Africa countries have made huge strides in providing universal access to primary schooling, but secondary and tertiary educational opportunities lag far behind – creating enormous development challenges. This, however, provides great opportunities for the private sector to innovate using modern technology and unlock the potential of a continent, putting it on trajectory towards securing a position within the knowledge economy.

With more than 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24, Africa is the youngest continent in the world. Current trends indicate that this figure is likely to double by 2045, yet the continent continues to fall short of meeting the educational needs of its youth 1. With limited public sector funding, the private sector is uniquely positioned not only to provide access to education in Africa, but also to significantly improve its quality through innovation. The private sector could effectively secure Africa’s place in the global knowledge economy and enable the continent to accelerate its economic development.

High primary enrollment, but at the cost of quality

Over the last few decades, African governments have devoted a significant portion of their resources to meeting the United Nations’ (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which call on UN Member States to achieve universal primary education – a promise that children in every country will complete primary school – by 2015. Since the launch of the MDGs in 2000, African governments have made significant strides towards the realization of this goal. In Ghana, for example, public school enrollment soared from 4.2 million to 5.4 million between 2004 and 2005; Kenya saw the enrollment of 1.2 million additional children in schools in 2003 alone, and by 2004 this figure reached 7.2 million, of whom 84 per cent were of primary-school age 2. Today, the average net enrollment of primary school children in sub-Saharan Africa sits just below 80 per cent.

Despite these positive developments, the narrow focus of African governments on meeting the MDGs has significant drawbacks. High enrollment rates have taken priority over the quality of education. A study by the Brookings Institution showed that only 19 per cent of Kenyan sixth-graders were reading at grade level, and even fewer, less than 10 per cent, in Uganda. The Brookings Institution’s Africa Learning Barometer (ALB) is the first region-wide survey of learning and education and covers 28 sub-Saharan African countries. It estimates that 61 million children of primary school age – one in every two – will reach secondary school unable to read, write or perform basic numeracy tasks 3. Achievement levels are particularly low in western and central Africa – in Nigeria, an economic powerhouse and home to 170 million people, Brookings estimates that 58 per cent of children are not learning, despite being in school. Furthermore, inequalities in learning exist across wealth, gender, and rural-urban divides.

Dire shortage of secondary and tertiary education

Without the same access to resources as primary institutions, the number of places available at secondary and tertiary institutions has only grown very slowly over the same period that primary enrollment has soared. This means that every year, millions of children across Africa graduate from primary school and have nowhere to go to further their education.

The figures are staggering. Secondary enrollment continues to stagnate at 36 per cent while tertiary enrollment remains abysmally low, at just 8 per cent. In Nigeria, for example, even though approximately 1.7 million high-school graduates apply for tertiary education, there are only approximately 400,000 places available 4. Kenya graduates approximately 650,000 students from more than 19,000 primary school every year, but has only around 4,500 secondary schools and 90,000 tertiary institution places 5. This trend is repeated across the continent, leaving an increasing shortage of qualified workers, especially in high-skill sectors. As the world moves towards a knowledge economy, development in Africa risks stagnation or even decline unless drastic steps are taken to address the urgent gaps in secondary and tertiary education.

A recent study published by the UK’s Institute of Education found that tertiary education has a significant impact on a country’s economy, with others suggesting that it was more important than primary or secondary schooling 6. This clear link to economic progress suggests that investment should shift to secondary and tertiary levels of education in Africa, especially in a time of the knowledge economy.

Private sector investment in secondary and tertiary institutions could help mediate some of the problems currently facing the education sector in Africa, particularly through the use of modern technology. If leveraged properly, new technology can improve the overall quality of at all levels while reducing cost. This remains particularly important in poor and rural communities where local government lacks the resources to provide high-quality training for teachers and students.

Hope on the horizon

There are several secondary institutions across Africa that are already incorporating technology and innovative models into their curricula to provide high-quality education to thousands of students, and at a low cost. The African School for Excellence (ASE), for example, is currently expanding its network of independent schools in South Africa. Each school offers students the highest quality education while still remaining affordable for students of low-income backgrounds – the first ASE school opened in a Johannesburg township in 2013, charging just USD 600 per year per student. The ASE model is a direct response to years of the South African government’s budgetary struggle to fund education.

With more than 100,000 students in Kenya, Bridge International Academies’ Academy-in-a-Box model uses a smartphone app. to automate all administrative school activities, including managing expenses and registering students. Curricula and teacher training are likewise delivered through a portable, electronic teacher’s tablet. The network of Omega schools in Ghana, which currently serves 20,000 students, has adopted a similar model, using standardised curricula coupled with an innovative pay-as you-go daily fee of USD 0.75 that provides students with lunch, a uniform, a backpack and textbooks.

