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February 23, 2019

Making the most of youth bulge

A facilitator  at the Mwingi youth forum Wanjiku Karira of the Youth Agenda addresses the youth at a Mwingi hotel on MondayPhoto by Musembi Nzengu
A facilitator at the Mwingi youth forum Wanjiku Karira of the Youth Agenda addresses the youth at a Mwingi hotel on MondayPhoto by Musembi Nzengu

With an estimated median age of 19.5 years, Africa is the world’s youngest continent. By comparison, Europe’s median age is 40, 38 in North America, 29 in Asia and 23 in Latin America. Demographically speaking, all bets must be on Africa.

According to data from UN World Population Prospects, 1.3 billion of the 2.4 billion, who will be added to the planet by 2050, will be from Africa. And while the rest of the world is aging rapidly, Africa’s median age will still be just 25 in 2050, compared to the global median age of 37. Moreover, the proportion of Africa’s population will also increase rise from 16.7 per cent to 25 per cent by 2050.

All bets should be on Africa. The world’s future workforce is here. According to IMF, Africa’s share of the global working age population is projected to increase from 12.6 per cent in 2010 to over 41 per cent by 2100. But can Africa’s large youthful population generate a demographic dividend from higher economic activity? Was the Africa Rising saga a glimpse of Africa’s demographic dividend?

The World Development Report 2018 just released by the World Bank suggests Africa will not be home to the world’s workforce. While Africa has expanded access to basic education, these laudable investments have left learning behind. According to the WDR 2018, providing education is not enough, unless it generates the real investment — learning and acquisition of skills.

The report titled “Learning to realize education’s promise” gives a vivid example to make the point that school is not learning. The report reveals that 75 per cent of children in Grade 3, who were asked to read a simple sentence, “The name of the dog is Puppy”, did not understand what it meant.

The report also reveals Grade 6 teachers in 14 sub-Saharan countries perform no better in reading tests than the highest performing Grade 6 pupil. The report also makes an extremely important connection between nutrition and learning outcomes. Poor developmental foundations owing to stunting and chronic malnutrition means that significant numbers of children arrive at school unprepared to learn.

The report also identifies textbooks and technology (laptops or tablets) as critical but not available to affect learning meaningfully. Similarly, while school management does not affect learning directly, effective leadership is critical to strengthening teaching and ensuring prudent use of textbooks and technology.

Africa is caught in a self-reinforcing low learning trap that will significantly undermine its potential to harness or turn the youth bulge into a veritable dividend. Children who are cognitively impaired will invariable fail to learn at optimal levels. Moreover, teacher preparation is paramount. There is no substitute for a great teacher.

Education must be more than attending school. Education must be about knowledge, skills and attitudes, which learners acquire. By all means, African governments must expand access to schooling. But we must invest in preparing children to learn: Laying a firm foundation for child development as well as training great teachers.

Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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