The Pivotal Role of Education in Africa’s Development

What is development?

Until recently, development was conceived narrowly as no more than an increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country. Such a narrow and limited understanding of development is totally misleading and obscures more than it illuminates.  As we are all probably aware, most African economies have been experiencing steady economic growth over the last five to ten years without corresponding social development. Take the case of Nigeria; as at 1999, the International Monetary Fund estimates that the GDP of Nigeria was some miserable $36 billion. By 2010, it had risen to an estimated $247 billion and current prognosis suggests that it will rise further. Such and similarly dizzying developments prompted the authors of the Mckinsey Report on the African economy to suggest that the African lions were finally on the move.  However, we all know that the so called economic growth has been accompanied by increasing poverty and unemployment. While Mckinsey’s lions are on the move, they seem to have abandoned the cubs to the elements and the vagaries of nature. Predictably, anything and everything can happen, is happening. Check the recent spate of democratic reversals and the potential reversals in other smoldering cauldrons across the continent.  

To stay on course and focused, what then is development? I believe a most instructive and practically rewarding definition is offered by participants at the Farm House Dialogue[1] on Leadership for Development. In that report development was conceptualized ``as a process concerned with people’s capacity in a defined area over a defined period to manage and induce positive change; that is, to predict, plan, understand and monitor change and reduce or eliminate unwanted or unwarranted change’’.


It is pertinent to point out some key words in this definition,

  1. People’s capacity to manage and induce positive change
  2. Monitor change
  3. Reduce or eliminate unwanted or unwarranted change

Deducible from the above, it is assumed that such a people must be informed, rational and clear about their choices and their obvious destination and direction. In a nutshell such people must have a modicum of education.  I suppose the next logical question to ask is what type of education? In fact, what should be our understanding or conceptualization of education that will aid the achievement of development as defined above?

 Again, I turn to a report of the Farm House Dialogue, Education for Development[2]. Participants at the Dialogue defined education as “entailing a life-long formal and informal process of equipping an individual to be fully aware of his environment and to exploit, manage and dominate same for the benefit of himself and the society at large”. The definition achieves two things. First, it throws light on the dynamics of education. It recognises that education is a process and different individuals have different levels of education which can be formally or informally acquired over a lifetime. Second, it captures the essence of education which according to Jekayinfa and Kolawale (2008), is “to produce a useful citizen. A useful citizen is useful both to himself and the society in which he lives, and generally, to the world community”. In 1990, participants at the World Conference on Education for All made a significant contribution to the essence of education, acknowledging that it “is an indispensable key to, though not a sufficient condition for, personal and social improvement…education can help ensure a safer, healthier, more prosperous and environmentally sound world, while simultaneously contributing to social, economic, and cultural progress.”

From the definitions of education offered above, the following words are very significant for our purpose here;

ü  a life-long

ü  formal and informal process

ü  aware of his environment and

ü  to exploit, manage and dominate same

ü  for the benefit of himself and the society at large

ü  Beyond literacy and numeracy

You can only produce a useful citizen if he or she is educated enough to be aware of his or her environment, and is capable of dominating same.

At this point, it is fair right and proper to ask ourselves if in truth, indeed, and in fact educational systems in Africa are designed based on the principles highlighted above. Are we training our people to be aware of their environment; to dominate same for self and society at large? Or are we more concerned with training our people to cope and live under the tyranny of the environment and to accept all manners of limitations whether real, contrived and imagined?


The State of Education in Africa

Without a doubt, the capacity to think, innovate, transmit, and utilize new knowledge is central to development. The world today is a knowledge based economy and the benefits accruable from the increasingly blurring geographical boundaries across nations can be maximised only by nations with highly skilled and educated labour force. What is the place of Africa in this knowledge-based economy? How are African countries dealing with the challenges of education for development?

