THE CONTINENT OF AFRICA remains significant on the world stage and for a number of reasons. In size, Africa is larger than China, USA, India, Mexico and a big part of Europe combined. It is home to 54 different countries of a variety of sizes, climates, ethnic nationalities, official languages and disparate systems of government. Africa is the only continent that is in all four hemispheres and the only one to have land on the prime meridian and the equator. These various attributes have implications for the future of the continent in climate and weather, food, sports, aviation, tourism and positioning for global logistics.
Common among African countries are poverty, unemployment, high dependency ratios, natural and man-made disasters, and disease burden with varying degrees of severity depending on countries. Aggregate continental figures can often mislead when country-by-country cases are examined as some countries are doing better than others. But, irrespective of degrees, African countries face many similar challenges, all requiring urgent interventions to help the continent to reap the benefits of the prospects ahead.
Africa’s global achievements have been overshadowed by the persisting challenges. The first Millennium Development Goal target aimed at cutting the 1990 poverty rate in half by 2015 was attained five years ahead of schedule, in 2010. Yet, the number of people living in extreme poverty globally remains unacceptably high. The inhabitants of the continent have been largely dependent on natural resources for survival and these have suffered significant setback in the previous decades, mostly related to the agrarian culture, with attendant pressures on forests, the environment and people’s livelihoods.
Deforestation rates in Africa are alarming, presenting worrisome foreboding, especially for those whose livelihoods are tied to the soil. The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) reckons that “Africa is losing more than 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) of forest every year — twice the world’s average deforestation rate.”
The forest loss, UNEP claims, has been a major concern in 35 countries in Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Nigeria and Rwanda. Satellite pictures of three decades apart have showed expanding cities, pollution, deforestation and climate change, damaging the African environment despite what appears to be signs of improvement in some areas. Yet, most people do not make the much yield from the land.
Africa is rapidly urbanising, but the rates differ from country to country and the sizes of the cities vary with levels of challenges for the governments. The African Development Bank (AfDB) posits that Africa is the fastest urbanising continent in the world and its urban share of population has doubled from 19 per cent to 39 per cent over the last 50 years, which means more than 360 million new city dwellers. Africa has 52 cities with populations of one million or higher, the same number as for Europe. Several African cities, such as Dar es Salaam and Kinshasa, AfDB maintains, are, and will continue to be, among the fastest-growing in the world. Urban populations are projected to rise by an additional 350 million people, while the percentage of people living in cities, currently higher than in India, will reach 58 per cent by 2030.
Urban centres – despite the attraction – have an array of problems, with poverty at the very core, leading residents to settle for low quality of life. Slum-dwellers currently account for half of urban inhabitants, many using substandard, old, expired products in their households. In 2010, Ghana banned the sale of second-hand underwear, mainly imported from Europe. Ghana Standards Board recognised used pants and other second-hand goods like handkerchiefs and mattresses as unhygienic and potential health hazard, promising to ban their importation earlier in 1994. The ban was never implemented. In Nigeria, the trade in such items is even more of a commonplace.
A vast majority of urban and rural dwellers don’t have access to amenities and services that could improve their livelihoods and boost their earnings. More than 750 million people lack adequate access to clean drinking water and, like in Asia, many people in rural Africa have to walk an average of six kilometres to collect water. Diarrhoea, caused by inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene, kills an estimated 842,000 people every year globally, or approximately 2,300 people per day with Africa having its fair share.
Competition, transfer of knowhow, and spill-over effects can make cities a source of rapid economic growth, the argument goes. In Africa, the human capital base has improved significantly first for this to happen. Poverty reduction, going by global growth forecasts, may not be fast enough to reach the target of ending extreme poverty by 2030, whether in rural or urban Africa, for a number of reasons. First, almost all of the 30 countries with the highest birth rates are in Africa, coupled with widespread poverty. And, according to the World Food Programme, “the poor are hungry and their hunger traps them in poverty.” Thirdly, 41 per cent of children in Africa aged five and 14 are reportedly involved in child labour.
