/ 25 May 2023

How business can help transform education and leadership in Africa

Centrenord Kaya Classroom2 1518
Students sit crammed up to five at desks meant for two, in overcrowded classes of up to 125 students, at a primary school in Kaya, a town hosting tens of thousands of displaced people in Centre-Nord region, Burkina Faso. Only 62.5% of children in sub-Saharan Africa complete primary school, compared with 86.4% in the world. (© 2020 Lauren Seibert/Human Rights Watch)

At the recent Trialogue Business in Society conference, I spoke about driving transformation in Africa through education and leadership. 

I believe this topic articulates what ought to be the direction for development in Africa based on my personal conviction that improved access to education and value-based leadership are the keys to unlocking prosperity on our continent. 

In Kenya and Sudan, there have been demonstrations and political unrest that have led to closure of schools. Children in parts of Northern Nigeria are at risk of being recruited into armed groups or being kidnapped and raped.

These events may appear isolated, but when taken together, a pattern begins to emerge. Only 62.5% of children in sub-Saharan Africa complete primary school compared with 86.4% in the world. 

Africa has the youngest population in the world, but the continent’s level of education and training lies far below the global average.

Across Africa, investment in education does not match demographic trends. By continuing in this way, we are neglecting the potential of our young people. 

Although Africa is rich in resources and potential, among the numerous problems in its path towards development is a lack of quality education and effective leadership. 

Reflecting on the situations in Kenya, Sudan and Nigeria, it becomes apparent that the conflicts undergirding all three countries is a result of weakness in leadership and governance systems. 

The time has come for us as Africans to rescue Africa by occupying the driver seat of our future. To do that, we must recognise education and leadership as some of the low-hanging fruits requiring urgent attention and action.

The importance of education and the role of leadership

Education is the foundation of any successful society. It empowers individuals with the skills and knowledge needed to contribute to their communities, build businesses, and drive economic growth. 

It is educated people or readers who make some of the best leaders.

Unfortunately, many African countries struggle to provide access to quality education, leaving millions of children and adults without the tools they need to succeed.

Leadership is also a critical component to drive transformation. Effective leaders are essential to ensuring that resources are allocated effectively, policies are enacted with the people’s best interests in mind, and corruption is kept in check. Without strong leadership, even the most well-funded education systems can fail to deliver results.

Against an exceedingly complex backdrop, where our world is being refashioned by globalisation, the digital revolution, climate change, the energy crisis, the burgeoning aspirations of an ever-expanding youth population and the need for the continent to find its place in the world, we must agree with Thomas Sankara that Africa is in desperate need of visionary, upstanding and courageous leaders who are capable of meeting the problems the continent is facing, while serving as an inspiration to their people.

I firmly believe that with a focus on driving transformation through education and leadership, Africa can unleash its full potential and rise to new heights of prosperity.Although addressing the task may appear herculean, it is important to acknowledge that there is hope. With this hope comes the need for us all to be strategic about how we use these emerging opportunities.

It is noteworthy that African governments are rising to the challenge. For instance, Rwanda has a national curriculum focused on developing critical thinking, problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills. It is not surprising then that Rwanda’s literacy rate is higher than what is observable across sub-Saharan Africa. Rwanda is also ranked as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa.

While governments vis-à-vis public education have the responsibility of providing education to all Africans, the buck does not stop there. 

As humans who have been beneficiaries of formal education, and as corporations with understanding that business involves not just making profit but leaving the world a better place than we found it, it is time for us to rise to the challenge. 

Strategic philanthropy is one of the ways we drive transformation. We must begin to consider empowering organisations involved in improving education, not just as part of one-off corporate social responsibility events, but as part of our long term environmental, social and governance activities, which are a more radical and transformative way of working with systems.

Future of education and leadership

These four steps summarise what it takes to transform the future of education and leadership in Africa.

1. Increase access to education: Collaboration to build more schools, train more

teachers, and provide scholarships and other forms of support to students, which will go a long way in growing a new crop of leaders who will improve the future of our continent.

2. Embrace technology: Technology is increasingly being used to improve education outcomes in Africa. Investment in this regard will ensure that access to leadership resources becomes more broadly available to everyone — especially leaders at the grassroots level.

3. Develop leadership skills: Programmes that teach civic engagement and value-based leadership, especially to young people, will become one of the catalysts for change in the foreseeable future.

4. Addressi inequality: Prioritising solutions that address systemic inequalities such as the exclusion of nomadic children or people living with disabilities from formal education, will contribute to shaping the future.

Overall, the future of education and leadership in Africa is bright, but it will require ongoing investment and innovation to achieve the full potential of the continent.

Gbenga Oyebode is chairman of the African Philanthropy Forum. This was his keynote address at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.