The focal point for discussion this morning is ‘preparing Africa’s youth for the future.’ In discussing the topic, I will draw on a few of my experiences growing into adulthood, and how these experiences have helped to shape my world view and influenced my decision-making as I transitioned from being a dependent to a provider.
Finally, I will share my perspectives on some of the adjustments and interventions that I believe we need to make as a country to improve the lives of our youth and increase their contribution to our nation-building process and to the continent as a whole.
Past – Reflections
Upon my relocation to Ghana from the United States in 2010, I accompanied my father on a visit to his hometown. As we walked by a cluster of houses that served as family homes for his parents and a few of their siblings, he introduced me to various people who were either his cousins, or the children of his cousins. As I reflected on the visit on our way back to Accra, two things struck me:
- First, the fortunes of my generation of cousins were different across the various households and you could attribute the outcomes of the lineages to the pursuit of education or the availability of opportunities to undertake vocations.
- Second, for those cousins whose grandparents had taken it upon themselves to support their siblings to educate their children or provide them with vocational opportunities, those households had fared better.
Not only did this experience remind me of how blessed I was to belong to my lineage, but also, it brought to fore the need for the country to develop both formal and informal support systems to boost its productivity. As I have pondered further on the challenges confronting our youth in the period since that encounter, I find myself categorizing our youth into three buckets:
- Bucket 1: Those in very deprived financial circumstances or for whom education isn’t practical for various reasons, such as those who are academically challenged but gifted with their hands;
- Bucket 2: Those in positions where the ability to pursue formal education is truncated after the completion of basic education; and
- Bucket 3: Those fortunate enough to have opportunities for formal education and employment but cannot afford to rest on their oars; they must constantly evolve as the world evolves.
My personal journey
My life story as a youth played out largely in the third bucket. I grew up on a university campus, and so the pursuit of advanced education was never a negotiable topic. But more importantly, the early guidance that my siblings and I received from our parents, both of whom have a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) background, to pursue the STEM subjects in secondary school enabled us to have a foundation that has proven quite useful and exceptionally adaptable.
After studying Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics for my A levels, I managed to switch quite easily to Business Administration at the University. This switch was my response to the evolving trends around me at a time when the world of Finance was opening new opportunities.
Poverty – the bane of our youth in Ghana
Yet, I would argue that quite a large proportion of our youth in Ghana fall in the first and second buckets. At the risk of belaboring the point, we all know the role that poverty plays in this predicament of ours. Unfortunately, the rate of poverty reduction has slowed in Ghana, becoming almost insignificant after 2012.
According to the Open Knowledge Repository, a subsidiary of the World Bank Group, the largest reduction in poverty, 2 percent per year, was reached from 1991–1998. Subsequently, the rate of decline fell to 1.4 percent in 1998–2005, 1.1 percent in 2005–2012, and further dropped to 0.2 percent per year between 2012 and 2016.
Some of these poverty-related problems bedeviling our youth are being solved with interventions such as Free Compulsory Basic Education and now Free SHS – interventions that have also had been frustrated by the lack of appropriate infrastructure.
Envisioning Africa’s future – how do we rectify the anomaly?
Pillar 1 – STEM Education
The first step on this remedial journey is the provision of quality and relevant education that does not only respond to the exigencies of today’s world but also, prepares the minds of young Africans for the future. If we look to the world around us, the heads of some of the most successful companies in the world – Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Sundar Pichai, AMD’s Lisa Su, Tesla’s Elon Musk have one thing in common: They’re engineers – they have had rigorous training in mathematical and scientific approaches to solving problems, and are not too shy to get into the technical details of the product or service.
It is from that perspective that there is, within the situation of this discussion, a strong push to rebalance our educational structure towards STEM subjects. Further investment in STEM education will unlock the abilities of African countries to produce youth with strong technical and analytical capabilities that can develop home-grown technologies to address uniquely African problems.
In a July 2013 working paper on Tertiary Education and Industrial Development in Ghana authored by researchers working jointly with the Institute of Statistical Social and Economic Research (ISSER) and the International Growth Centre, the researchers explored the mismatch between the skills of graduates and the needs of industry. They found that of the firms surveyed, 84% cited analytical, problem-solving, and decision-making skills as the important skills expected from University graduates. Yet, 81% of respondents indicated the existence of gap between the skills supplied by tertiary institutions and their requirements.
While acknowledging that a university education, no matter the course, equips us with critical thinking skills, we must understand that these skills are not an end in themselves. Invariably, the gap in skills and the loss of flexibility that arises from earlier choices by students to avoid some foundational courses in school compounds the school-to-work transition challenges.
