Adetomi Soyinka, Director Higher Education, British Council, Sub Saharan Africa.
In a world transformed by technology African universities have a vital role to play in ensuring that young people develop the skills required to remain relevant and employable in an increasingly automated world and to contribute to progress on the continent.
Africa’s youth population is rapidly growing and expected to double to over 830 million by 2050.The continent is the youngest on the planet. Of its nearly 420 million youth aged 15-35, one-third are unemployed, another third is vulnerably employed, and only one in six is in wage employment. Failure to invest in and support the continent’s youth will have a profound impact on the global economy, as half of the new entrants into the global workforce over the next decade will come from sub-Saharan Africa.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that neglecting Africa now will result in critical labour shortages globally. There are opportunities for African countries to benefit from the changes the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is bringing, but without the skill sets in place, the continent will fall behind.
The new requirement for African universities is to be able to track skills demands and respond quickly to make sure that graduates are ready to add real value to businesses worldwide, and to think entrepreneurially, critically, creatively, and analytically. At present, they are not being adequately prepared to enter employment.
This has triggered a renewed focus on higher education. Graduates with limited skills require further training to meet modern workplace needs. Universities also need to produce job creators as well as job seekers. They need to cultivate innovation and entrepreneurship as exploratory solutions to youth employability.
Beyond providing a platform for learning, research and knowledge creation, universities can be catalysts for change and drivers of economic growth by developing young people who can contribute to the growth of new and existing companies. Universities can also encourage and support the creation of new ideas, innovations, and commercialisation. They have a vital role to play in researching the ecosystems that support innovation and entrepreneurship.
One way to respond to the critical shortage of skills is to encourage the development of collaborative partnerships between universities in Africa and abroad, to adopt global best practices when it comes to content, programmes and processes and strengthening research capacity.
An example of a successful initiative is the British Council’s Innovation for African Universities (IAU) programme, launched in 2021. The IAU supports the development of skilled youth who are equipped for the new world of work. The objective is to develop young Africans who can start innovative businesses, generate jobs, build wealth and take advantage of growth opportunities.
The IAU aims to strengthen the capacity of African universities to participate and provide meaningful contributions as key players within the entrepreneurship ecosystem, and to foster a culture of innovation among students.
Universities can give graduates the knowledge and skills to contribute to the growth of new economic initiatives. They can also encourage and support the creation of new ideas, innovations, and commercialisation.
The IAU programme facilitates the development of practical skills required to build industries, companies, products and services and is being developed through partnerships between African and UK universities. Together, they are building institutional capacity for engagement in entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria – where 24 projects have been chosen that will grow universities’ capabilities for developing a culture of entrepreneurship and giving graduates the skills they need to build sustainable industries, companies and services.
A learning and collaboration platform, the IAU brings together African and UK universities to engage, interact and learn from one another, and develop mutually beneficial partnerships that strengthen higher education systems in both regions. The programme’s objectives are already being actualised and many positive outcomes are being achieved.
De Montfort University in the UK is working with the Pan African University Life and Earth Sciences Institute and Africa’s largest innovation hub Co-Creation Hub to create ecosystems that re-use and recycle plastic into new products, reducing the need for landfill and creating new businesses. Academics at the three institutions take creative ideas and test them in the real world.
In Ghana the IAU has brought together Accra Technical University, University of Huddersfield, Achievers Ghana Education, and the University of Bolton to drive social enterprise innovation. The aim is to develop a toolkit for higher education institutions in Ghana to help them embed social enterprise within the curriculum, across the whole university.
Transforming Climate Innovation Ecosystems through Inclusive Transdisciplinarity (TransCIIT), a project comprising five partners: Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology (JOOUST), Kenya Climate Innovation Center (KCIC), and African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), along with the University of Johannesburg and University of Sussex. The partnership is developing an integrated research ecosystem emphasising the greening of the economy, skills, and building back better (post-COVID) agendas.
The Carbon Literacy for Youth Employability project includes the Durban University of Technology in South Africa, Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, as well as Innovate Durban, Kisii University in Kenya, and Ladoke Akintola University of Technology in Nigeria.
With stronger peer-to-peer connections and sharing best practices and knowledge between higher education institutions, the programme aims to enhance students’ employability and support economic development across Kenya and Sub-Saharan Africa now and into the future.
The university of the Witwatersrand’s Wits Entrepreneurship Clinic (WEC) in Johannesburg was created to address the alarming youth unemployment rate in South Africa. The Clinic is a partnership between the University of the Witwatersrand School of Business, the University of Edinburgh in the UK, the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct, and the African Circular Economy Network (ACEN). The clinic is training graduate and postgraduate students to become consultants, providing them with a skill set that they can add to their CVs and use as a stronger basis to seek employment. The clinic also helps graduates through the acceleration of businesses started by student entrepreneurs.
These types of partnerships are fostering institutional capacity for higher education engagement in entrepreneurship and innovation particularly because the solutions are being developed locally in the selected African countries. The overarching objective is to strengthen the capacity of universities and increase their capability to participate and provide meaningful contributions as key players within the much-needed entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Increased investment in higher education is needed to develop a pipeline of skilled youth on the continent. Private sector companies need to reassess their social investment and sustainability plans and provide greater investments in higher education to help build the talent and skills of young men and women as an engine to power sustainable economic transformation.
As the IAU prepares for the next cycle of programmes to be launched, we are calling on technology players and universities to come on board as partners and help accelerate the development of graduates who are as work ready as possible.