Africa: unemployable millions or global talent pool

With Africa’s class of 2013 set to dominate the world – on graduation, it will join a billion-strong workforce outnumbering China’s – IBA Global Insight assesses the importance of education across the continent.

Stephen Haggard

In 2013, Africa began the journey that will give it the world’s largest workforce. Two training centres mark its leaders, and the pack following them [see boxes]. It’s a 22-year run: The African generation of 2013 has demography on its side and the one billion-strong labour force they join at graduation will outnumber that of India or China. It’s clear already that a good chunk of the 120 million Africans who will join the world of work this decade are going to be strong talents, and many will be the top of their field globally. But on current trends millions might never make the starting line. The United Nations estimates that in Sub-Saharan Africa, one in three young people currently have no education or training. For them, the future looks like underachievement, unfulfilled potential and unemployment.

Joseph Stiglitz, speaking to IBA Global Insight at the IBA Annual Conference 2012, held in  in Dublin, expressed the belief that Africa’s development can offer a solution to the world’s economic crisis. Already China has thrown a lifeline to the world by lifting 300 million people out of poverty in just 20 years – largely by raising the capacity of its primary education system by 30 million places. Could Africa, the world’s next talent reservoir, see a similar transformation ? It’s a matter of necessity, according to Ade Mabogunje, a Stanford University Professor who advises his native Nigerian government when he’s not researching Silicon Valley’s skill infrastructure. ‘Nigeria will go from 150 million to 750 million citizens this century’, says Mabogunje. ‘If they aren’t trained and working, it’s a global security crisis, not an economic difficulty. Look at how Boko Haram feeds off educational failure.’

The starting place for an educated workforce is generally the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2, set to be reached in 2015: universal primary school completion. A clutch of African nations have already passed the goal or are only a few percent short: Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Tanzania, and South Africa and Zambia. Others are definitely going to join them on time: Burundi, Ethiopia and Rwanda. These journeys have featured remarkable discoveries (deworming treatments and uniforms keep children at school more effectively than improved buildings) and painful compromises: often the class sizes rise and quality falls as governments try to squeeze more schooling from their budgets.

By 2015 half of this country will be using their mobiles to make e-cash payments… We are going to see a boom in phone services reaching out to train people in all sorts of skills
Derrydean Dadzle
CEO, Ghanaian IT company DreamOval

Away from these pacesetting nations, around a quarter of Africa’s children do not complete primary. They are deterred by a thicket of interlocking problems from inequality, poverty and disease, to lack of schools or teachers and female exclusion. In some Sahel nations, as many as three children in every four do not finish primary education, while even Nigeria, one of Africa’s richest nations, has seen sharply rising numbers of children altogether out of school, to the extent that one in five of the world’s out-of-school children is now a Nigerian.

The biggest thing we do

But the future belongs to optimists; it’s the prospect of improvement that matters. Ethiopia has shown it’s possible to achieve what the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Education for All Global Monitoring Report hails as ‘spectacular success’, consistently raising the number of children enrolled in and completing primary by around five per cent per year. There’s still a long way to go but Ethiopia’s targets, which include 100 per cent of children in school by 2015, and middle income status for the country by 2025, look reachable. Solomon Shiferaw, Head of Planning at Addis Ababa’s Ministry of Education, says it’s been a matter of scale and sheer will. ‘To educate every child we work with every person. It’s about national awareness, parent committees, community involvement as well as the schools themselves. Nearly a quarter of our national spending is on education. It’s simply the biggest thing we do.’

Too many nations, however, including the large, significant or resource-rich such as Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda,  are not increasing their primary completion rates. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has not managed to get primary completion above 70 per cent in a decade of effort. The depressing result is that of the world’s out-of-school children, nearly half (48 per cent) are in Africa. Sometimes this is about relative distribution of education within countries, as well as the absolute failure of some governments to provide schools. Uganda’s problem is inequality: a poor Ugandan child is twice as likely to drop out of primary, as a poor Rwandan child. London School of Economics Professor of African Development Thandika Mkandawire explains that policy initiatives imposed by foreign donors have often paralysed progress, from education to agriculture. ‘The fads come and go, it might be fiscal discipline, or marketisation, or decentralisation, or growth, or productivity drives. In any event, it’s always a three-year project to deliver an idea favoured by a donor. It’s left many governments with inconsistent and contradictory policies. And the learning is being done by outsiders and not shared among Africans.’

