• Africa's under-20 population is projected to be the continent’s largest age cohort by 2070.
  • So it's vital that young people are offered the tools to be successful in a digital-first economy, writes the African Development Bank’s Hanan Morsy.
  • Only when Africa can close these education gaps, and set up its society for a digital overhaul, will it reap the benefits of new technologies.

Key features of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – accelerating digitalization, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, robotics, and 3D printing – have obvious and important implications for education, employment, and the future of work. This is especially true for African countries. Over the past decade, the share of the continent’s under-20 population has expanded by more than 25%, and is projected to be the continent’s largest age cohort by 2070. As Africa meets the 4IR, its youth will be one of its most important assets.

Africa Fourth Industrial Revolution Education and Skills Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Future of Economic Progress
Africa's under-20 population is projected to be the continent’s largest age cohort by 2070.
Image: Africa Development Bank Group

But to capture this demographic dividend, African countries must overhaul their education systems to prepare for the coming technological revolution. While automation could increase skills premiums and exacerbate income inequality, it also could increase productivity and create new occupations. As such, the 4IR represents a unique opportunity for African countries to leapfrog over development hurdles with the help of technology.

The 4IR will heavily influence which skills are needed in the labor market. Around the world, demand is evolving toward adaptable social, behavioral, and non-repetitive cognitive skills, and away from routine tasks and narrow skills tied to specific jobs. In Africa, demand for software engineers, marketing specialists, writers, and financial advisers is rising, whereas demand for mechanical technicians, administrative assistants, and accountants is falling.

Somali analysts monitor the weather patterns at the early warning centre designed to help Somalia predict disasters in Wadajir district of Mogadishu, Somalia August 4, 2020. REUTERS/Feisal Omar - RC2Z6I98AG6X
Image: REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Developing such skills starts in early childhood. In addition to strengthening education, African countries need to increase investment in nutrition, health, and social protections for children. Sadly, Africa is home to one-third of the world’s stunted children under age five, and that number is still rising. Yet the link between nutrition and a workforce’s cognitive capacity is clear. Governments that invest in better nutrition, particularly for the first 1,000 days from conception to age two, will see far-reaching economic – as well as humanitarian – returns.

At the other end of the youth spectrum, higher education is more important now than ever for preparing workers to adapt to the changing job landscape they will encounter over the course of their careers. Studies in Kenya and Tanzania, cited by the African Development Bank (AfDB), for example, show that non-repetitive and cognitive skills are associated with better starting pay, greater job satisfaction, and higher wages over time. Yet, across Africa, less than 4% of the population has a university degree. Moreover, education has remained concentrated in social sciences and humanities, and has lagged in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields that are crucial for harnessing the 4IR.

As a result, there is a growing mismatch between businesses’ evolving demands and the skills furnished by African education systems. The sooner African countries can close these gaps, the better chance they will have of reaping the benefits of new technologies.

Some countries are already making significant strides in this direction. Egypt, for example, has introduced “interactive classrooms,” distributing 1.5 million tablets preloaded with an electronic encyclopedia that can also be accessed from school networks and youth centers. Around 2,500 Egyptian schools already have high-speed Internet access, and new solar-powered, “smart” classrooms are being created in remote areas with the help of advanced mobile technologies.

For its part, the African Development Bank (AfDB) has launched “Coding for Employment” as part of its Jobs for Youth in Africa strategy to provide digital skills to the next generation. Among other components, this program (which targets youth aged 15-35) furnishes universities and training centers with computers and other equipment; provides demand-driven training programs in partnership with leading technology firms; and equips youth with essential soft and interpersonal skills, as well as direct employment opportunities. Moreover, in collaboration with academic institutions, the AfDB is participating in research on how to make African education systems more agile and responsive.

Although economic growth was strong in Africa before the COVID-19 crisis, it was not inclusive; poverty and inequality remain high across the region. And while the continent has made large gains in school enrollment, it lags behind other regions on a number of indicators, including average number of years of education and school quality. High-school dropout rates in Africa still exceed 30%, more than twice the global average of 13%.

To catch up with other regions, African countries must adopt national strategies for education and skills development, focusing not only on youth but also on adult workers, dropouts, informal-economy workers, and those from economically and socially disadvantaged groups. African employers often cite inadequately prepared workers as a major constraint on their businesses’ growth. Similarly, AfDB research finds that close to half of employed African youth consider their skills to be mismatched to their jobs, and that two-thirds are either over- or under-educated, leading to depressed wages and job satisfaction.

Only by tackling these skill and education mismatches can African countries build an adaptable and flexible workforce that is ready for the 4IR. Doing so will require a new educational philosophy that prizes soft skills while investing in basic and digital infrastructure. To reduce dropout rates, attendance incentives and access to schools in remote areas must be enhanced, and primary school, at a minimum, should be made mandatory.

By ensuring more demand-driven education, African countries can reduce persistent labor-market mismatches and make education both more attractive to students and more relevant for employers. One exciting option is for African countries to use new dynamic information systems to track current and future labor-market needs in the economy, making it easier for youth to learn about job openings, apply for jobs, and meet their skill requirements.

An overhaul of African education would translate into increased productivity and output for the continent as a whole. AfDB research finds that improvements in both educational attainment (completion rates) and quality (more and better teachers, textbooks, and other resources) are positively correlated with worker productivity, and in turn with a country’s development outcomes.

The importance of skills development for Africa’s youth thus must cannot be overlooked. It represents one of the key drivers of innovation on the continent. To benefit from that relationship, the African workforce must start preparing today for tomorrow’s jobs.