Fostering skills development to improve job prospects in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Ananilea Lema, a recent graduate from Arusha Technical College, explains a prototype of her innovation—an emergency sanitary pad dispenser. She is looking for partners who can invest and scale it up. Photo: World Bank
Ananilea Lema, a recent graduate from Arusha Technical College, explains a prototype of her innovation—an emergency sanitary pad dispenser. She is looking for partners who can invest and scale it up. Photo: World Bank

 When it comes to skills development and innovation, youth from Africa have something to say. Based on my recent engagement with youth from Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, l can also tell you that they have the means to back up what they claim.

These young and enterprising individuals are seeking ways to go against the grain and meaningfully contribute to society.  Some are still acquiring and honing their skills, while others are actively diving into the purposeful but sometimes tricky waters of start-ups. They do this in contexts where job prospects are dim, motivated by the realization that the world is forever evolving and requires them to do the same.

The poly-crises (COVID-19 pandemic, growing inflation, protracted wars, climate change) that we have all been weathering have affected the labor market in many ways. The current macroeconomic conditions and forecasts in Africa, as well as the new possibilities offered by technology, compel us to realize the changing nature of Africa’s job markets and to think about the skills that Africa’s youth will need to prosper. More than 10 million youth enter the labor market every year, while current growth patterns generate only 3 million formal jobs annually, leaving many young people unemployed. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only one in six workers has a wage job, compared to one in two in high-income countries. 

To celebrate this year’s End Poverty Day, our team hosted a hybrid event that included youth from the four countries we work with. Our guests showcased the various endeavors and skills that they have been working on to improve their lives and contribute to economic and social development. I was personally left enlightened and challenged. l stand firm in my conviction that we cannot talk about African youth without including them in the discussion.

In Malawi, we heard how a youth agriculture cooperative called ACADES has grown its membership to more than 10,000 and now targets an annual turnover of $1.5 million (in the current farming season, their turnover was around $900,000). ACADES is investing in youth and smallholder farmers in Malawi through agriculture financing, provision of market opportunities, and skills development. They have also established a microfinance institution to help members access financial support to purchase farm inputs and improve overall productivity.

Students from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) presented the business incubation concept known as Agribiz Hub through which business ideas by students are polished and modeled to become real business plans worth investing in. Agribiz Hub has helped students establish and register firms and support job creation.

In Tanzania, the event was hosted at the Arusha Technical College (ATC), which is a beneficiary of the East Africa Skills for Transformation and Regional Integration Project (EASTRIP) supported by the World Bank. The program entails a comprehensive approach encompassing industry involvement in college governance, labor market feasibility studies, updating curricula with the latest occupational standards, graduate employment tracer studies, partnerships with leading global TVET colleges to modernize curricula, support for faculty industrial attachment, and provision of state-of-the-art training equipment and facilities.

The ATC showcase featured Ananilea Lema and Donald Mwakatoge. Ananilea’s innovation was an emergency sanitary pad dispenser which functions like an ATM machine with a prepaid card that is placed over a sensor to release the product to a user. “I was motivated to create this as a tool to help avail piecemeal pads for those who cannot afford a full standard packet, especially students,” explained Ananilea. Donald, an enthusiast of both soccer and gastronomy, channeled his passions into the creation of two distinct apps. One, a soccer app, meticulously tracks and curates content about the Tanzanian Premier League, while the other, a culinary app, strives to connect diners with restaurant service providers wherever they find themselves in the country, effectively bridging the gap in the food industry.

Students and faculty of Arusha Technical College in Tanzania joined a videoconference roundtable with youths from Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The event was organized to mark End Poverty Day in October. They discussed opportunities and challenges related to the generation of jobs in the region. Photo: World Bank
Students and faculty of Arusha Technical College in Tanzania joined a videoconference roundtable with youths from Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The event was organized to mark End Poverty Day in October. They discussed opportunities and challenges related to the generation of jobs in the region. Photo: World Bank

In Zambia, we listened to Sydney Mwansa, a youth entrepreneur who has employed others through his cashew nut processing business. Mwansa emphasized that support for skills development is critical in stimulating grassroots economic transformation in Africa. “Skills development is a global currency that can transform lives and promote socioeconomic development,” he said. The Director of Science at the Ministry of Technology and Science, Jane Chinkushu, joined the discussion and provided insights on how governments must craft responsive policies that advance employment and support productivity.

In Zimbabwe, we met Sicelo Ndlovu, a STEM Entrepreneur who runs innovation hubs for high school students to cultivate a culture of entrepreneurship, as well as a network called Women and Girls in Science which aims at encouraging greater female participation in the field. What stood out is how Sicelo has converted her scientific knowledge into entrepreneurship and is now producing environmentally friendly detergents for residential and commercial purposes. Her products include a water-based degreaser, an all-purpose cleaning paste, and a disinfectant. She is also producing equipment for school laboratories.

We also heard from Raquel Kambasha, a Campaigns Manager who works in outsourcing. Due to the nature of her work, she encouraged the other youth to upskill and position themselves in the global workforce. Companies such as the one for which she works provide services to countries outside of Zimbabwe, which highlights one essential fact: African countries can and should harness their demographic advantages by investing in human capital.

A prevalent theme that struck a chord with the youth from the four countries was the challenge of securing funding for their projects. Ananilea, for instance, managed to develop her prototype by participating in a competition where she emerged as the winner and secured a grant. She hopes that she will be able to persuade sanitary pad businesses to collaborate and invest in her venture. Donald, for his part, is actively exploring strategies to monetize his apps. As of today, he is leaning towards building a compelling argument to capture restaurant commissions within his food app, and extending invitations to potential advertisers for his soccer app.

The showcases served as a poignant reminder of the distance we must cover to nurture an innovation ecosystem where ideas can be rigorously tested and adequately funded. Youth across the African continent brim with brilliant concepts, yet the shortage of financial support remains a substantial challenge, and copyrighting their ideas is neither simple nor cost-effective. In addition to financing, youth entrepreneurs also stand to gain from mentoring, and other essential forms of support, in order to transform their innovative ideas into viable, market-ready products.

This underscores the importance of facilitating the flow of jobs, skills, and innovation across borders, with the objective of enabling individuals to tap into the developments occurring in neighboring countries. It was intriguing to hear one participant from Zimbabwe express how the showcase has inspired her to visit the Arusha Technical College during their innovation fair.

Improving education levels is key to building better human capital and allowing economies to draw on an increasingly skilled and healthy workforce. Workers in Sub-Saharan Africa have the lowest years of schooling of any region globally, at 4.7 years on average, and primary school completion rates continue to lag behind. However, our governments have recently shown a solid commitment to improving the situation by increasing spending in education to almost 20 percent of national budgets. Just this past July, Tanzania hosted the African Heads of States Human Capital Summit, where 43 African countries endorsed the Dar es Salaam Declaration, which constitutes a tangible financial and political commitment by these leaders to prioritize investing in their people.

While human capital levels have improved significantly in the region, they have failed to accelerate labor transformation and offer people better jobs and occupational choices. The Dar es Salaam Declaration recognizes that Africa's most important asset is its people, and this understanding is critical to achieving sustainable, resilient, and inclusive growth in Africa.

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Authors

Nathan Belete

Country Director for Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, The World Bank

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