Building Africa’s education systems for a prosperous future

Photo credit: AfDB

Africa lacks a critical mass of skilled labor because of low access to, and high dropouts from education systems. Only about one third of children are in secondary school, and just over one in ten have access to higher education, compared to rates three times as high in other developing countries. Indeed, half of the children of primary and lower secondary school age who are not in school, are in Africa. This represents a total of 60 million youths. This is indeed a serious threat to social cohesion and labor force productivity of the future. The question is what to do about it. 

Every three years the great and the good working on African education and training come together at the meeting of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), the latest of which is taking place this week in Dakar, Senegal. The theme of the meeting is “revitalizing education towards the 2030 Global Agenda and Africa’s Agenda 2063”. Participants come together to share their thoughts and experiences in education, aimed at improving policies and activities, and mapping out the ways we can work together to achieve better outcomes. 

Progress is being made around the continent, but systems are not being revamped quickly enough to prepare Africa’s young people for a dynamic future. It is true that access to education is indeed improving. In fact, over the past fifteen years, Africa has halved the number of primary school aged children who do not currently attend school, and has also made strides in getting more young people into secondary school and higher education. There has also been an increase in vocational school attendees, reaching nearly 25% attendance. Yet more needs to be done to ensure the African education systems successfully support economic transformation. Most African education systems face a triple crisis: scarce human capital, low quality and poor inclusion, and a lack of alignment with private sector needs. 

The quality shortcomings are reflected in the students’ lack of foundational skills and critical competencies: about a third of primary school dropouts can neither read nor write. Global employers rate soft skills as highly as they rate technical skills, yet African classrooms are mostly teacher-directed, and provide very few opportunities for students to develop these skills. In addition, Africa also faces inclusion challenges (gender, spatial, income). Gender disparities, for example, increase from primary school to higher education. 

Available skills and competencies do not sufficiently respond to the needs of the job market. For example, vocational programs tend to be rigid and cannot adapt quickly enough to labor market needs; including the informal sector. There are too few scientists and engineers in sectors that drive African economic transformation. These systemic weaknesses are contributing to high unemployment, particularly among the young. 

The state of affairs would be of concern in a static environment, but this is far from the case. We are at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution, with the convergence of new technologies such as ICT, artificial intelligence, and robotics entirely transforming economies as well as massively increasing the pace of change. And while Africa has the potential to leapfrog over the shortcomings prevalent in advanced economies, several countries on the continent are missing out on this opportunity by underinvesting in science, technology, and research and development. Research and development spending is extremely low and there is a lack of qualified researchers. Only five African universities are among the top 500 universities globally. That translates into an inability of African economies to transform their raw materials into high-end finished products that can compete in global markets. 

Better education and training will not come for free, particularly given the large numbers of young people reaching school age. The African Development Bank is working hard to contribute to better educational outcomes on the continent, with a strong focus in recent years on higher education, science, and technology. These investments will enable African economies to grow significantly and leapfrog into higher value added production. Our work aims to build skills and promote technologies for better jobs, equal opportunities, and workforce competitiveness. 

We are rolling out two major flagship programs aimed at making progress in these areas. The first flagship is called “Rethinking Education and Learning for Africa’s Transformation”, and it aims to help African countries take a holistic approach toward their education systems, and get better value for money from education expenditures to produce the skilled graduates needed for national development. Policy dialogues with governments will be combined with technical assistance and necessary financial support to help achieve this goal. 

The second flagship program is called: “Boosting Science, Technology and Innovation in African Countries.” This aims to ensure that Africa is not to be left behind by the fourth industrial revolution. This program will be anchored in priority sectors such as agriculture, energy, ICT, infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, nutrition, and Green and Blue economies. This can be done through national innovation systems, entrepreneurship schemes, and incubators, and will promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education; especially for women. The AfDB will also increase support for converting existing research and innovations into marketable products and services, while ensuring that the intellectual property rights of African researchers and innovators are protected. 

Given that ultimately one of the major goals of education and training systems is to foster employment, our efforts do not stop at the classroom. As a response to the dire youth employment challenge in Africa, the Bank’s Jobs for Youth Strategy aims to directly create 25 million jobs and empower 50 million youth with job related skills, especially in agriculture, industry, and ICT. This will be done through our various projects. 

Given the increasing emphasis being placed on adapted education and employment by so many of Africa’s leaders, the discussions this week in Dakar with senior government officials, development partners, companies and civil society organizations, will help us all to collectively move ahead to future proof Africa’s education and training systems for the skills and jobs not just needed for today, but for years to come. 


The original blog was published and it is available at the AfDB website

Jennifer Blanke, Vice-President, Agriculture, Human and Social Development, AfDB

Etienne Porgo, Manager, Human and Social Development Department, AfDB
Borel Anicet Foko Tagne, Education Economist, Human and Social Development, AfDB