SPARK schools, which currently operates four schools in Johannesburg but plans to expand to 60 across South Africa in the next decade, also have a low-cost private model that incorporates cheap and easy-to-use online technologies. SPARK is one of the first private school systems in Africa to blend in-person and virtual learning, with. students rotating through traditional reading, language, and maths classes, as well as spending 90 minutes a day in a computer lab using maths and reading software programs, thereby reducing teachers’ workloads while maximising students’ learning opportunities. In 2013, its first year of operation, 96 per cent of SPARK school students jumped 1.5 years in their reading levels.

An innovative tertiary educational model

While these examples show that steps are being taken to leverage technology to bring high quality, low cost secondary education to Africa, there are few examples at the tertiary level. One, the African Leadership University (ALU), is a new initiative to build 25 universities across the continent, each enrolling as many as 10,000 students. Through this, ALU plans to empower 3 million highly-qualified young African leaders who will form Africa’s governments and become Africa’s entrepreneurs, innovators, and educators for the generations to come.

Launching its first campus in 2015, ALU will leverage technology to deliver outstanding curricula, curated from various sources including top-ranked universities around the world, corporate partners and research institutions, to students on its fully residential campuses. These will be supplemented with on-site instruction by facilitators who will be equipped with sophisticated analytical platforms that give them a real-time insight into what students are learning and with what they are struggling, to enable them to tailor their lessons accordingly.

This method of teaching and learning will be complemented by a strong focus on peer-to-peer learning. In addition, students will be required to spend four months every year working for one of ALU’s corporate partners. Each student will also go through a unique core curriculum that focuses on skills that employers consistently seek, but struggle to find in university graduates: skills such as problem-solving, communication, collaboration, critical thinking and leadership. In this way, ALU hopes its graduates will be far more employable than those from traditional universities today.

The ALU is partnering with global academic institutions such as Glasgow Caledonian University and Harvard Business School to provide curricula and with innovators such
as Conrad Wolfram in the UK, who has developed an innovative way of using computers to teach maths. It is also working with global corporations such as McKinsey’s, the Boston Consulting Group and Coca-Cola to ensure that its curricula meets the needs of corporations and that its graduates will not join the ranks of the Africa’s unemployed. It aspires to build not only the best university system in Africa, but one of the best in the world.

Africa must leap-frog and builds universities of the future

Supplementing and adjusting the western model of tertiary education with innovation that is appropriate to the African context is key to achieving continent-wide education and development goals. The developing world has historically adopted the ethos of universities in Britain, France, other European countries and the United States, and measured success in terms the number of PhDs on staff and how much research they publish. By simply trying to adopt such a Harvard or Oxford model, costs become inflated, and by the time the model has been successfully replicated, the educational world has moved on.

As Africa develops its higher education sector it must follow a similar approach to the mobile telecommunications industry: African companies bypassed landlines to achieve one of the highest mobile penetrations in the world and innovated in ways not seen anywhere else, including mobile money and pay-as-you-go. Similarly, African higher educational institutions must leap-frog western university systems and build universities of the future – ALU is one such example, but many more are needed.

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for global investors

With an increasing middle class, and the fastest-growing youth population in the world, the market for tertiary education in Africa will continue to grow rapidly. Innovation in technology and the lack of legacy mean that fresh new approaches such as ALU can begin to address the excessive demand. Investors today find themselves at a unique moment in history: much like those who first saw the promise of the mobile phone in Africa in the late 1990’s, they have an opportunity to provide a much-needed solution for society while simultaneously making excellent returns.

Brazil has demonstrated that this is possible: Kroton, a university group, has built a business that today educates 1.5 million students at low cost by leveraging technology and a mixture of on- and off-campus instruction. It has annual revenues of almost USD 2 billion and a market capitalization of USD 8 billion, and has been one of the best-performing corporations on the Brazilian stock exchange in recent times. Investing in African youth has never been more important, and the private sector is in a unique position to move Africa into the global knowledge economy by unleashing the potential of Africa’s youth. In doing so, not only can investors make excellent returns, but they will also change the trajectory of an entire continent, forever.


1 Ighobor. K. 2013. Africa’s youth: A ‘ticking time bomb’ or an opportunity?”. Africa Renewal online. United Nations, New York, NY, US. (accessed 29 May 2015)
2 UNDP. Achieve Universal Primary Education
3 van Fleet, J.W. and Watkins, K. 2012. Africa Learning Barometer. Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, USA. (accessed 29 May 2015).
4 Numbers for 2013; Clark, N. and Ausukuya, C. 2013. Education in Nigeria. World Education News & Reviews. (accessed 29 May 2015).
5 Softkenya. 2015. Education Sector in Kenya., Nairobi, Kenya. (accessed 20 May 2015).
6 Matthews, D. 2014 Universities’ growth factor has been understated. Times Higher Education online. Times Higher Education, London, UK. (accessed 29 May 2015).