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Akinde Idowu

Cracking Unemployability in Africa

A blueprint for addressing the (growing) unemployment problem in Africa. The first entry in my "Blueprint" series.

unemployment

Almost 60% of Africa’s population (of ~1.3 billion) is under the age of 25, making it the world’s “youngest” continent. According to the United Nations’ demographic projections, Africa’s youth population could be equivalent to twice Europe’s entire population by 2100 [1]. Further, the ILO’s projection (based on 2019 data) is that 21.4% (i.e. 107 million) of Africa’s 500-million-strong labour force, are unemployed.

vacancy

There has also existed — for a few years — a huge (and growing) gap between the general quality of outputs of Africa’s education systems (the supply side) and the quality expected by employers for their operational needs (the demand side).

A number of attempts have been made to bridge this gap by well-intentioned people (some entrepreneurs, others social innovators, and in a few cases, government institutions). But I see a problem, and it appears to be a pattern: all of the previous attempts at solving this problem seem only interested in solving it for a certain echelon, the so-called “best of the best”.

My issue with the approach that targets the “1% of 1%” is that it ignores (and diminishes the seriousness of) the bigger problem, which is the absolute imperativeness of the unemployment problem in Africa.

 

Yes, you read that right. The bigger problem is not unemployment itself, but the failure of Africa’s elite to see this current state of affairs as an absolute imperative.This singular problem — in my opinion — possesses the capacity to guarantee untold suffering and hardship — at many orders of magnitude greater than whatever we’re currently facing — for our children and their children, if not effectively tackled.

data for unemployment

My issue with the approach that targets the “1% of 1%” is that it ignores (thereby diminishing the seriousness of) the bigger problem, which is the absolute imperativeness of this unemployment (and by extension under-employment) problem in Africa. If you randomly bumped into me on the street and asked “Hey, what do you suppose is the single biggest issue in Africa today and which will probably still hold true for the the next 10 years?”, I’d respond — in a heartbeat — ‘Education’. Why? Because education (or the lack of it) is directly proportional to employability (or correspondingly, its obverse). Huge unemployment rates in turn drive up the rates of crime and social restiveness. They also guarantee that an already-poor continent remains poor, and if we think about it critically, this is the real cost of the failure to educate — the lost opportunity to: 1) create new macroeconomic value (billions, maybe trillions of dollars in GDP that could have accrued across the continent had these young lads and lasses been properly skilled up), and 2) break the vicious cycle of poverty that keeps exacerbating because generation after generation of kids are not empowered with the tools for thinking optimally about themselves and the world around them before they attain working age.

jobs

The real cost of the failure to educate is the lost opportunity to break the vicious cycle of poverty that keeps exacerbating because generation after generation of kids are not empowered with the tools for thinking optimally about themselves and the world around them.

Hmmm.

Hold on, the kind of education that I’m talking about, and which I believe can “correct the course” of Africa’s development and growth, is probably not the type you’re thinking about. I noted in a previous article (“Yours For The Taking”) that skills — not knowledge — are the “hot” currency of the 21st Century and precisely what Africa is sorely lacking today. At the last count, Africa boasts 1,701 universities across its ~50 member countries and the abundance of degree holders is not lost on any one, but whether those graduates (and other youth) possess the critical skills needed by employers is the big question.

Jobs in Nigeria

At this point, big kudos go out to Andela, Decagon, Utiva, Stutern and Univelcity for at least addressing a small part of the problem, but I’m afraid it’s not nearly enough. Yes, some of them are recording remarkable success at the micro level, but none has made a dent at the macro. Scale, scale, scale. Our survival as a continent depends on this.

Big kudos to AndelaDecagonUtivaStutern and Univelcity for at least addressing a small part of the problem, but I’m afraid it’s not nearly enough. Given the sheer size of the problem at hand, Africa needs solutions that are targeted — ab initio — at larger portions of the pyramid.

So What Can Be Done?

A lot.

At the very least, the prevailing model for addressing this problem has to change.

Take SkillsFund for example: To put it in simple terms, SkillsFund provides training for fresh graduates in skills that are in high demand, and then helps to place them with the employers that need those skills. It also offers scholarships to applicants who cannot afford to pay, and is already on its way to up-skilling 1,000,000 African youths in the next 5 years. It’s therefore clear that Bola Lawal and his team are in on the critical insights that: 1) a really sustainable solution must be one that solves the economic problem that is both a cause and an effect of the skills-gap problem, and 2) an exclusively top-of-the-pyramid model won’t really address Africa’s unemployability problem at scale — only a middle- and bottom-of-the pyramid model will.

An exclusively top-of-the-pyramid model won’t really address Africa’s unemployability problem at scale — only a middle- and bottom-of-the pyramid model will.

unemployment top of the pyramid

Aaaah…

From the get go, rather than set its sights on upskilling the so-called “elite tech talent” in Africa, SkillsFund’s focus has been on upskilling as many talents as possible, so long as those candidates meet a minimum cognitive-capacity threshold. The “big bet” here is that the cascaded effects of upskilling youth at scale (i.e. as far down the pyramid as an initiative can reach) across Africa — namely the spending power they will acquire, the ancillary jobs that will be created from theirs, and most importantly the teaching and mentoring that they will bestow on coming generations — will ignite the much-needed economic renaissance across our beloved continent.

Food for Thought: Now imagine that there were 9 more initiatives whose sights are each set on upskilling 1,000,000 African youths with modern, industry-relevant skills over the next 5 years?

Back to what can be done in specifics.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have a few ideas:

  1. Build more “SkillsFund”s. The market is big enough.
  2. Pivot some of the traditional skills-development platforms, away from the elitist “1% of the 1%” model, and toward whatever model that reaches as far down the pyramid as it can.
  3. I know that everyone can’t build a company. But everyone can support one. If you can’t build such a company, please support one. With:
    -> Funding,
    -> Pedagogy (Teaching / Coaching / Mentoring),
    -> (As government) Tax breaks for this special sector. What they’re doing is rescuing Africa from its currently-doomed trajectory, and their success is everyone’s success. As a continent, we simply cannot afford to fail on this because the vicious cycle will continue (and become harder for the next generation to break out of),
    -> etc.
  4. Upgrade the curricula (and teaching methods) at our ivory towers to inculcate more of skills development than theory. Yes, I know that education funding is a big challenge, but we can’t resign to fate — we just have to get creative.
  5. (As civil society) Increase awareness of this crisis. Sound the alarm from the rooftops. Amplify this message far and wide. Advocate — on the entire continent’s behalf — in the corridors of power.

Anything to add? Please drop a comment and let’s have a conversation…

Thank you, I’m done ranting. 🙂 Honestly, if you could tolerate my drivel thus far, I have to say a big thank you. 🙏🏾

We can do this. 💪🏾


Full Disclosure: As at the time of writing (24APR2020), I am in talks with SkillsFund to support them with Tech Skills Coaching. There’s no quid pro quo, and the opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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