Since the Dakar World Forum on Education in 2000, significant progress has been made in the Africa region regarding the attainment of the six Education for All (EFA) goals. Regarding EFA goal 1 (expanding early childhood care and education), statistics show that pre-primary gross enrolment ratios (GER) increased by 5% in nine years. It is in the area of EFA goal 2 (free and compulsory primary education) that achievement rates show that significant progress has been made, increasing from 43% in 2000 to 64% in 2008. It is estimated that 22 countries will reach the 100% EFA target by 2015. The challenge of this story is that 40% of the primary school leavers cannot read. Concerning goal 3, (technical and vocation education) the GER has decreased from 9% in 2000 to 7% in 2008. Regarding goal 4 (increasing adult literacy), much remains to be done: the number of illiterate people in Africa increased from 140 million in 2000 to 153 million in 2008, the majority of whom are girls and women. Concerning goal 5 (achieving gender parity and equality), in 2008, there were 94 girls to 100 boys enrolled in primary school. In the first cycle of secondary education this was only 84%. Finally, regarding goal 6 (improving the quality of education), the situation is still quite challenging: some 40 per cent of pupils having attended grade 5 of primary school can neither master the basic competences required to avoid a relapse into illiteracy nor have the basic skills required to perform a job.[3]

Enrollment in primary education has continued to rise, reaching 89 percent in the developing world. However, the pace of progress is insufficient to ensure that, by 2015, all girls and boys in developing countries will complete a full course of primary schooling. Nonetheless, Africa has made tremendous strides toward achieving universal primary education, increasing its net enrollment rate from 65 percent in 1999 to 83 percent in 2008.

Today, there are more secondary schools and tertiary institutions in Africa than there were in 1990. Between 2003 and 2008, enrollment in African universities increased from 2,342,358 to 4,139,797—a 76.74 percent increase compared with a 53.2 percent increase worldwide over the same period. However, Africa’s gross enrollment ratio (GER) of less than 6 percent is the lowest rate in the world. Most of the reasons for this low GER can be attributed to the continent’s lack of capacity to absorb the demand, because the number of students seeking admission to tertiary institutions far outpaces the rate of capacity expansion in these countries[4].

However, while it would appear that progress has been made in enrolment, the major gap remains in the areas of infrastructure and most importantly the quality of education. This gap is all important because, it is the indicator with which any society’s development can be predicated.  Besides, research shows more and more that it is cognitive skills and learning, not years of schooling that makes the difference to development in the long-run. The reason is that cognitive skills will foster innovation and promote technology diffusion by equipping the workforce with the ability to absorb, process and integrate new ideas into production and service delivery. These cognitive skills are measured by reading, mathematics and science tests for students. A fairly recent survey article documents that cognitive skills have substantial and robust effect on economic growth which dwarfs the link between years of schooling and growth.”[5]


The key question to ponder at this point is to ask if truly graduates of our school systems have had their cognitive skills properly honed and sharpened. This is indeed a sad commentary on the qualitative aspect of our education. Earlier on while reeling out the statistics on education in Africa I highlighted the word quantitative so as to draw attention to the fact that in several instances in Africa it seems we were obsessed with the numbers and obviously not the quality in terms of education.


However and as we can see there is a major gap between the quality of education and its application to real life situations. Inventions and research outcomes which should form the basis of innovation and creativity for industries in Africa have not been sufficiently linked. The relevance of the fields of study, the curricula, and the effectiveness of pedagogy for the development needs of African countries and the general quality of programs and graduates remain a big challenge.


It is disheartening to note that in most cases, the value attached to education has been reduced to obtaining the paper qualification without any care about the content. Certification is merely a meal ticket. In the process both parents and school managers and owners have not only missed the boat, but in most cases they have subverted the boat of education by drilling holes in it. The result of that has been the achievement of pseudo-education by so-called educated people who in reality cannot contribute to solving personal, let alone social challenges. As Chika Onyeani pointed out in his article entitled Intellectual Bankruptcy of African Elite;

“A people (continent) which regards itself as independent should be able to produce independent thought. Yet, Africans still depend on Europeans, 40 years after "gaining" their independence from their former colonial masters and at a new millennium, to furnish us with books on any subject. Our so-called elites cannot devote enough time to research to duplicate the same research already conducted and articulate it in a language Africans can understand. It is any wonder then that we go to school and still come out illiterates. It is no wonder that despite our years of schooling, if we need our roads built, we have to contract them out to European engineering firms to build for us; if we need electricity, we get Caucasians or the Japanese to build them for us; if we need drinking water, we have to import European or American experts to do them for us. We are "highly educated," yet we cannot even assemble a bicycle - we have to import it; we cannot assemble a radio - we have to import it; we cannot assemble a fan - we have to import it; we cannot assemble a television - we have to import it. According to the United Nations, Africa constitutes the world's poorest land mass. There is poverty everywhere and the pay of the average man is the lowest in the world.”[6]


