Africa’s talent – More valuable than gold, diamonds, oil

“There will be no more important issue in the world – not energy, not oil, not water – than that of talent,” says Professor Phillip Clay, former chancellor of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, and a board member of the MasterCard Foundation. “The places that develop talent, motivate talent and use talent will be the places that move forward in the world.” This must be young Africa’s priority.

Although African economic growth is driven by natural resource exploitation, the continent’s talent could be far more valuable than gold, diamonds and oil. “If it is developed and deployed it will be more valuable than all the minerals in the ground.”

Clay was speaking during a high level panel on “Business, Higher Education and Graduate Employability” at the African Higher Education Summit held in Senegal’s capital Dakar from 10-12 March. He pointed to issues he believes are critical in terms of urgency and possibilities for success.

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Clay obtained a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a professor in the department of urban studies and planning and has held leadership positions at MIT including being chancellor from 2001-11.

“Talent is in abundance all over the world. You take 1,000 kids any place on Earth and nature has distributed talent equally. If kids are behind, it is because we have failed to help them develop their talents. The urgency for Africa is that talent development and talent management will be critical for the future.”

Clay’s second point related to Africa’s ‘demographic dividend’.

“In lots of places on Earth – Europe, Japan and increasingly the United States – the fraction of the population that is older, is growing rapidly. Africa is the youngest continent on Earth. You have the most rapidly growing population in their 20s and 30s.

“The future, which can be great, will come when that population is prepared for global economic participation and leadership,” said Clay, adding: “So the opportunity for leadership comes with taking advantage of the demographic dividend.”

His final point drew a lesson from America. “In the period after slavery, comparable in many ways to the period after colonialism, America got the education of former slaves all wrong.

Attention was paid to training former slaves for jobs that existed. “That was wrong. And it would be wrong in the 50 years after colonialism for African education, for employers and for universities, to focus on preparing young people only for the jobs that now exist.

“There has to be some judgment about the desired future for the continent, and to train young people for that, to motivate them, to counsel them – to engage them, and to do that with employers and universities all working together. Because the opportunity for advancement comes when that is done credibly and consistently.”

Massification and differentiation

The point had been made at the conference, said Clay, that there are tensions between massification and differentiation.

“This should not be viewed as a choice. We do have to move in the continent from 6% to 8% of young people with college degrees to close to the world average of about 30%. There is a need to move in that direction as quickly as possible.”

There should also be differentiation. “The issue is how you create a system that provides educational opportunity for the full range of educational missions.

“There is a role for the high end, philosophical, thoughtful basic science education. That is important. There is also a need for the engineer who will take the African lead in unearthing and managing and developing resources. That’s a different need but equally important.

“There is also a need for the education of people who will express the vision of Africa, the values of Africa, the meaning of African life and what needs to be done,” Clay continued. Further, there is a role for people who will do the paraprofessional or technical or supportive work to make the economy run.

“We shouldn’t choose between educating philosophers and architects; that’s a bad choice. You need philosophers and architects.”

Foundation lessons

Clay said that he was at the summit representing the MasterCard Foundation, which was established in 2006 and has a massive US$10 billion endowment.

The foundation says its programmes serve six million people in 57 developing countries, with funding concentrated in 26 African countries. The MIT professor said that in deciding that Africa would be MasterCard’s main area of investment in education and economic inclusion, a lot of time was spent trying to understand the experiences of the past and the best ways forward.

“One of the first things we discovered is that there is a large number of young men and women who thought they were being educated but who, it turns out, were not being educated at all. They are walking around in their young adult years worried, and perhaps angry, that what they thought would be the future will not be, based on current activities.

“The reason their future right now appears limited is not because they did not try, but because we – meaning the large ‘we’ – failed them,” Clay told the summit.

The MasterCard Foundation, the professor continued, has tried to do several things.

“First, we identified places that really were providing very good education. The foundation is educating more than 10,000 young men and women in secondary and tertiary education institutions in 24 African countries – “often institutions that are close to their homes”.

“We believe that the model of education that we’re supporting at these institutions will be the basis for institutions and educational activity going forward.”

It was also discovered, said Clay, that the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields had been neglected in Africa.

“So we have given a great deal of attention to STEM education and we have engaged the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and others in helping to not only boost their enrolment of STEM-oriented students but also to train a generation of teachers who will change the paradigm in African teaching.”

Third, he said, “making young people employable is not just an education and industry issue, it is also an issue that ought to involve students. One of the ways that we fail students is that we fail to engage them.”

The foundation is experimenting with cooperative education, in which the education institution and employers engage students in a model in which, while learning, they also get valuable work experience that tackles not only the employable skills issue but also the soft skills critical for success in the workplace.

Finally, the foundation is supporting entrepreneurship.

“An awful lot of employment opportunities in Africa are in the informal economy,” said Clay. While there would be some formal economy expansion, “if countries are to move forward they really do need to invest in helping young people develop the orientation and skills of entrepreneurship and leadership and then get the support to take off in that direction.

“Opportunities here in Africa for economic development that is dreamed up in the heads of young people are important for the future.”