5 ways to innovate education in Africa

A student solves a mathematics equation at the Mfantsipim Boys School in Cape Coast, Ghana. Photo by: Jonathan Ernst / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

ACCRA, Ghana — The future success of the African continent lies to a large degree in its ability to hone the skills and talents of its ever-growing youth population. However, some argue that the current education system in Africa uses outdated methods and is not preparing children for the future.

“Quality education still remains an illusion to many of Africa’s youth,” said Matthew Opoku Prempeh, Ghanaian minister of education, during the Accra edition of the World Innovation Summit for Education earlier this month.

Access and quality of education must go hand in hand, the minister stated, noting that an estimated 90 million African children are currently out of school.

“Quality without access will lead to inequality and exclusion; access without quality will limit the potential and would not bring [about] the desired results,” Prempeh said.

Experts at the summit acknowledged that the rise of automation and technological advancements require an updated skill set.

Stavros Yiannouka, chief executive officer at WISE, argued that “we cannot continue along the same path — the traditional industrial model of education.”

“If you look at the current education system that we have it’s essentially a standardized batch process … in terms of cohorts, years, process, standardized curriculum,” he said. “How do we break the barriers of conservatism that exist in the education space so that we can make proven solutions accessible to more people?”

Under the theme of the summit — “Unlocking the World's Potential: Leading and Innovating for Quality Education in Africa” — experts discussed ways in which innovative approaches to learning could improve outcomes.

“We need to make lifelong learning a reality, make it successive, because people learn at different paces … We need to give an opportunity to those who are potentially left behind,” Yiannouka said.

An estimated 10 million graduates enter the African workforce each year. By 2040, the continent’s labor force is expected to surpass that of India and China. As a result, Prempeh said that quality education is a central element in building an “Africa beyond aid” and lies at the backbone of its development and enduring prosperity. Quality education also has a multiplier effect on achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, he added.

Following the day’s discussions, here are five key ideas that emerged on how to innovate education in Africa.

1. Change the definition of ‘classroom’

To get the best results, education must adapt to the needs of the learner, experts said.

To widen access to education across Africa, three pathways to learning should be considered, including formal, nonformal, and informal approaches, explained Aicha Bah Diallo, founding member of the Forum for African Women Educationalists.

Beyond structured classrooms, knowledge can be acquired during conference-style seminars, community-based meetings, or even during group sports events — none of which include a typical teacher and schooldesk setting, Diallo finished.

 A World Bank study outlined several factors help to explain the education “choices” of African youth: The number of working adults in a household, parental education level, social norms, and location. Speakers suggested, that to fit in with the varied circumstances of African youth, scaled vocational and technical schools must be considered, along with informal learning programs.

Other flexible learning pathways, such as online programs and virtual certification processes, could allow candidates to demonstrate the acquisition of a skill set to higher learning institutions and employers, according to the World Bank report.

2. Learn from what’s working and scale those interventions

The global “learning crisis,” as defined by the World Bank, refers to more than 90 percent of children attending schools in Africa who do not read at their grade level and are unable to demonstrate that they have effectively learned the topics taught in classrooms.

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Innovations to tackle the “learning crisis” range in form and function — from new instructional techniques to results-based financing instruments that incentivize quality — and while no single innovation is ever a silver bullet, sharing knowledge about what’s working and scaling successful interventions could accelerate improvements in learning, delegates said.

To effectively leverage innovations, a recent UNESCO report highlighted the importance of designing with “deliberate consideration of the environment in which [an innovation] will reside.”

It pointed to a three-step process: Identify those innovations that hold the best potential; test them in a specific context; and, depending on the results, adapt and scale them to other contexts. Ultimately, this scaling process will offer up new evidence of an innovation’s ability to mainstream in larger education systems.

However, the report added that scaling doesn’t only mean increasing the number of beneficiaries, but can also account for steps such as adding new services to an existing package of interventions, forming new alliances with government and donor partners, and building team capacity.

Charles Yeboah, director of the International Community School of Ghana, suggested that public schools could learn from what’s working in private school settings, where there is typically more funding for robust monitoring and evaluation processes. That could allow for better knowledge sharing, supported by donors, on “new trends in education, new research, new ways that kids are learning,” he said.

3. Shake up financing models

Most experts agree that domestic resource mobilization must be the primary funding source for national education systems. However, public-private partnerships and innovative financing models, such as pension funds and pooled funds, could help fill gaps.

“There is a trend of paying for success, paying for results, [paying for] outcomes versus paying for inputs,” Dr. Amel Karboul, education commissioner for the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, told Devex on the sidelines of the conference.

“There is another trend with pension funds who say ‘we don’t want to just invest our money just looking at risk and return — but risk, return and impact.’”

Over the past decade, aid funding for education has declined to less than 10 percent of global official development assistance, leaving much of the financing to national governments strained by conflicting priorities. The Education Commission estimates that international financing for education will need to increase from the current level of $12 billion per year to $89 billion per year by 2030 to adequately cover education costs in low-income countries.

“To innovate in the education system, one must be thinking of innovation through collaboration and be prepared to listen because innovations take time and you have to be willing to take the journey with the community you serve”

— Jo Besford, director of Green Shoots

Some delegates pointed to the success of the Global Partnership for Education, which offers support to countries that meet certain conditions in drumming up funds. Its replenishment conference in January garnered $2.3 billion from international donors. While this was less than the $3.1 billion it had hoped for, national governments in lower- and middle-income countries showed a renewed commitment to investing in education, with many pledging beyond the recommended 20 percent of their national budget.

Plans for the International Finance Facility for Education are also being finalized as a novel mechanism for education funding. The facility would combine grants from contributing countries to create a guarantee base that could be used by multilateral banks to lend more to countries that show a commitment to their education system.

4. Find a balanced way to introduce technology

The introduction of technology to the classroom offers vast opportunities to enhance learning and improve data collection to drive down costs for programs. However, to fully harness its capabilities, investments in digital infrastructure and measures to expand teacher competencies must accompany educational tech, speakers noted.

To facilitate the expansion of digital learning, governments should also establish common learning platforms and introduce regulations that support innovation, they suggested.

While some argue that an overdependence on technology could produce adverse effects, stifling the communication and critical thinking skills of students, others say that introducing technology at a young age better prepares students for a digital world and makes them more competitive in today’s job market.

“We hear quite often that education technology makes students lazy, but we should also consider the opportunities it poses to reach very deprived schools,” said Muniratu Issifu, Ghana country director at the Varkey Foundation.

5. Get local support

Innovations must be introduced as a grassroots effort in order to garner adequate adoption and support, experts said. While innovations may challenge norms and require extensive community support for inclusion, they can be reinforced by national legislation or with international funding.

But without local backing and advocacy, many delegates suggested that those bigger-picture efforts will be undermined. Local input should be included in planning, investment, and implementation phases to customize programs and help determine scalability, they said.

“To innovate in the education system, one must be thinking of innovation through collaboration and be prepared to listen because innovations take time and you have to be willing to take the journey with the community you serve,” said Jo Besford, director of Green Shoots, a South African ICT-based math program.

Careful consideration for the surrounding context is necessary for technology-based interventions to achieve their intended impact, she finished.

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About the author

  • Christin roby

    Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.