In the case of Nigeria it is pathetic, that in almost all sectors of the economy, investors, business owners and managers have lost confidence in the ability of graduates of the Nigerian educational system to make meaningful contribution to their enterprise. This lack of confidence in Nigerian graduates and skilled workers occasioned by inadequate education portends danger for the nation’s economy in two ways. First, it ensures that Nigeria’s labour force is at a disadvantage position when competing against foreign labour. The result is that many Nigerian companies who can afford it would consider hiring a foreign worker ahead of his Nigerian counterpart. This,in turn, has led to the influx of foreign workers into Nigeria. The situation is so bad that Asian and Indian skilled workers are taking over jobs that could be done by the Nigerian counterparts thus leaving many local skilled and educated Nigerians without employment.

Second, it significantly contributes to brain drain as the nation’s brightest prospects seek opportunities in countries with better developed education systems where their skills and talents are better horned and appreciated. In many cases, the quest for foreign education has been at the expense of local authorities and/or governments who offer foreign scholarships to young Nigerians. Yet, such Nigerians hardly ever return to contribute to the nation’s economy. Instead, they remain in their host countries contributing to the growth of science, technology, business, art and other fields in such countries.  One of the best examples to illustrate this point is of Jelani Aliyu, an indigene of Sokoto State in northern Nigeria who is a leading automobile designer in America today.

Aliyu’s story illustrates the problem with educational systems that focus more on theory than practical, more on quantity of schooling than quality of schooling; more on non-cognitive skills than cognitive skills. Upon completing secondary school, Aliyu enrolled at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, to study for a degree in architecture. However, he was frustrated by the pedantic, Ivory Towerian intellection of the programme at ABU which focused more on theory. Aliyu dropped out and enrolled at the Birni Kebbi Polytechnic which offered more practical courses. He earned an Ordinary National Diploma in architecture in 1988 and was the overall best graduating student in the school. With a scholarship from the Sokoto State Government, he proceeded to Detroit in the Midwestern U.S. state of Michigan and enrolled for a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Transportation Design at the prestigious College for Creative Studies, one of the world’s 60 best design schools, according to the Bloomberg Business Week magazine. He graduated in 1994 and got hired by General Motors, the world’s second biggest car manufacturer and America’s biggest. In 2007, Aliyu designed the Chevrolet Volt described by General Motors as the future car and “American Revolution".

Today, Aliyu is GM’s lead exterior designer at its Michigan headquarters. He has never returned to work in Nigeria since he was educated in the United States with Nigerian public funds. But there are one or two things we can learn from Aliyu’s story. First, he saw what our policymakers and curriculum designers failed to see; that there is little gain in getting a university degree if it does not add value to your life; if it does not afford you the opportunity to express your creativity. So Aliyu voluntarily dropped out of the prestigious university and opted for the polytechnic which is considered inferior. Despite the perception of polytechnics, Aliyu knew that their more practical curriculum better suited his aspirations than the university’s theoretical abstractions.  

There are many similar cases of Aliyus all over Africa. Indeed, whereas it appears Africa lacks the human resources to ensure its growth and has to look to Western nations for the people to fix its problems, the reverse is the case. The human resources are abundant all over Africa. What is lacking is the will, if not the vision, of African states to harness their human resources to achieve growth. 


Where do we go from here?