Pillar 2 – Learning by Doing
To our second pillar, I am sure we all know the famous proverb which goes as follows:
“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Beyond developing a purposeful approach towards STEM education, African countries must also place greater emphasis on higher vocational learning and disabuse the minds of the youth that the university title and university route are an assured path to achieving career success.
Experts point to a correlation between youth having experienced vocational training and youth employment. This explains why the debate on the merits of converting our polytechnics into technical universities continues with great intensity. Yet I would argue that the role and importance of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) as a means of equipping our youth with technical skills isn’t new to us. Until the conversion of eight out of the ten polytechnics into technical universities, Ghana had one polytechnic in each of the ten erstwhile regions, named after the regional capitals, such as the Accra Polytechnic in Accra, and the Ho Polytechnic in Ho.
To the best of my knowledge, however, the number of technical universities or polytechnics has stayed flat at ten for the last two decades. However, the number of universities increased from just three in 1990 to 70 in 2014, with many of these focusing on the humanities and liberal arts programs. Can we for example, attribute the difficulty in finding competent plumbers in Ghana, to the fact that we have not witnessed a rise in the number of polytechnics or schools for higher vocational learning in the country?
Aside providing avenues for students to complete their national service engagements, ladies and gentlemen, the private sector must embrace apprenticeships for young people as its non-monetary contribution to society. These placements could be done alongside the existing monetary contributions that firms extend as part of their corporate social responsibility activities. Government policy must be geared towards establishing a lot more technical schools that train JHS and SHS school leavers and graduates with relevant technical skills that are sought after by industry and society. At this point, I would like to commend the Commission for Technical and Vocational Education for their annual Skills competition. It is only through such deliberate acts that the youth will be equipped with skills that match the requirements of industry, and provide a pathway to industry for students not interested in pursuing a university education.
Introducing the National Apprenticeship Week
To illustrate this point, we can look to other parts of the globe such as the UK and the US, where a National Apprenticeship Week (NAW) is observed. This is a convening of business leaders, career seekers, labor, educational institutions, and other critical partners to demonstrate their support for apprenticeship. The week-long celebration also provides apprenticeship sponsors with the opportunity to showcase their programs, facilities, and apprentices in their community. The celebration highlights the benefits of apprenticeship in preparing a highly skilled workforce to meet the talent needs of employers across diverse industries.
Pillar 3- Establishment of Incubators, Accelerators and Labs to foster innovation
Experience as we all know is the best teacher. A popular story is told of the inventor Thomas Edison. While he was working on creating the light bulb in his lab in New Jersey, a visitor to the lab expressed sympathy to Edison regarding the failed experiments and the lack of results. Edison countered by saying “I have not failed, not once. I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work.”
This story vividly illustrates why our talented youth need support to experiment, brainstorm and co-create as they embark on their entrepreneurial ventures. Solving practical problems requires funding, facilities, mentorship, and research centers to provide subject matter expertise on trends.
The way forward – How has Stanbic helped the Ghanaian youth to realize their dreams?
At Stanbic, our Group purpose is “Africa is our home and we drive her growth.” Driving growth requires us to invest in the future of our youth. Hence, in August 2019, we launched one of our most significant Corporate Social Initiatives – the Stanbic Bank (SB) Incubator – to provide business advisory, coaching & mentorship, and market access facilitation and networking opportunities to aspiring entrepreneurs and startups in Ghana. Through the bank’s Staff Volunteer Mentorship program, the bank’s staff offer their expertise and time to members of the SBIncubator Community.
Although COVID impacted our engagements in 2020, we hosted 47 capacity building sessions impacting 2,498 participants. We also hosted fifty-two (52) coaching & mentoring sessions, 11 of which were held physically prior to the lockdown period. In total, 380 SMEs and start-ups were directly impacted through training programs. We also established and consolidated our partnerships with 18 strategic entities to create more value for the entrepreneurs. These partners include the likes of Reset Global People, Israeli Embassy in collaboration with Haim Gil-Ad, Ashesi Venture Incubator and the World Economic Forum Road to Davos Discourse among others.
The importance of Africa’s youth to nation building cannot be overemphasized, given their numbers. In Ghana, for example, our youth population was estimated at 10 million in 2017, making up 35% of the country’s population. As I have posited above, however, the responsibility for ensuring that they contribute effectively to our nation-building process is a collective one, that lies with policy makers, educational and corporate institutions, parents, and the youth themselves.
It is my hope that through these conversations, we can devise workable solutions to increase focus and investments in vocational and technical training, through deliberate policies, financial support, effective career counselling, and subject choices at school.
This article forms part of a series of presentations delivered at the Ishmael Yamson & Associates Annual Business Roundtable on May 26, 2021.
>>>The writer is Chief Executive, Stanbic Bank Ghana Limited