Christian Nouboue
Post by On 09 September 2013 In Blog 4824 comments

Towards a needs-based education

                       “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”
                                                                                              - Nelson Mandela, Address at the Planetarium, 16th July 2003

Changing Africa starts with the right mix of talents, capable of addressing local challenges. Hence the need for education to focus on equipping people with skills needed locally. This is all the more critical that Africa has limited financial resources to fix its shortage of talents. So instead of breeding waves of graduates equipped only with theoretical knowledge of no practical use, we should move towards a ‘demand-pull’ approach: Which skills does the country need now and in the future? How can the educational system efficiently deliver them?

In this article, I focus on the economy1 and suggest an approach in 3 steps: 

1. Select industries to foster: industries in which the country either is or can become competitive and industries vital to development
2. Bring home state-of-the-art know-how: through both training of nationals abroad and import of talented foreigners
3. Design tailor-made academic curricula: to fuel nascent industries with appropriately-skilled graduates.

A clear mismatch between education and the economy

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)’s educational systems perform rather well on quantitative metrics: enrolment has been growing steadily in primary, secondary and higher education, though still very low compared to other regions. Today, 6%2 of an age group (vs. world’s average of 26%) attends a higher education institution. According to UNESCO3, total number of students in higher education in SSA multiplied twentyfold from 0.2 million in 1970 to 4.1 million in 2007 (out of 152 million students globally).

The key issue is rather on the nature of the output: first most students graduate in fields not related to direct needs of local companies (routing of graduates) and second, these graduates are equipped only with theoretical knowledge as opposed to actual know-how (quality of degrees).

The mismatch between graduates (education) and skills in demand locally (economy) is appalling. Let’s consider this: while agriculture and extracting industries are the dominant sectors, economic and social sciences have the lion share of graduates (see Exhibit 1). This failing routing of graduates might be due to African countries who mimicked at first their colonial power and to the relative lower cost of training in social sciences (e.g. sociologists) compared to technical fields (e.g. medical doctors, engineers) which require expensive equipment.

Exhibit 1: Relative weight of fields in higher education and employment

In short, while a construction company looks for well-trained bricklayers, they are presented with philosophers and sociologists. No surprise that World Bank’s enterprise surveys highlight the difficulty to find skilled workers as a hindrance to African economies. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying economic and social sciences are useless; I’m just questioning the efficiency of a routing system who uses its limited financial resources to train most young peoples in areas which almost certainly lead them to unemployment. Simultaneously, this system also underserves the very few companies looking for skilled workers to grow and expand.

There is also the issue of the quality of degrees. Even for those who graduate in ‘locally useful’ areas, the gap between their theoretical knowledge and the tasks they have to perform in local companies is equally a hindrance. For example, while Cameroon’s higher education has 25,000 students in scientific fields, the construction of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline has required the import of foreign workers, for tasks as basic as welding. Also out of the country’s 6,000 engineering students, few are able to apply their knowledge of mechanics to find solutions to local problems. Far from being anecdotal or specific to Cameroon, this illustrates how skewed the supply of graduates compared to the actual needs is.

Anticipate current and future demand. Reverse plan the optimal mix of graduates

To avoid such a waste of scarce resources, African countries need to adopt a ‘demand-pull’ approach. Starting with the skills in short supply in the economy at the moment or in the future, they should anticipate the mix of graduates that would optimally fill this gap. Doing so require educational systems to work hand in hand with professional associations representing companies of the same industry. This translates into three major steps:

1. Select industries to foster

An efficient allocation of resources begins with choosing industries to foster: industries in which the country either is or can become competitive and industries vital to development. The first category encompasses optional sectors (e.g. aeronautics) in which the country stands a chance to succeed. The second refers to critical sectors such as construction, which is necessary to build roads, schools and hospitals. Morocco is a good example since the country has identified key sectors (including car-making, aeronautics…) in a strategy plan designed in 2003. Ever since Moroccan policies in education, fiscal incentives, transportation infrastructure and special economic zones have been designed to best serve this plan. As a result Morocco has secured significant investments in the identified industries such as the French carmaker Renault who decided to set up a factory there.

Sub-Saharan African countries should do the same. For example Kenya might focus on the tech industry, among other key industries, building on its tech ecosystem and success stories (such as M-Pesa4 or Ushaidi5 ).

2. Import state-of-the-art know-how

Building state-of-the-art skills (required to win in globalization) from scratch takes a long time. To speed up the learning curve, African countries should send nationals to be trained abroad and attract talented foreigners through interesting schemes (special economic zones, fiscal incentives, time-limited high wages...). Chile’s international startup competition (Startup Chile6 ) is a good example: each year it attracts hundreds of world-class entrepreneurs and startups who are interested in the prize of US$40,000 of equity-free seed capital, a temporary 1-year visa to develop their projects and an access to the most potent social and capital networks in the country. In 2010, 22 startups (out of 300+ applicants) from 14 countries joined Chile. Such a yearly steady stream of top innovators trickles down locally with Chilean working for and with such entrepreneurs.

In our example, Kenya might send Kenyans to world-class tech scenes (Silicon Valley, Israël…) and offer tax relief schemes to attract top start-ups.

3. Design tailor-made academic curricula

It’s only when an industry’s current and future demand has been planed that academic curricula can be designed to provide the needed skills en masse. At this stage, government can work hand in hand with institutions representing the industry’s companies to design tailor-made programs. Academic institutions gain in decreasing unemployment among their alumni and companies gain the right set of skills. Morocco here provides another good example. Cooperation between the French carmaker Renault and the Moroccan government yield a school7 where students are trained to match job openings in Morocco (in Renault’s factory and other suppliers in the local car-making industry).

Such demand-pull academic curricula should be the norm in our countries who have no resources to squander. These curricula can also contribute to pushing the local know-how frontier via R&D, innovation and problem solving.

From ‘supply-push graduates’ to ‘demand-pull skilled workers’

Therefore African educational systems require a radical shift: from a ‘push’ approach where the economy is expected to adapt to graduates, to a ‘demand-pull’ system where academic curricula are designed to produce the very workers in need locally. Otherwise it results in simultaneously high unemployment for graduates and serious difficulty in hiring skilled workers for companies.

The question now is to know whether Africans agree with such a shift. What about you? Do you support the shift from push to pull? Why? Your view is of high interest to us.


(1) The focus on the economy is only for the sake of conciseness. Civil society and Government also require specific skills that are equally important.
(2) Gross Graduation Ratio: total number of students in higher education (ISCED 5 & 6) divided by the population of age of studying in higher education (age group of up to 5 years after end of high school).
(3) Source: UNESCO’s Global Education Digest 2009
(4) M-Pesa :
(7) Institut de Formation aux Métiers de l’Automobile de Tanger Med


Read 138854 times Last modified on Monday, 09 September 2013 22:39
  Christian Nouboue

Christian Nouboue is a strategy consultant based in Paris who has done several projects in 7+ African countries. Educated in Cameroon, France and Germany, he is passionate about development challenges faced by Sub-Saharan African countries. He is the founder of the Afrikati blog. 

Christian Nouboué est un consultant en stratégie d’entreprises qui a effectué plusieurs projets dans plus de 7 pays d’Afrique. Il a effectué ses études au Cameroun, en France et en Allemagne et s’intéresse beaucoup aux problématiques de développement auxquelles sont confrontés les pays Africains. 

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