Education should be Africa’s highest priority: Mo Ibrahim

WHEREVER I go, I find myself asked about the unique opportunity that Africa’s rich natural resources offer for our future. I quickly agree that Africa has remarkable resources which, properly harnessed, can help deliver widespread prosperity.

But I am not talking about oil, natural gas or precious metals, important as they are for our continent’s prospects. I have no doubt that Africa’s greatest gift is the talent and energy of our young generation.

Our continent is in the middle of an extraordinary demographic shift. The median age of our population is now 18, seven years younger than in south Asia and 16 years below China. These young people should form a powerful motor for economic growth in Africa and, as our continent prospers, globally. They should also provide a huge potential consumer market for goods and services. It is no wonder that companies and investors worldwide are beginning to see Africa in a new and positive light.

And it is not just these extraordinary numbers which should excite us. Whenever I meet young Africans, I come away impressed with their creativity, ambition and drive. So when the World Economic Forum meets in Cape Town this week to discuss how to deliver on Africa’s promise, I want our discussions to centre on what we can do to get the best out of our greatest resource — our young people. Because it is clear that so far we are not living up to this challenge.

Mo Ibrahim
Mo Ibrahim

The statistics are stark. Economic growth has been strong, with nearly half of African countries, according to the World Bank, reaching middle income status. Yet youth unemployment continues to rise worryingly. Africa is making real progress in getting its children into school. But the figures show that the longer our young people stay in education, the less chance they have of being employed.

We know, too, that agriculture is, by far, the continent’s biggest employer and vital in tackling hunger and driving wider development. Yet less than 2% of our young people are studying agriculture. Africa also has the lowest proportion of engineers in the world — a matter of great concern given the role the extractive industries play in many economies.

These failures risk holding back Africa’s positive trajectory and we are in danger of letting down the most talented generation in our continent’s history.

There is no single solution to this. Nor can it be solely the responsibility of governments. In fact, I strongly believe that education is too important a subject to be left only in the hands of politicians and administrators, no matter how well-intentioned. After all, the principal aim of education is to lead to worthwhile and productive employment.

It is the private sector that must provide the majority of the new jobs Africa needs. So we need business to become much more involved in deciding the knowledge and skills taught in school — and for policy makers to listen when shaping education and training programmes. We need, for example, a much heavier emphasis on science, data and innovation. This increased focus will begin to help us meet the continent’s shortfall in engineers.

As well as ensuring that school and college better equip our young people with the skills employers need, we need to do more to provide them with careers. This, again, places a new responsibility on business to provide employment opportunities and training. We need to work together to find ways to stop the brain drain which sees our brightest students leave to work abroad.

Finally, agriculture must be made more attractive to young people. We have to raise their sights from seeing agriculture as a dead end, short-term job to one which offers the opportunity to build long-term careers, grow businesses and deliver prosperity. This requires a greater emphasis on agriculture — a much wider sector than just farming — in schools, and more conversation about the opportunities for innovation, entrepreneurship and business development it offers.

After all, we know from Asia that agriculture is the best possible driver of sustainable growth and development. We need the energy and capacity to innovate the younger generation if we are to follow Asia’s lead.

If we are to accelerate Africa’s remarkable progress and ensure it reaches every community, we must give our young people the chance to thrive.

 • Ibrahim is founder and chairman, Mo Ibrahim Foundation; founder, Celtel International; co-chairman, World Economic Forum on Africa 2013.

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