11/07/2013 01:31 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Youth Entrepreneurship -- a Pivotal Engine of Growth and Sustainable Development

Africa has an unprecedented opportunity to invest in its youth, the continent's largest population, if it wants to create a future for herself. Timing is critical to harness the demographic dividend the "youth bulge" brings. There is, however, only a small window of opportunity.

The World Bank Youth Summit in Washington, D.C. last month provided a forum to highlight the importance of youth's role in the global development agenda. It proposed knowledge exchanges between development practitioners, change-makers and opinion leaders. All players are engaged in three primary sub-themes: education, entrepreneurship and millennial communication.

There is inadequate focus and a lack of an innovation culture within schools and tertiary institutions on the practical skills required to start, manage or work in entrepreneurial ventures. A recent report from the Omidyar Network noted that among colleges and universities in sub-Saharan Africa, only seven percent have an entrepreneurship center dedicated to entrepreneurial development, 28 percent offer courses specializing in entrepreneurship and 10 percent offer courses in innovation and technology. Compare this to Singapore, a country that provides mandatory entrepreneurship education for one year within the primary school system.

If youth are provided with the right skills, they can reap the benefits of employment from digital outsourcing. The most successful nations, i. e. the competitive advantage societies, create wealth by exporting complex products and services. The right investments will drive economic gains created by highly skilled people. As labor in China becomes more expensive, for example, companies are using more upstream local entrepreneurs. In a similar vein, European companies are setting up overseas sales networks and establishing offices abroad, moving their businesses from China to Ethiopia for instance.

Creating a society that encourages youth-led entrepreneurship and makes it easy to start and grow a business requires more than just money and a good idea. It requires a whole network of interlocking institutions, polities and cultural attitudes, collectively known as the "entrepreneurship ecosystem." The question then becomes, "How do we deliver a democracy that delivers for entrepreneurs?" The environment, financing opportunities, culture and mentoring are instrumental.

In many African countries, the cost of capital is often so high that it impedes the entrepreneur's profitability. For young entrepreneurs, government funding is viewed as difficult, if not impossible to access due to bureaucracy and nepotism. The summit was an opportunity to entice Africa to step out of their "survival trap" mindset, reacting to urgent symptoms instead of addressing the root causes. While short-term actions often bring some relief, they also perpetuate this vicious cycle by ignoring the root causes. In Nigeria, the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Program (SURE-P) and the Graduate Internship Scheme (GIS) were initiated in 2012 by the Federal Government to reduce youth unemployment. It is a little too early to fully understand the fate of these programs, however.

Few avenues of support are available to help youth identify their passion, and build the confidence required to convert that passion into a viable business. Networks of support services can be set up where local business professionals are identified, documented, mobilized and incentivized.

Within the limitations of these constraints, in environments far from enabling, it is difficult for youth-led businesses. The road to entrepreneurship is long, it is rough, it is hard. We must keep trekking as it is only then that change will come.