Education to tap the potential of African youth

School in Uganda
Photo: Jacobs Foundation

If you’ve visited a major city in sub-Saharan Africa, you can probably imagine the scene: a crowded street, honking cars dodging potholes, street vendors dodging cars, goats, chickens, and above all – lots and lots of people.

Whenever I find myself here, I try to pause and look around, because what you’ll notice when you really look is surprising: At 33 years old, standing in a crowd in Uganda’s capital city, I very well might be the oldest person in sight.

This is because Africa’s youth population is surging. Nearly 50% of all Africans are younger than 18, and that number is rising. By the end of the century, Africa’s population will have grown from 1 billion to 4 billion, and half of the world’s children will be African.

These demographics present both an enormous challenge and an incredible opportunity. Equipped with the right tools, the massive and growing youth generation in Africa has the potential to drive development and transform the continent’s future. But neglected, as they have been in the past, these youth could become a destabilizing force, adding fuel to the fire for the region’s most pressing challenges: poverty, climate change, political turmoil, and violence.

The state of education in Africa has never been more important than it is today, as the region’s future hinges on having an empowered youth generation to lead it. Unfortunately, education systems across Africa face challenges meeting young people’s needs – current curricula and teaching methods too often emphasize lecture, rote memorization, and exams, rather than preparing youth with the skills they need to succeed in life after school.

We’ve observed over and over again that even the brightest and most motivated students finish secondary school lacking the skills they need to secure a job and earn a living, leading to unemployment, underemployment, and an uncertain future.

Educate!’s solution is a new educational model that reforms what schools teach and how they teach it, empowering teachers and youth mentors to equip students with the skills to drive measurable change. Our experiential model teaches the “hard skills” of business, including planning, budgeting, savings, and market research, and complements these skills with the “soft skills” demanded most by employers and students themselves, such as teamwork, public speaking, networking, critical thinking, self-confidence, and creativity.

“The state of education in Africa has never been more important than it is today, as the region’s future hinges on having an empowered youth generation to lead it.”

We work hand-in-hand with governments toward system-level adoption of our solution, leveraging the existing infrastructure of secondary education – schools, teachers, and national education systems – to create low-cost, sustainable change. As a result, youth improve their own livelihoods and strengthen their communities: two rigorous external evaluations have demonstrated that students who complete our program earn double the income of their peers, and are 44% more likely to launch a business.

This cause is close to my heart: In my own life, receiving a high-quality education unlocked a world of opportunity that allowed me to realize my potential. I emigrated to the U.S. from Latvia at the age of 7 as a refugee, and consider myself lucky to have attended a great public school in San Francisco that eventually led me to Amherst College. Through my own personal experience, I became deeply passionate about creating opportunity for other young people to realize their full potential through high quality education. If there’s any quote that sums up my world view, it’s “Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.”

When I meet the young people who participate in our program and see the impact they are creating in their own lives and in the lives of so many others, I am inspired by the power and potential of youth to create change on a global level. There’s Lillian Aero, one of our earliest graduates who started a business and now employs over 50 HIV-positive women in her community. Looking at individuals like Lillian, it’s abundantly clear that with the right support, youth are able to capitalize on their inherent talents and realize their full potential, transforming their entire communities in the process.

I truly believe that youth are the key to solving our most pressing global challenges. I think Educate! is part of a growing movement, and it’s exhilarating to imagine the possibilities for the future of education in Africa.

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