There is no single solution to Africa’s education challenges. For the continent to realize its full potential and take advantage of its human and natural resource base for development there must be holistic reforms of the approach to education. Such reforms must be tailored to suit the specific needs of individual countries. Regional and sub-regional actors must recognise that not all African countries have the same educational challenges. For instance while some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are still battling with school enrollment, others have achieved significantly high rates and are now more focused on improving the quality of education or addressing gender gaps in enrolment. These disparities make it necessary to review the challenges of individual countries in order to develop programmes that are effective in promoting education in such countries. This is not to say, regional interventions are impossible or unnecessary. What is clear is that regional bodies can only provide guiding principles that will ensure the utilization of education for the continent’s overall growth. Such guiding principles would include recommendations on effective research and policy formulation, improved investment in education infrastructure and service provision, gender mainstreaming, monitoring and evaluation, Vocational and Technical Education, curriculum development, training, etc. Ultimately, the success or otherwise of achieving this lies within the willingness of the individual countries to vigorous pursue reforms along these lines.

A critical starting point in reforming Africa’s education systems for the continent’s development is informed by the need to deconstruct and reconstruct the philosophical underpinnings of the systems to meet the specific needs of individual countries. Such a reconstruction of the system must place significant emphasis on cognitive skills. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa 2005 report on Youth, Education, Skills and Employment[7] observes that Africa’s youth face many challenges in gaining an education that delivers them the right set of skills and knowledge demanded by the labour market. As a consequence, the transition from school to work is more often than not unsuccessful such that young Africans end up either unemployed (typically university graduates) or underemployed in the rural and urban informal sectors. There seems to be a consensus that African countries must significantly shift from emphasizing quantity of schooling in their education systems to systems that promote more pragmatic, practical problem-solving approaches of education.  In his article Higher Education in Africa Needs Reforms[8], Alex Awiti points out that;

“To educate the next generation for a globalized knowledge economy we must depart from modes of teaching and learning that rely solely on didactic approaches, which only demand regurgitation from students. To educate the next generation for a globalized knowledge economy demands that we embrace new approaches that are consistent with contemporary views of epistemology and learning theory, which treat knowledge as co-constructed by the student and the professor. Such approaches will demand of students, analytical reasoning, critical thinking and problem solving skills as well as reflective practice, innovation and entrepreneurship.”


The current disconnect between our hopes and aspirations as a continent and the value of education we offer expecting it to drive us to the destination is still very much disjointed and calls for a holistic review.

The key to economic success in a globalized world increasingly lies in how effectively a country can assimilate knowledge and build comparative advantage in selected areas.

While compulsory primary and secondary education will ensure that we lift a large number of African youth above the illiteracy bar, sustained, strong, and diversified economic growth depends largely on tertiary education that is attuned to the needs of the job market. Relevant tertiary education will also help address Africa’s current challenges arising from climate change, population growth, uncontrolled diseases and depraving poverty

The African Union vision of an integrated, peaceful, prosperous Africa, driven by its own people to take its rightful place in the global community and the knowledge economy can only be achieved if its human resource base is empowered to contribute meaningfully to the attainment of the goal.

If we want to redress the current trend where 38% of continent’s adults are illiterate; 37% of children will not complete primary school and  just 5% of the relevant age group are in the university, AU member states should focus on their commitments to the goals and objectives of the Second Decade of Education for Africa which include the;

  • Development of a functional national Educational Management Information Systems (EMIS), inter-connected to regional and continental EMIS networks, thus reversing the current phenomenon of ‘data blank’, which has inhibited clear articulation of challenges and opportunities, and hindered systematic planning, monitoring and evaluation;
  • Mainstream education fully into the policies, programme activities, and organisational structures of the African Union Commission and the Regional Economic Communities;

Significantly raise educational achievement (access, quality, efficiency, relevance), while addressing teacher education and higher education for development concerns;

  • Attainment of full gender equality in primary and secondary education;
  • Full institutionalization of systematic exchange of experiences and mutual assistance for educational development; and
  • Development of functioning mechanisms for ensuring that education contributes to regional integration.

We must embark on a massive policy review at all levels addressing the following key parameters;

  • A shared commitment and value of Africa states on appropriate, relevant and inclusive educational aims
  • The level of relevance and breadth in curriculum content vis a vis application to current societal trends
  • Effectiveness of teaching styles and modes across all levels
  • Length /timeframe required for useful and empowering education
  • Appropriateness of  language(s) of instruction
  • Reliability and timeliness of supervisions, assessment, and reviews of processes

The outcome of these reviews will provide a clear picture of areas of interventions that can be harmonized sub regionally and continentally to allow for more coordinated responses and interventions.

