life to earn a living? The Patriotic Front Government promised that they will create one million jobs by 2016. Going by their numbers (200,000 per year), they should have created close to 800,000 now.
Like I have suggested before, this government can create jobs in various ways. Part of the heavily borrowed money could have used to revamp dying industries around the country. Here is part of the article I wrote February, 2013:
1. Create local industries and put restrictions on importing competing products. I strongly believe that real jobs can be created if industries such as clothing factories in Livingstone can be revived. Meanwhile, impose tariffs and quotas on all imported clothing. Ban Salaula. Yes some marginal jobs are created through Salaula but have no long time benefits to the economy. We need to start encouraging entrepreneurship through having corresponding legislation. To encourage many Zambians to get involved in business, similar strategies can be adopted in other industries.
2. Agriculture, agriculture and more agriculture. This cannot be over-emphasized. There is clearly no plan by the administration on how they will create 550,000 jobs in agriculture in the next five years with their no-plan budget. Here are a few points the government can pick up. Firstly, just like above, the government needs to revive the dead or dying food production industries like Mwinilunga Canning Factory. Similar industries for processing fish in Western Province, beef in Southern Province, beans in North-Western Province, groundnuts in Eastern Province, tomatoes in Central Province and so on. This will create real jobs that will employ local people in these areas. In a similar fashion, restrict the importation of certain foodstuffs so that we can promote our own. This will mean that government has to proactively go out there and look for real partners who are going to work with local people.
3. Youth Empowerment. Zambian youths need to be empowered with firstly knowledge and skills. Introduce skills training as early as grade five. By the time they are grade twelve, we will have young people who will invent a nshima-making gadget. It is then that it makes sense to fund their projects using the Youth Empowerment Fund or Citizens Economic Empowerment Fund. In addition, can we have a law that will require every new investor to have a Zambian partner before investing in Zambia? If an Australian mining company discovers gold in Mtenguleni Village I should sure receive royalties by virtue of my heritage.
Unemployment is no doubt the number one problem that is facing Zambia today. For this reason, leaders need to devote themselves one hundred percent to this cause. Unfortunately, many African leaders are not motivated enough to tackle this problem because it lessens their grip on power and the ability to manipulate the largely poor population. The more poorer and less educated the population is, the more rich and powerful they become.
By Wesley Ngwenya