For the dozen or so Sub-Saharan nations who have high levels of universal primary completion, we can expect progress at all levels. Kenya is installing a connected IT suite for every secondary school – thanks to a deal with Chinese IT companies. Indeed, Kenya has raised average total years in education faster than China. Ethiopia has built over 30 new public universities in just 20 years, and is on target for its aim of universal secondary education by 2020. But a two-speed continent is now also a reality. In a recent forecast for the same year, McKinsey Group estimates that by 2020, still less than half of Africans (48 per cent) will be taking education beyond primary. This educated half will be concentrated in the dozen or so vanguard nations, leaving the remainder stuck without progress.

The gap between Africa’s winners and laggards looks even scarier when you investigate what is actually learned in schools. A group of South and East African countries collaborate to gather data on their standard achievement tests in primary numeracy and literacy. The range between lowest and highest attainment of basic learning is as follows. In Malawi less than ten per cent of children in school achieve the basic targets; in Mauritius it’s over 70 per cent. Test results show that last decade’s achievement of getting 50 million children in to African classrooms, has often been at the expense of quality. ‘Many kids are learning close to nothing and they leave school unable to read or do simple sums’, says Charles Kenny at the Centre for Global Development. UNESCO’s ‘Education for All’ programme, now over a decade old, and still far short of its goals, is moving its focus in 2013 from enrolling pupils to the quality of teaching. One million teachers must be trained in Sub-Saharan Africa between now and 2015, simply to keep up with MDG goals without lowering the quality of learning.  In many places, it’s not going to happen.

Go figure

Away from these gloomy figures, there are rays of hope. The first is that the figures themselves exist. In autumn 2012, the World Bank, UNESCO, the Brookings Institution and others launched statistics portals measuring education performance in Africa in great detail. The sudden glut of educational data services helps to make problems and successes more visible. For example, we know that schools in Kenya are much better at overcoming differences of socio-economic background than in Zambia. Or we see that Rwanda, while closing the education gap between rural and urban regions, is increasing the disparity of the level of education between its richest and poorest citizens. These data-driven insights are calls to action for education planners to target very specific issues for maximum effect. An example of the sort of interventions that become possible, with quality data, is a £30m pilot scheme in Ethiopia, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), to pay aid in proportion to the number of girls passing the grade ten secondary school exam. It ought to earn a return: World Bank data shows that an increase of one per cent in the number of girls with secondary education boosts annual per capita income growth by 0.3 per cent. The price of educating one Ethiopian child to international standards of school leaving is one fortieth the price of the same achievement in the UK. Go figure. 

Politicians in some capitals are showing appetite and boldness for grasping the nettle of educational quality. It’s not enough to meet MDG goals for getting kids into school, says Matthias Harebamungu, the former teacher now turned Education Minister in Rwanda. He is surfing a wave of reform that mobilised the whole population and army to build schools, has raised its sights from universal Primary completion to 12-year schooling completion. Harebamungu is already on the next wave – which is about the quality of the learning outputs. Rwanda is now adding classroom ICT into the mix. Buoyed by a dirigiste central authority that China’s education planners would admire, Harebamungu has set the task for 2013 as a reform of what schools teach, and the establishment of a ‘curriculum that reaches all corners’. He declares that for Rwanda ‘it is key to have people who are not job seekers but job creators’. An acid test for the resilience of such home-grown education drives will be how far this agenda survives the financial pain that donors are likely to inflict upon Rwanda, as punishment for Kigali’s troublemaking in the eastern Congo.

Sharpening up school systems may be working in some places, but for some observers, school is the problem not the solution. Nigeria’s Ade Mabogunje agrees: ‘School education has been oversold. Okay, it can be done. But look at the content. In Nigeria, sitting in classrooms is mainly a way of moving up in social status and getting an unproductive overpaid government job. The kind of education we have is simply a drain on the economy.’ Mabogunje is part of a trend that doubts whether universal Western-style state education systems are the answer. He looks elsewhere for other things that can impact on skills. ‘Look, in Nigeria there are 200,000 pastors in the Redeemed Church, that’s twice as many as serve in the army, and those guys are giving basic literacy skills quite effectively and getting 100 per cent attendance. The government’s coffers are empty, despite all our oil, and the figures show that we are getting fewer kids in school. If we are going to make any serious progress in education now, it’s got to be around the institutions that do function in this country. That is: family, community, mosque and church, and business.’

