An opportunity to maximize the impact of secondary education in Africa

27 June 2019



By Kim Kerr, Director, Regional Programmes, Mastercard Foundation

We are in a unique moment in Africa’s story, with the opportunity presented by a large youth demographic – but are we doing everything we can to prepare young people for the future of work?


Ensuring that Africa’s youth secures employment or can create their own livelihoods is arguably the single most significant task facing African policy-makers today.  Africa’s working age population is projected to grow by 70 percent, or by 450 million people between 2015 and 2035 (World Bank).  Between 10 and 12 million youth enter the workforce each year across Africa, but only 3.1 million jobs are created, leaving the majority of youth unemployed or underemployed (African Development Bank).  Digitization, automation, and technological advances are changing the nature of work globally, including in Africa. These trends will increase uncertainty and the pace of change, raising the premium on skills that help young people be adaptable, resilient, and creative problem solvers.

Reimagining secondary education as a platform for work is a paradigm shift.  Until now, secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa has been viewed primarily as a stepping-stone to tertiary education. With rising primary enrolment and completion rates and low tertiary enrolment on the continent, secondary education will increasingly become a key platform from which young people in Africa will transition to work.  Alongside shifts in curricula, investments that widen access to secondary education will allow this generation to play a pivotal role in realizing Africa’s vision of economic transformation, laid out by today’s leaders in the African Union’s Agenda 2063.  At Mastercard Foundation, we believe that quality, relevant secondary education has great potential to help build a skilled, adaptable workforce. We know that this is the case not only from our work on the ground across the region but from the findings detailed in our upcoming report, Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work.

In the report, we have identified a number of important gaps in the skills young people need to succeed in a changing world of work.  These include foundational skills, digital literacy, and 21st century skills. Projections to 2030 suggest that formal employment will not grow fast enough to absorb a growing population and the majority of young people will remain in the informal sector for the duration of their working lives.  In this context, entrepreneurship skills, including how to set up and build a business, will also be critical.

Additionally, today, approximately only one third of Sub-Saharan African youth are able to access secondary school. Young women are often particularly at risk of not completing school.  They are also less likely to make the transition between school and work because of early marriage or early motherhood, which place additional barriers to their entry to work.  In some countries, social norms sometimes enforce job segregation by gender, which makes it more difficult for women to find more productive work alternatives.  For instance, young women in the household enterprise sector work mostly in narrowly defined fields such as dressmaking or hairdressing, even though a range of other occupations could enable them to earn a higher income.  Also, first-generation school leavers aspiring to be wage workers lack a family history in formal employment, so they may not have networks or social capital to help them to find jobs.  If these gaps are addressed, we can bring Africa’s youth one step closer to building bright futures, while also making a sustainable contribution to economic growth. 

The report will provide policy-makers and education stakeholders with practical recommendations and examples of best practice on how to help young people prepare for today’s complex, ever-changing work environment and ensure that no young people are left behind. 

Reforming secondary systems to provide young people with the skills they need to succeed in the labour force and as entrepreneurs will also pay off for national economies.   While not a substitute for appropriate government policies to foster job creation, boosting the productivity of Africa’s massive youth cohort through upskilling will help drive economic growth.  It can also reduce poverty and improve the quality of life for young people and their families.  There is also some evidence that increasing levels of education may be associated with declining levels of informal employment, indicating that boosting youth’s productivity through better skills could contribute to jobs growth (International  Labour  Organization  and  the  African  Center  for  Economic Transformation).

As African governments continue to invest in and reform their secondary education systems, we should not lose sight of the scale of the challenge.  While governments around the world must work to better align their education systems with market demand, the complexity, magnitude, and urgency of the challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa are unique.  With several countries in the region moving towards a massive expansion of their secondary systems, there is an extraordinary opportunity to rethink what skills young people need to learn and how to deliver those skills.  These developments are crucial for societies to meet the challenges inherent in the evolving nature of work, growing inequalities, and sustainability. The time to act is now. 


Learn more about this project and access the upcoming report here: