Despite Africa’s great diversity of cultures and climates, countries on the continent often speak the same language when it comes to tackling common development challenges. Senegal and Uganda recently did just that, teaming up to exchange best practices to boost agricultural productivity and employment on both sides of the continent.
I witnessed this knowledge exchange firsthand as I accompanied a Ugandan delegation led by Hon. Maria Kiwanuka, Uganda’s minister of finance, planning, and economic development, on its visit to Senegal. Their core mission was to seek out innovative ways to boost economic growth and create job opportunities for the country’s burgeoning youth, a challenge faced by Uganda and Senegal alike. As both countries continue to experience an increase in urbanization and population growth, and currently have economies that are predominantly based on agriculture, one common answer to this rising challenge is the enhancement of agricultural productivity and the development of agricultural value chains.
A big idea can be rejected. It might be illegal. It might mean political suicide. In the words of Marcelo Giugale, the World Bank’s director of Economic Policy and Poverty Reduction Programs for Africa, challenging conventional wisdom isn’t always easy. But in the realm of big ideas, the risk is part of the reward.
Is bigger always better? Economists have long debated what size firms are more likely to drive business expansion and job creation. In industrial countries like the United States, small (young) firms contribute up to two-thirds of all net job creation and account for a predominant share of innovation. (Source: McKinsey, Restarting the US small-business growth engine, November 2012). In developing countries, evidence from Ethiopia, Ghana and Madagascar shows that the vast majority of small operators remain small, and so are unlikely to create many decent jobs over time [Source: World Bank, Youth Employment, 2014]. By contrast, ‘big’ enterprises are seen as the best providers of employment opportunities and new technologies.
The difference in role and performance of small firms in developing and industrial countries reflects to a large extent their owners’ characteristics. In the US, small firm owners are generally more educated and wealthier than the average worker, while the opposite is true in most developing countries. This point was emphasized by E. Duflo and A. Banerjee in their famous book ‘Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty’ (Penguin, 2011). Most business owners in developing countries are considered to be ‘reluctant’ entrepreneurs; essentially unskilled workers that are pushed into entrepreneurship for lack of other feasible options for employment.
This is also very much a reality in Tanzania where small business owners have few skills and limited financial and physical assets. Of the three million non-farm businesses operating in the country, almost 90% of business owners are confined in self-employment. Only 3% of business owners possess post-secondary level education. As a result, their businesses are generally small, informal, unspecialized, young and unproductive. They also tend to be extremely fragile with high exit rates, and operate sporadically during the year. Put simply, most small businesses are not well equipped to expand and become competitive.
Photo Credit: @Gates Foundation. A girl plays with a bicycle tire in the slum of Korogocho, one of the largest slum neighborhoods of Nairobi, Kenya
This is an impressive decrease from 58% in 1999, but at the same time there is a general sense that progress has been too slow. Africa is rising, with GDP growth rates upwards of 6% between 2003 and 2013 (if one excludes richer and less dynamic South Africa) but the poor’s living standards are not rising as fast as GDP.
The expansion of household surveys in Africa can now show us the number of poor people in most countries in the region. This data is a powerful tool for understanding the challenges of poverty reduction. Due to the costs and complexity of these surveys, the data usually does not show us estimates of poverty at “local” levels. That is, they provide limited sub-national poverty estimates.
For example, maybe we can measure district or regional poverty in Malawi and Tanzania from the surveys, but what is more challenging is estimating poverty across areas within the districts or regions (known as “traditional authorities” in Malawi and “wards” in Tanzania).
To address this shortfall, several years ago a research team from the World Bank developed a technique for combining household surveys with population census data, and poverty maps were born. Poverty maps can be used to help governments and development partners not only monitor progress, but also plan how resources are allocated. These maps depend on having access to census data that is somewhat close in time to the household survey data. But what if there is no recent census (they are usually done every 10 years) or the census data cannot be obtained? (I will resist naming and shaming any specific country): we are left with no map. Can we fill in the knowledge gaps in our maps?
As a new growth pole in the global economy, Sub-Saharan Africa is facing a growing demand for technicians, engineers, medical workers, scientists, researchers and other highly skilled workers. With unprecedented economic growth across the last decade, foreign investment has flowed into sectors like energy, ICTs, extractive industries, construction and infrastructure.
Meeting this broad demand for various levels of skills will require more investment at the tertiary level, specifically in fields related to applied science, engineering and technology. To date, the proportion of higher education students in math and science disciplines in Africa is very low—about 20-25 percent—and the availability of market-relevant skills is limited. The annual number of Ph.D. graduates in applied science and engineering disciplines is in the hundreds. Women are egregiously under-represented in most science and technology-related courses and research. Technical and vocational education and training programs are poor quality and have low enrollment rates. In addition, these institutions are weakly networked with each other. At the regional level where learning exchanges are necessary for development, collaboration has been fragmented between Sub-Saharan Africa and its external partners and nascent with countries in Asia and Latin America.
Every year for the next 10 years, 11 million young Africans will try to enter the job market. Providing jobs for this population will require an expansion of the private sector, particularly in the areas of agriculture and technology. However, expanding the private sector will mean even greater demand for workers with high value skill sets like engineering and technology. Bridging the skills gap is crucial.