By 2050, the continent is projected to hold approximately a quarter of the world’s population. And at 2.5 billion people, Africa will have the world’s largest labour market. This dramatic demographic growth will stress everything, including infrastructure, public health, the rule of law, agriculture, sustainability and competition for resources, and the availability of jobs. Even for the wealthiest continents in the world, this kind of growth would be challenging to manage. Improperly managed in Africa, this kind of growth could lead to a deepened migration crisis and instability.
Yet, if empowered, Africa’s citizenry could drive significant economic growth and improvement in human flourishing. Meeting the growing demand for food, clothing, and shelter; providing better infrastructure; services such as healthcare, education, finance, and even recreation; all represent opportunities that Africa’s citizenry can harness for growth and well-being. This positive outcome will require a productive citizenry, and enlightened, effective leadership necessary to create an enabling environment.
Building such citizens and leaders, and helping shape the ecosystems to support them, should be a core priority for Africa-EU relations over the next several decades. And I contend that education, skills, research, and innovation will be essential towards developing Africa’s people. It is exciting that this is recognised in the EU Commission’s proposal to the European Parliament, published in March 2020.
Rapidly enhancing learning, knowledge and innovation
Proposed Action 5 in the overall document, which focuses on rapidly enhancing learning, knowledge, and skills, research and innovation, especially for young people and women, must be considered a centerpiece in developing a comprehensive strategy for Africa. At Ashesi University, we have seen how education can serve as a pivot for progress. Since inception, we have been able to consistently see over 90% of our students starting their careers within six months of graduation, with approximately 10% starting businesses and nearly all working within Africa. Across the continent’s private and public sectors, our graduates are recognised as leaders and changemakers.
For example, four Ashesi graduates started DreamOval in 2007, a tech company that has now enabled digital services for many organisations in Africa, serving millions of people. Our faculty, together with partners, helped develop a framework for the Ghana Climate Innovation Centre. This center has enabled 100 entrepreneurs to grow businesses innovating to stem climate change and deepen climate adaptation for hundreds of households in Ghana, creating jobs and helping develop government policy in the process. Our graduates serve in the Ghana Armed Forces, with one having led a peacekeeping mission in Liberia and another serving on the team of Air Force personnel that helped deliver critical supplies to vulnerable communities across the country when COVID-19 struck. The ripple effect of educational institutions in Africa cannot be overstated.
All five key development trend areas highlighted in the proposal for a new EU-Africa strategy - green transition and energy access; digital transformation; sustainable growth and jobs, peace, security, governance and resilience; migration and mobility - will depend on the strength of education. In developing a new continent-to-continent relationship strategy, the EU must promote and invest in institutional partnerships across both sides. European educational institutions should be encouraged to form active partnerships with their African counterparts to improve educational outcomes and deepen European awareness of African markets. Students must be encouraged to learn from their peers across each continent, to develop the understanding and relationships that will serve them when they eventually take over the leadership and sustenance of inter-continent relations in years ahead.
Keep the disruption due to the Pandemic as small as possible
I hope that this imperative will not be lost as our two continents also put in measures to address immediate concerns and priorities around trade, sustainable livelihoods, and growth, and the urgent needs of COVID-19 response measures. The COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly disruptive to long-term planning and progress across many parts of the world. The learning outcomes of Africa’s citizens and future generations of leaders, in particular, will not be exempt. One World Bank report estimates that the current generation of students worldwide – with almost a billion out of school because of the pandemic – will lose 0.6 years of schooling and an estimated $10 trillion in collective lifetime earnings if urgent steps are not taken to mitigate learning disruptions. Young learners in Africa are more likely to be on the extreme end of this spectrum.
As the EU and Africa finalize a new partnership framework, it is all the more important to invite education leaders to the conversation, if this has not yet happened. There must be intentional steps taken to deepen the resilience of learning organisations in Africa and strengthen partnerships between institutions in both continents. Any gains made in EU-Africa partnerships will be short-lived if educational institutions in both continents are not deeply aligned in preparing the next generation of leaders to carry the progress forward.