Clever social innovators

Learning outside school is a second area for hope in African education. Social innovators are developing pragmatic systems for second chance and vocational training. Idealists may not like the idea of a ‘good enough’ approach to learning, where populations get information and training as and when required for work, but it is becoming a norm, with its own established formats.

NAIROBI, Kenya – home of an African dotcom boom

Scores of commercial IT colleges cluster around Moi Avenue. Enter one at random – the Computer Pride Training Centre at Cinema Plaza, on the fourth floor of an ugly block. The narrow bright blue corridor leads to a dozen IT laboratories where, from 8am to 9pm, there will be 100-odd students working with tutors, plugged into a 2MB data link. Most are gaining professional certificates from Microsoft or Oracle. For around 30 students, this is also a branch campus of the UK’s Middlesex University, where they study for a full British Computer Science degree with the help of certified lecturers and a fibreoptic cable. The London-based course principal, Ian Mitchell, has this to say about his Kenyan graduates.

‘They are fantastic. Unbelievable. I wish we got UK students like that. And these men and women are getting good jobs too. I don’t think the UK students can match them.’ Mitchell, who marks the exams from Nairobi and London side by side, says the higher motivation and superior learning of the Kenyan candidates is always obvious from their exam scripts. Middlesex is expanding its Nairobi offering, and is not alone. In education honeypots like Accra or Addis, the pop-up campus of a university from China, India, UK or the US, is feeding the educational hunger of an African middle class that already outnumbers Europe’s. 

Farmer field schools, an idea originally pioneered in Indonesia, are now a widely-used format for ‘sending farmers back to school’ in season-long courses for groups of around 25 farmers in a ‘classroom without walls’. In a continent where small-scale agriculture is the norm, education has to function in countryside areas where school attendance is going to be rare. A rigorous three-year study of farmer field school outcomes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda showed that learning from farmer field schools raised family income by 60 per cent, while households whose head had no previous schooling could more than double their income. These schools are, unsurprisingly, popular. The students pay, making this option possible whether or not governments have the funds. The model works in cities too: Nairobi’s rubbish problem is being addressed, and slum families given income, in a scheme that teaches families to make burnable briquettes from waste. Basic numeracy and literacy get picked up along the way. 

Nigeria will go from 150 million to 750 million citizens this century. If they aren’t trained and working, it’s a global security crisis, not an economic difficulty. Look at how Boko Haram feeds off educational failure
Professor Ade
Mabogunje, Stanford University

Across Africa, the adult learning scene is characterised by innovation and energy. At Macha, a village 30 miles from tarmac or electricity in central Zambia, a remote community with a good V-sat link largely teaches itself farming, IT, health and literacy, and retains its skilled professionals in the countryside rather than losing them to the cities. Machaworks, as this experiment is known, trains people through relationships as much as classrooms. Machaworks founder, charismatic Dutchman Gertjan van Stam, argues that effective education happens in African societies when communities come together to learn collectively and throughout life. Machaworks is a pin-up for the role of adult learning in creating a prosperous and educated community. If van Stam is correct, the continuous collective education model may be as or even more significant for the future of African workforce development, as what happens to kids on school benches. But such projects are not typical, and the scalability and sustainability of success ‘beacons’ like Macha has not been proven.

Silicon Savannah

The answer may lie with Africa’s digital entrepreneurs who are using SMS and smartphone apps to earn global attention as innovators in just-in-time learning for adults. Piggybacking on the triumph of the Kenyan phone-based currency M-Pesa, the techies of Silicon Savannah are rushing out apps for phone-based-learning in finance, work skills, literacy and numeracy. This may be scalable and sustainable, says Derrydean Dadzie, who is CEO of Ghanaian IT company, DreamOval. His business makes the software behind a gamut of phone services that already train adult learners in Ghana on themes ranging from breast-feeding your baby to boosting your cocoa crop. Half of Ghana lives on rural smallholdings, just about all of Ghana has a mobile phone, and for Dadzie, that adds up to a business. Dadzie says: ‘by 2015 half of this country will be using their mobiles to make e-cash payments. Now in Ghana people really want to learn – there’s a huge appetite for education here. The farmers who get SMS lessons about their crops, all double their income. So I am absolutely sure that people will pay for learning on the phone. We are going to see a boom in phone services reaching out to train people in all sorts of skills.’

