Business is in a unique position to build a better school system for Africa, says HUMPHREY KARIUKI
Do rich countries have better schools? Brookings — one of America’s top think tanks, says they do. Perhaps so, in terms of resources.
But do they have better-motivated pupils? That I question.
I have met many young people from schools in Europe and Africa. I’m sure some are naturally brilliant, just as some are not – but the school-children I meet in Nairobi, Lusaka, Harare or Johannesburg have one thing in common that makes them stand out – their sheer hunger to learn. They are multilingual, they are numerate, and they have at least some grasp of the world.
Why then in Africa are so many millions out of work? And can our education system get more of them into jobs?
What the Brookings Institution said was, “there is no high-income economy with low levels of education,” and when you rank the nations of the world by GDP, the facts are clear … at both ends.
In all member-states of the OECD, schools are free. And of all the children not in class around the world, more than half live in sub-Saharan Africa. Often they don’t have money for books, uniform, even transport where the school is far away. Such a waste of human potential.
Why? because twenty years into any career, most of us have forgotten what we learned from books and rely instead on experience, but school teaches us how to learn and that’s why it’s so empowering.
Africa has many examples of outstanding teachers. People like Peter Tabichi who deservedly won the Global Teacher of the Year prize in 2019. Peter teaches science at Keriko School in Pwani Village, Nakuru, here in Kenya. He gives away 80% of his salary to his pupils to help them and teaches in difficult circumstances, but absolutely believes in the potential of Africa’s young people.
He makes me proud to be a Kenyan.
But not everyone can be a Peter Tabichi. So what can we all do to make things better?
On education, I’m inclined to start at the other end and work back. Nairobi is throbbing with unemployed law graduates and those who’ve done interesting degrees like politics or gender studies but can’t find a job. So we need to reach students when they’re still in high school and talk about careers that give them an edge.
Africa needs a lot more engineers. Our nurses run the hospitals in Britain but we have a shortage at home. Accountants and teachers are always in demand and we need more qualified electricians.
There was a time when a degree from a good university meant a job for life; not anymore, and this is something parents need to understand.
Today it’s about what sells. Look at the market, find a gap and fill it, and here I speak from experience. My company started from scratch and now operates across east and southern Africa and our success lay in doing things others had overlooked.
Education is one of the keys to breaking out of poverty, but we need to go deeper. There must be equal opportunity for both boys and girls to finish school. We need less kids dropping out for the sake of fees, and social campaigns for smaller families so there’s enough money to go around.
I know how hard it can be to find qualified staff, and there are practical things business leaders can do to put this right:
- Offer work experience during the holidays. Students taking part will go back with tales of the real world, helping others to choose a career where they’re more likely to find a job.
- Computers used to be an option for learning. In 2021 they’re vital. So when you upgrade your IT, donate the old laptops to a school in need. Or put up the funds to buy new ones.
- Start a bursary program and help schools that don’t have drinkable water. Where there’s no power, go solar.
- Go beyond your own borders. My company has spent more than $300,000 on schools in South Sudan. Why? Because instability anywhere in the region has potential to spread. No good looking at a problem in Zimbabwe or Ethiopia and asking, “Why doesn’t the world do something?” The question is: “Why doesn’t Africa?”
Here in Kenya, we’ve donated 450 computers — one for every learner — at St Anne’s Secondary School in Nairobi and put $20,000 into scholarships. Further afield, we’ve adopted a school in the DRC with $140,000 to help children finish their course, and funded a school in South Sudan – Bishop Mazzolari – with the essentials – new classrooms, improved water supplies and latrines.
Charity? You can call it that if you like but I’ve banged on for decades about the problems we have in Africa, some of them down to poor governance. Calling it out is important, but words are not enough and business needs to get involved.
That means time, and making sure your money doesn’t end up in someone’s bank account. Get on the ground and seek out the many dedicated people who are trying to make a difference and who will spend the funds wisely.
Ask the head-teacher at a school in one of the shanty towns if you can deliver a talk to the seniors. And get them to tell you about their dreams of being a movie star or a heart surgeon. I’m amazed at the scale of ambition and I don’t always find the same thing in a “high-income economy”. Yes, it’s there, but not in such quantity.
Finally, we must bring business to our rural towns. The rate of urban drift is unsustainable, so if you’re in business and you have a new factory on the cards, please consider building it away from the city. And while you’re out there, visit the local college: they’ll be thrilled!
The minds of our youngsters here in Africa are as sharp as you’ll find anywhere and their will to work is boundless.
The challenge is to harness that energy and use it to uplift not just our schoolkids but an entire continent.
Humphrey Kariuki founded Janus Continental Group in Kenya and operates across Africa in hospitality, real estate, energy and fuel.