28/02/2018 06:03 SAST | Updated 28/02/2018 06:03 SAST

Pan-African Education Can Leverage Innovation, Not Imitation

"Being an African student should come with a visa that recognises no borders and no barriers when it comes to accessing education on our continent."

Wits University in Johannesburg.
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Wits University in Johannesburg.

The rate of participation in education in Africa tells a double-sided story: one of simultaneous progress and yet also of a continent being as far from our goals as we have ever been. The number of children in education in Africa is increasing; yet so is the number of children altogether. Populations grow and yet the resources, political will and public commitments from politicians, opinion formers and industrialists to improve education are dissipating.

I was fortunate enough to have a family that made the sacrifices necessary to facilitate a tertiary education at Nigeria's University of Benin. Upon graduating, I found myself facing a world of challenging careers in which my fellow candidates and competitors were European, American or Australasian.

Today, when I see young members of my own family graduate , I take immense pride knowing that the landscape they face today is very different. In industries that extract value from natural resources, the economies of scale offered by large international conglomerates is being rapidly outweighed by a recognition of the impact of regional talent and local knowledge offered by indigenous firms.

This recognition is driving the demand for African graduates by both indigenous firms and those international ones that crave both the intelligence and insight offered by these young individuals. Yet such individuals – those who receive education from a young age, eventually advancing to a place at one of Africa's great universities and beyond – are in a tragically small minority. Just 6 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa will take a place at university, versus nearly half in OECD countries.

Over the course of my years in industry, having left the world of formal education, there can be no disagreeing that the education sector has undergone a transformation. In a quarter of a century the number of pupils enrolled in primary education has more than doubled, from 60-million in 1990 to 157-million in 2015.

But just as the success of a farm depends not on the seeds you sow but the crops you reap, education systems across sub-Saharan Africa need to be viewed in their entirety. Whilst 80 percent of children aged between 6 and 11 have access to education, this drops to just two-thirds for those aged 12 to 14. For 15 to 17 year olds – the age bracket most crucial to progressing into tertiary education – a mere 40 percent are in school.

Like a great number of the challenges n sub-Saharan Africa, these problems are primarily not of our own making – but the solutions need to be.

The educational situation in Africa today bears the scars not only of colonialism, but of the conflicts that followed.

Africa has a legacy of external forces seeking to ensure our populace remains under-educated. Colonial powers saw no value in governing a population who would be taught to think independently, create wealth independently or, therefore, govern independently.

Those select few "citizens" - often the sons of puppet politicians and administrators – would be offered places at British, French or Portuguese universities, rather than ensure the appropriate institutions were available at home. Then, as today, low participation in education is a symptom, not the issue itself – it is the lack of institutions.

The educational situation in Africa today bears the scars not only of colonialism, but of the conflicts that followed. Not only do wars destroy the bricks and mortar that make up educational institutions, but children who would otherwise be in education are often left with little choice other than to work to provide for their families, when a mother or father is left permanently unable to do so as a result of the conflict.

If there is one thing I have learnt from building a career in an environment once dominated by those from overseas, is that you must seek to innovate, rather than imitate. The solutions we must implement need to be radical in scale, but essentially African. We need to look at where we have created success in the world of education, and build outwards from there.

This means that the rest of the continent must look to South Africa, which has six of the top 15 universities in Africa. These institutions must be allowed to engage with new students across the continent. Therefore, the next Nigerian government should look, through generous fiscal means, to incentivise the most innovative educational institutions in Africa to build West African hubs in Nigeria and teach courses there.

As well as allowing institutions to move closer to students, for those students with the drive and the ability to study at an elite university, we should allow them to convert this ambition into reality. This means allowing these bright young minds to travel freely around Africa for the purposes of education. Being an African student should come with a visa that recognises no borders and no barriers when it comes to accessing education on our continent.

While there is no quick fix to the education crisis facing Africa today, there are enough instances of success and enough signs that progress can be made when we are allowed to pursue it. The solutions lie in looking to where our education – across Africa – is strongest, and employing radical means to expand this regionally, thereby creating our own solutions to problems given by others.