This will also provide basis for measuring progress when the interventions have been deployed.

As a continent, we need to take our destinies in our own hands. We must ensure, whether we attain the 2015 MDG mark or not, that at the end of this decade school age young Africans have access to quality education at all levels.

While the current campaign to enroll all African children into school must be achieved alongside ensuring the Universal basic Education target, we must also take a step further in Africa to ensure that our youth follow through their education to Tertiary levels and also encourage technical and vocational skills acquisitions.


We must invest massively in educational infrastructure side by side huge investments in Teacher training and curriculum review and development. Our Educational curriculum must speak to our societal needs and aspirations. There should never be a disconnect if we are not educating people for other climes or societies. Government must invest in research and development. Our youths must see that their critical reasoning abilities are shaping the world they live in. Providing the platform for African youth to be part of the development process must not only be based on necessity but also on their ability to contribute meaningfully to development. We must encourage exchange programmes even within African educational institutions.


The case for technical and vocational skills is more compelling. Africa coming on the heels of its past is known for its arts and craft. Encouraging this aspect of education through formal and informal means will help reduce the current dearth of skilled technicians which has led to the influx of Asian technicians in Africa today.


Let me add that we are not just realizing this challenge. At the regional level, the Africa Union initiated working document titled Strategy to Revitalize Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) in Africa which was assented to at the Conference of Ministers off Education of the African Union (COMEDAF II+) meeting in 2007 at Addis Ababa. The document noted the fact that vast majority of young people are outside the formal school system, and consequently recommends the integration of non-formal learning methodologies and literacy programmes into national TVET programmes while also creating national frameworks to manage TVET programmes at country levels. As noted at the conference, the potential of TVET programmes to boost growth in Africa is limited by several factors including uncoordinated, unregulated and fragmented delivery systems, poor training, poor wages for skilled workers leading to poor perception by the public, gender stereotyping among others.  The key to unlocking Africa’s potential through the development of TVET lies in the willingness of individual African countries to first develop holistic national frameworks and then pursue a programmatic response to the issue. It is important for delegates at COMEDAF V to revisit and review the 2007 Strategy to Revitalize Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) with the aim of placing emphasis on entrepreneurship and enterprise development through technical and vocational skills acquisition.




Education is a strategic factor in development. The growth of any society is largely dependent on the capacity of its human resources to confront challenges and find solutions that are useful and familiar to the society. For Africa to achieve any meaningful development over the next few years, individual countries must begin to develop well thought out policies that will ensure not just mass literacy but also a full utilisation of the educated mass for economic and social growth. Previous development meetings have highlighted the major challenges impeding the growth of quantitative and qualitative education in Africa and consequently Africa’s growth. What is lacking, however, is the political will to implement and sustain the recommendations of such meetings. As delegates of the COMEDAF V meet in Abuja, it is crucial that they develop frameworks that will guide if not guarantee the implementation of sound education policies by national governments. It may seem impossible for many African countries to achieve MDG Two but they can, and must, urgently invest in their human resources for the continent’s growth.


[1] The Farm House Dialogue is one of the most enduring programmes of the Africa Leadership Forum. It is an ad-hoc assembly of Nigerians from various backgrounds and walks of life. It is convened periodically. The Dialogue produces a short recommendatory report which is widely disseminated. Some recommendations from the Dialogue have become policy positions,  

Education for Development is the thematic focus of the Second Farm House Dialogue Held in Ota, Nigeria.

[3]ECOSOC Annual Ministerial Review Regional Preparatory Meeting for Africa “The right to Education for All in Africa: Reinforcing quality and equity” Concept Note. Lome, Togo 12 April 2011

[4]The Africa Competitiveness Report 2011 © 2011 World Economic Forum, the World Bank and the African Development Bank

[5]Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessman. 2008. “The Role of Cognitive Skills in Economic Development.” Journal of Economic Literature 46:3, 607-668.

[6] Chika Onyeani  - Intellectual Bankruptcy of the African Elite

[7] The Report identified inadequate education and lack of skills as the among the specific issues that contribute to high unemployment in Africa.

[8]Dr. Awiti is an Ecosystems Ecologist based at the Aga Khan University. His paper can be found on

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