The final joker in the pack is Africa’s newest aid and development partner, China. Up until now, Beijing’s interest in Africa has been led by corporations looking for profit. The Renminbi financed around $200bn of African development in 2012, mostly in oil, minerals, and basic infrastructures for trade. Now, in the second decade of its African love-affair, China is becoming, unwittingly, a stakeholder in softer cultural issues. He Wenping of the Chinese Academy of Social is calling ‘for China to increase its influence in Africa on the ideological front’, and identified Education as one of ‘many opportunities for China to achieve this’. You can already find some 20,000 African graduates attending courses in China, a Chinese University campus in Accra, and numerous Confucius Centres around the continent where Mandarin is taught.

China has its own remarkable record of educational transformation, which the West has largely ignored, but Beijing is now preparing to add to the ‘Made in China’ portfolio. In ten years China has notched up 30 million new primary enrollments and increased numbers in post-secondary from one million to six million. The quality measures have grown in parallel. It’s not a perfect record - the children of migrants, minorities and western areas have had a patchy experience. However, China has probably got what Africa needs, with its huge scale, strong focus on rural and adult education, and use of cheap ICT to accelerate learning. Plans to repackage the formula for Africa are taking shape already.

Nearly a quarter of our national spending is on education. It’s simply the biggest thing we do
Solomon Shlferaw
Head of Planning at Addis Ababa's
Ministry of Education, Ethiopia.

Beijing has started to send its educational experts to African meetings. A UNESCO-led $8m Africa-China education fund is starting collaborative projects in training rural teachers. Duncan Hindle, former Permanent Secretary in South Africa’s Education Ministry, and now a Director of the newly formed China-Africa Educational Roundtable as well as Chairperson at the Institute for Capacity Building in Africa, says that China’s engagement in education is going to have significant effects even in the short and medium term. Says Hindle of the Chinese educationalists now eyeing Africa, ‘They have different perspectives and huge resources. Their research investment is massive, so they understand the learning process very well, and they have enormous expertise in using IT in learning. That’s how they achieved such high skill levels for staggering numbers of people, retraining them for working in industry, in such a short time. In these new partnerships, Africans will be learning that from them. I think we will see benefits fast’.

Chinese-led initiatives will differ from what Western donors and African governments have traditionally done. China’s involvement means the top billing, in the first phase of their engagement agenda, goes to research and consensus around what they see as Africa’s two education challenges: gender inequality and remote location. School buildings, pupil enrollment, and teacher training are not top of the list.

SEREKUNDA, The Gambia – one of Africa’s poorest nations

No international degrees are on offer here, but a local entrepreneur opened the Microtech Institute several years ago in a couple of rooms on the edge of a mosquito-thick swamp, with a teetering internet connection and a single bootlegged copy of Microsoft Office. It costs GMD6000 ($195) for a four-month starter IT course in a country where GDP per capita is $600, so affordability is an issue. Student Abdou Mankayang says: ‘Three quarters of us here have been sent by their employers to learn PC maintenance, because now in Gambia most institutions are moving from manual to digital and people are realising the benefit of computer literacy.’ Mankayang, a sponsored student, is hopeful that although he lacks the crucial social connections to get him a job, the training will give him a future: ‘There is a bit of greener pasture in the field now.’ Landing a job in tech support would make him a lucky man. Be from Gambia’s bush rather than the city, or be illiterate like more than half of this country, or be a girl, and you’d be looking at the same option as most (63 per cent) Africans today: unwaged subsistence living.

Zheng Xinrong, Director of the Institute of Educational Foundations of Beijing Normal University, echoes some of the alternative thinking afoot elsewhere in Africa, in her reflections on China’s experience of including girls in the policy of nine years of universal compulsory education. ‘In China, we found access to school is not the main barrier to girls’ education. It’s sexual harassment, gendered expectations of girls and boys and unequal treatment of men and women in the job market that are the problems.’ China’s trajectory as an aid partner for education is moving to ‘multi-form’ actions, and China’s Foreign Aid Ministry, contributing to the recent China-Africa Education initiatives, emphasised the importance of ‘rendering intellectual support for social and economic development’.

Africa’s class of 2013 is already sure to dominate the world in terms of numbers. The lessons taught in Africa in the years ahead will be among the most important on the planet. No doubt their report cards will vary widely from A+ to Fail, and the class will probably be split into two, but ‘try harder’ will not be empty words. Smart measurements, innovative approaches in adult learning, and a new role for China as a global educator, give plenty of reasons for everyone to sit up and listen carefully.