The development community recognises that “Illiteracy is a condition that denies people opportunity,” reinforcing poverty, poor health, hindering active citizenship and empowerment. Of all regions, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of education exclusion. Over one-fifth of children between the ages of about 6 and 11 are out of school, followed by one-third of youth between the ages of about 12 and 14. According to UIS data from UNESCO, almost 60 per cent of youth between the ages of about 15 and 17 are not in school. The situation is alarming as literacy is considered a crucial step to acquire the basic skills needed to cope with the many challenges children, youth and adults will face throughout their lives.
Good governance, rural development and urban investment will reduce rural-urban drift, while the benefits of urbanisation are maximised and negative effects minimised. For Africa’s prosperity, a robust emphasis must be on human capital, which allows everyone to reach their full potential and is increasingly becoming recognised as a primary driver of a nation’s economic growth. Human capital can be understood in the context of the sum of a population’s health, skills, knowledge, and experience, accounting for the largest share of countries’ wealth globally. A solid foundation of substantial investments needs to be laid in social protection interventions to ensure real progress. Today, most of the countries are said to be performing at less than two per cent of GDP investment in social protection as these statistics would reveal.
“For everyone everywhere, literacy is…a basic human right,” Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, once said. The same sentiment is being echoed by the UNESCO. In Africa, many are denied this basic right as 37 per cent of adults are illiterate, more than one in three adults cannot read, 182 million adults are unable to read and write, 48 million youths (ages 15-24) are illiterate and 22 per cent of primary school-aged children, estimated at 30 million, are not in school. A long journey still remains ahead in a world where the future promises to be fiercely more competitive. The adult literacy rate in all of Africa climbed from 53 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 63 per cent in 2015, obscuring the reality of the increase in absolute population of the illiterates from 133 million illiterate adults in 1990 to 182 million by 2011. Without changes sustainably, the implications are weighty for the individuals, households and countries.
While the U.S. literacy rate is 99 per cent, it is 59 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 11 countries with the lowest recorded adult literacy rates, ten are in Africa. For adults, the 10 per cent improvement rates occur despite a disparity between literacy for women and men. While seven in 10 men can read, only half of women can do so. According to UNESCO, of the 38 per cent of African adults (some 153 millions) who are illiterate, two-thirds of these are women. Things are changing. Results of girl education are beginning to manifest at governmental levels in Africa. In 2009, Rwanda had women as the majority of parliamentarians. In 2018, the number of women in Ethiopia’s cabinet rose up to 50 per cent. Under UNESCO’s coverage, literacy rates are found to be below 50 per cent in Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger and Senegal. It identified Cape Verde as an exception.
Investing in schooling has high returns. In Africa in particular, investing in people is central to ensuring the continent’s future prosperity and its full participation in global markets. Africa’s return on education is adjudged the largest of any continent, with each additional year of schooling raising earnings by 11 per cent for boys and 14 per cent for girls. But issues of access have to be addressed, very urgently. How to fit schooling in to the world of work is a big challenge to be overcome as schooling on its own is not enough and learning levels across the region remain very low, with 85 per cent of primary or elementary school children in some countries are unable to read proficiently.
The World Bank’s World Development Report 2019 on the Changing Nature of Work argues that “work is constantly reshaped by technological progress. Firms adopt new ways of production, markets expand, and societies evolve. Overall, technology brings opportunity, paves the way to create new jobs, increases productivity, and delivers effective public services.” But Africa can only tap into these opportunities when human capital investment in form of education is done well. In the workplace wherein technology is changing the skills that employers seek, workers need to be better at complex problem-solving, teamwork and adaptability. The Report considers investment in human capital as a priority for governments “in order for workers to build the skills in demand in the labour market.”
It added that “governments need to enhance social protection and extend it to all people in society, irrespective of the terms on which they work.” Investment in education across the board is therefore one of the strategies by which Africa can hope to secure a place of global relevance, translating its future preponderance of population into an advantage in the world of work.