The Future of Work: Can Africa become the world's workforce?

Thursday March 05 2020

Some 47 per cent of the labour force in Africa will need to be re-skilled and up-skilled to meet the already changing work environment. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Africa is currently home to a youth population of 77 per cent, and by 2050, two in every five children will be born in Africa. Africa is the youngest continent and the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) provides the continent a real opportunity to become the world’s workforce.

With 1.2 billion people on the continent, investments in human capital development on the continent for the 4IR will need to include revamping the education system to develop skilled labour for each of the new economies – digital, circular, bio, carbon, hydrogen, methanol, blue, shared etc. These investments would need to align with investments in general and economy specific infrastructure.

Already, 47 per cent of the labour force will need to be re-skilled and up-skilled to meet the already changing work environment. To achieve this, at the Next Einstein Forum -- to be held in Nairobi later this year -- we estimate an investment of $3 trillion in the education system is required over the next 10 years. This investment should be substantiated with increasing GDP to research and development (R&D) investments to greater than 1 per percent to close the existing technological gap. There is no leapfrogging the investments required.

The why of learning

Building and bringing together the talent required to build a workforce for the 21st Century is at the heart of Africa’s transformation. But before we talk about the how, we need to redefine what we consider success in learning.

Should we focus less on standardisation? The answer is yes. We need to prepare our children to understand, think critically, and in a multidisciplinary way, around how to respond to the challenges around them. Don’t get me wrong, access is critical. Every African child must be given the opportunity and tools to succeed. But how we define success is important.


How do we adapt our curriculum and leverage technology, as a learning enhancing tool, not as the only teacher? Teachers remain an essential resource for successful learning.

Second, we need to urgently strengthen education planning and innovation management across Africa. We need radical innovation of existing educational systems to strengthen innovation management within education and ICT ministries to respond to current and future employment needs, particularly around the new economies.

Education cannot be disconnected from the lab to market process. How can governments and the private sector work together to create and attract the right talent for the innovation ecosystems we are building? At the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), we are building a work integrated learning program that hopes to co-design courses, and real world simulations through industry placements, that would prepare our master’s students, future data scientists and engineers to not only integrate the job market today but also prepare them to be the drivers of the new economies of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Building a workforce for the 21st Century requires immediate and dedicated collaborative efforts by institutions in all sectors. How to do this within the existing infrastructure, policy and financing constraints on the continent is one of the questions will be answering at our upcoming global gathering in Kenya.

Learning from other markets

Can Africa learn from other emerging markets? We should. No country or economic bloc on the continent can offer the $3 trillion that is required to bring our education systems up to the level where we can benefit from the 4IR. We need to review and adopt various financing models including but not limited to consortium funding, affiliation programs, tailored FDI, Diaspora funds, competitive grant-making in combination with loans, venture capital and other existing financing. The combination will require serious planning and execution along a framework that addresses infrastructure, policy and regulatory frameworks, technology gaps etc.

The private sector has a role to play, not just in the financing but also in preparing themselves, through digital and technological transformation. The African worker of the future will have skills to work across sectors and fields in non-traditional work hours and arrangements. The private sector must prepare itself to attract and retain talent through jobs which foster personal development, innovation and creativity.

Nathalie Munyampenda, Managing Director of the Next Einstein Forum