“Young people are the future. It is important to include the youth in problem-solving so that we can work together to positively impact the wellbeing of our people, the future of our land and the thriving of our economy.”
– Rhema, 16, Malawi

Africa has the youngest population in the world, with the number of youth under the age of 18 expected to reach one billion by 2050. Faced with school closures and job losses, youth in Africa have been hit hard by the pandemic and they worry about their future.

In Malawi, only about 35 percent of the population completes primary education and moves on to secondary school. With 49 percent of its population aged 18 or younger, Burundi has one of the world’s youngest, poorest and most rural-based populations in the world. In Nigeria, the unemployment rate for youth aged 15 to 24 is 53.4 percent.

Photo credit — Left: Doug Linstedt / Right: Emmanuel Ikwuegbu

And the pandemic has only served to exacerbate the situation in these and other countries across the continent. From loss of income and job insecurity to stalled education and lack of clean water, young people and their communities are being forced to explore new and innovative ways of coping as their economies continue to suffer.

In early 2020, when the world experienced its first lockdowns, the United Nations engaged a cohort of young people to better understand how the pandemic was affecting them. The group identified eight key challenges: job loss, homebound income generation, education on COVID-19, sanitation and hygiene, loneliness and depression, mask availability and disposal and stalled learning.

“Young people hold unique viewpoints with regards to the challenges faced by their communities,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.

Photo credit: Emmanuel Ikwuegbu

In order to support African youth design solutions to the pandemic, tailored to the needs of their own communities, UNICEF partnered with online learning platform Cartedo to launch the COVID-19 Youth Innovation Challenge. The initiative engaged over 90,000 young people from Burundi, Malawi, Nigeria and Tanzania, with Cartedo guiding participants through the design process.

Their innovative solutions included solar panels for sustainable water supply systems in communities without safe water access; an app that helps the elderly to stay at home while still accessing the basic supplies and services that they need; a rainwater filter to support hand-washing; video training to make your own mask using easy-to-find materials; and online marketplaces for continued income during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo credit: Cartedo; COVID-19 Youth Innovation Challenge

Chukwuma Nwachukwu, 28, from Nigeria, produced a prototype for a solar-powered water pump to support community hand-washing. “One thing that really stood out for me is the fact that this solution is sustainable. It is cost-effective.”

Sam Masikini, 23, from Malawi, designed an offline mobile app for children called Inspire to help children e-learn in the face of low digital literacy and poor infrastructure. “The idea is to reimagine education in Malawi and offer equal opportunities for continued learning to a boy or girl in a remote village and a privileged urban child with high-end devices.”

Photo credit: UNICEF

Since launching, the challenge garnered support from many different sectors, including government, business, schools and churches. It empowered young people who had never studied design or considered it as a career to help them conceptualize and produce tangible solutions to local challenges.

Giving Africa’s youth, who make up 75% of the population, access to key resources and the opportunity to influence the decisions that shape their lives will undoubtedly have a powerful ripple effect on the health and well-being of families and communities across the continent.

This project aims to address the following UN Sustainable Development Goals: 4. Ensure all girls and boys complete free primary and secondary schooling; 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; 9. Promote inclusive, sustainable, affordable, and equitable access for all, using new, innovative tools; 17. Strengthen partnerships and cooperation

WDO’s World Design Impact Prize™ was established in 2011 to honour and elevate industrial design driven projects that benefit society. The award aims to bring visibility and recognition to socially responsible design initiatives around the world.

View the other World Design Impact Prize 2021 shortlisted projects.