Leading the way to high-skilled jobs?

Creating high-skilled and relevant jobs will help the world’s youngest region – with close to 60% of its population under 25 years old – and to do that it requires dynamic new higher education leaders.

The world’s youngest region Sub-Saharan Africa has a fantastic opportunity to reap economic reward from its demographic dividend. Yet the continent continues to be dogged by chronically high youth unemployment rates, as high as 48%, according to the International Labour Organization.

Creating high-skilled jobs for these youths could help some countries in Africa advance to middle-income or even upper middle-income status. But, of course, the question is how to do it?

Scaling up higher education in Africa can produce a high-skilled workforce capable of doing these jobs. Africa’s current Gross Enrolment Ratio in tertiary education is 9% – well below the world average of 33%. Africa compares unfavourably to other developing regions too. For example, South Asia’s ratio is 21%, World Bank data shows.

On the plus side, enrolment rates are increasing rapidly in Africa. Good news, for sure, but a word of warning: it is not just about expanding capacity: the labour market relevance of tertiary education qualifications is at least as important.

Africa can learn lessons from the experience of Latin America in this regard. Back in the 1980s, Latin America enjoyed a similarly impressive uptick in tertiary education enrolment. While overall Latin America’s capacity expansion was a significant success, some experts also argue that the region might have failed to fully convert this into tens of millions of high-paying, high-skilled jobs.

Parts of the region remain held back by an underemployed workforce and major skills gaps. One in five Latin American youths today neither works nor goes to school, according to a World Bank report. They even have their own sobriquet – ‘ninis’ – derived from the Spanish ni estudian ni trabajan (neither studying nor working).

For Africa, the challenge in the 21st century is to diversify countries’ economies away from a heavy reliance on agriculture and develop strong manufacturing and high-skilled service sectors. This is a better formula for economic prosperity than a wholesale flip from an agriculture to a services-dominated economy that relies on low-skilled labour.

Leaders for the 21st century

Strong, homegrown, globally-versed, regionally-thinking leadership in tertiary education can help Africa to advance along this path. We are seeing encouraging signs – for example, Ashesi University College in Ghana, founded by Patrick Awuah in 1999.

Awuah is a native Ghanaian who worked for Microsoft in the United States before returning home to establish the university. Awuah has taken the expertise he acquired in an advanced economy and applied it to Ghana to foster his home country’s development.

A modest-sized liberal arts college for now, Ashesi aims to replicate successful US models such as Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. Ashesi’s core values are scholarship, leadership and citizenship. Its mission is “to educate ethical, entrepreneurial leaders in Africa; to cultivate the critical thinking skills, the concern for others and the courage it will take to transform a continent”. Ashesi is an International Finance Corporation client, the recipient of a small loan.

The African Leadership University, or ALU, is a more recent enterprise. Based in Mauritius, it was founded in 2013 by Ghanaian-born Fred Swaniker, a renowned educationalist who has lived in 10 African countries. Like Awuah, Swaniker spent time in the US, in Swaniker’s case forging useful contacts in Silicon Valley while he studied for his MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business in California.

Graça Machel, the former education minister of Mozambique and the widow of Nelson Mandela, serves as ALU chancellor.

Through its undergraduate, postgraduate and executive education programmes, ALU aims to empower students to take ownership of their learning and equip them to think entrepreneurially. With campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda, ALU plans to expand across Africa. It has set itself the goal of training three million entrepreneurial, ethical leaders by 2060.

Another encouraging story of pioneering leadership is Kenyan-based Maarifa Education, founded by American Scott Royster, whose business model involves creating a network of universities across Sub-Saharan Africa and growing each one. The International Finance Corporation is an investor in Emerging Capital Partners, a private equity fund that is Maarifa’s main shareholder.

These three enterprises, each with its distinct model and origins, were founded by inspiring, well-travelled entrepreneurs with exciting new ideas about how to develop higher education. They make me hopeful that Africa will succeed in producing more graduates equipped with the kinds of skills that the high-paying jobs of the future will demand.

Alejandro Caballero is global education specialist at the International Finance Corporation, the arm of the World Bank that invests in the private sector.