By Rebecca Fishman, Project Manager
“Youth is the hope of our future,” wrote the Filipino patriot José Rizal in the late 1800s.
The sentiment still resonates today, and particularly when it comes to achieving the African Union’s goal of an integrated and prosperous Africa. The fastest growing continent, Africa has the most youthful population; 70% of the projected 1.6 billion inhabitants will be working age by 2030. Sub-Saharan Africa has the opportunity to reap significant economic benefits from this demographic change – known as the demographic dividend (DD) – but only if its youth can reach their full potential.
Health, wellbeing, and the demographic dividend
Good health underpins or impacts many of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty and ensure prosperity for all. Good health is also good business: it is critical to reducing vulnerability, improving workforce productivity, and helping youth survive and thrive.
In fact, businesses cannot hope to compete in today’s climate if their employees and consumers are unhealthy or spend their income and time caring for sick family members. In the Sahel, one of the poorest regions of the world, families are large, with an average of 6.2 children per woman, compared to 5.1 in Sub-Saharan Africa and 2.5 globally. Women, children, and youth suffer from illnesses that are often both preventable and treatable. Businesses of all sizes stand to gain by making strategic investments in the health and wellbeing of these vulnerable populations.
SRHR in the Sahel*
- 9%: modern contraceptive use rate
- 24%: unmet need for contraception
- >1 in 10: girls 15-19 who give birth
- 45%: births attended by qualified medical personnel
- 606: maternal deaths per 100,000 live births
* In all cases, these figures represent the lowest or highest rates in the world.
Closing these disparities depends largely on women and girls asserting their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). To that end, specific investments in this area can have an outsized impact on achieving the DD, leading to more women in the labor force with fewer children to support and potentially breaking the cycle of poverty. Yet barriers limiting access to SRHR information, services, and products persist across Africa, particularly for young girls, and particularly in the Sahel, which lags further behind.
Why can’t women and girls get the contraceptives they want?
Stockouts and shortages are a frequent problem with multiple causes, including long lead-times for procurement and delivery, insufficient funding for supply chain operations, lack of supply chain training for healthcare providers, lack of information and education on SRHR, and inadequate systems for monitoring inventory and forecasting demand. Declining donor support for SRHR, widespread food insecurity, and political and social unrest compound these challenges in the Sahel.
How can the private sector help solve these complex issues?
The African Union and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) are working alongside African governments, supported by strategic partners such as the World Bank and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to empower vulnerable women and youth in the Sahel, and to provide alternatives to violence and extremism so that they may reap the economic benefits of the DD. Opportunities for private sector engagement are plentiful and offer businesses a chance to drive brand equity, engage employees, capture consumers, and explore new markets.
Examples of private sector support for SRHRThe private sector can offer valuable expertise on many fronts. Businesses can improve and optimize supply chains, advocate for more funding and better policies, generate additional demand for and use of SRHR services, and support complementary non-health interventions that promote educational and employment opportunities. Forward-thinking corporate partners are already leading the way.
- Merck for Mothers committed USD 500 million to improve maternal health and wellbeing. To date, they have leveraged Merck’s business and scientific expertise to improve health outcomes in over 30 countries. Working with the Government of Senegal, Merck for Mothers has reduced stockouts of contraceptives to less than 2% using an innovative supply chain model.
- Pfizer, in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others, reduced the price of their self-injectable contraceptive Sayana Press to expand access for vulnerable women. This kind of new technology is ideal for community-based distribution since it increases user autonomy and requires minimal training.
- Veru provides pro-bono technical expertise and training, educational materials, and demonstration models to ensure their FC2 female condom is used correctly in new countries and markets. Veru has already invested USD 14 million in SRHR and HIV/AIDS prevention and training.
- Cycle Technologies creates simple family planning solutions to help address women’s reproductive needs. Under the SUN-FP program, Cycle has made the Standard Days Method® accessible to women in poor countries preventing more than 5.5 million unwanted pregnancies.
In late September, GBCHealth and UNFPA’s West and Central Africa Regional Office (WCARO) launched a partnership to mobilize business action in support of women and youth. We’re working together to:
- Create awareness and stimulate action within and by the private sector on health issues critical to realizing the DD.
- Establish a space for the private sector to advocate – alongside government and civil society – for policies that promote, support, and expand the DD agenda.
- Provide direct avenues for the private sector to partner to improve SRHR outcomes and scale successful programs through integrated interventions and business know-how.
- Support, complement, replicate and/or scale existing UNFPA initiatives that are underway, such as the flagship Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend Project and Building Community Resilience around the Lake Chad through the Investment in Youth and Women.
Here’s how you can contribute:
- Join a new advisory group of private sector champions to support this important work to empower, educate and employ young people.
- Participate in roundtables with other high-level corporate leaders that leads to action and alignment to support national and international goals
- Contribute new ideas and expertise to address challenges in product and service delivery, capacity building, education, jobs and knowledge.
- Partner to fill gaps and to replicate, expand, and scale projects, across communities and borders.
Stay tuned for more information on a series of webinars that will take place in November.
 Youth typically includes people ages 15-24 and working age typically includes people 15-64.
 The African Union declared their 2017 theme Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in Youth. This sub-theme is part of the African Union’s broader 50-year strategic framework Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want.
 This is the premise of the Programme of Action from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development; it guides UNFPA’s work and has been endorsed by 179 countries. The Programme of Action was visionary in its recognition of SRHR, along with women’s empowerment and gender equality, as cornerstones of population and development efforts.
 These are often due to regulatory and manufacturing challenges.
 Areas of expertise include, but are not limited to: increasing demand for and behavior change around contraceptive use, optimizing commodity supply, training health workers, advocating for policy changes, building financial mechanisms, providing data collection and monitoring, and offering complementary interventions such as financial literacy.