On African Skills. Building African Institutional Capacity to Deliver Agenda 2063

The Skills Not to Miss

By Dr Dumisani Magadlela

In order to leverage on and take full advantage of the current high growth opportunity, especially in the context of the African Union Commission’s Agenda 2063, and in the wake of the launch of the New BRICS Bank, all Africans of all shades and cultures need to raise their skills-game. The picture painted by the AU’s Agenda 2063 is the Africa that I want to live in, and that I want my children and their children to live in. For example, Agenda 2063 says that:

“In the Africa of 2063, at least 70% of all high school graduates will go on to have tertiary education with 70% of them graduating in the sciences, technology and innovation programmes, thus laying the basis for competitive economies built upon human capital to complement its rich endowments in natural resources”.

I have absolutely no argument with this, and many of us in the capacity building arena are already working towards this. The African Union University (yes, there is one such university and we will make sure you hear more about it), Nepad’s capacity building strategy, together with the work of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF), the Pan African Capacity Building Programme (PACBP), and just about every African, Pan African and Afrocentric University across the continent, are all doing more to ensure that there are enough technically skilled and competent Africans to drive Africa’s development agenda. These capacity building institutional role-players have recognised that Africa is in a great position to capitalize on the continent’s development opportunities.

Most of Africa’s growth opportunities have been ushered-in by the growing global demand for the continent’s natural resources. Africa must take advantage of this resource demand opportunity and build-up her strength and capacity. Africa must then proceed to build institutional and human capacity and skills (including leadership and so-called soft skills, which are the toughest to develop) and ensure that there is sufficient capacity both to sustain the current and possibly higher growth trajectory, and also to diversity the skills base in order to better-manage the growth benefits and become more resilient than before. The economic growth example and case of the Asian Tigers is instructive in this regard, especially their continued economic growth with little, if any, natural resources to talk about.

One of the most critical elements that have raised the need to pay more attention to capacity building and skills development across Africa is the looming demographic challenge. As of June 2015, up to 50 percent of the African population was said to be under 20 years of age. A 2014 UNICEF report indicates that 4 out of 10 people in the world will be African by the end of this century. The same report suggests that currently 40 percent of Africa’s population lives in urban areas, and this is set to rise dramatically within the next 10 years. Africa’s famous demographic dividend is up for grabs by the continent’s emerging economies, and there is little time to waste, nor is there much room for mistakes. The one billion people in Africa will be replaced by up to 2.3 billion people by 2050 (AfDB, 2014). Most of these people will be young, or below 35 years. The opportunity to grow the value of this demographic dividend is not tomorrow or next year; it is right this very moment. Now.

This greatest challenge for Africa and its leaders is how to harvest this incredible resource of human capital. The first challenge is to gain an intimate understanding of the resource’s diverse and disparate nature. The AfDB (2014) report suggests that “by 2040, Africa will have the world’s largest workforce, surpassing China and India” (AfDB, 2014, p.1). The report rightly contends that this large ‘youth bulge’ is a massive opportunity, and it can also be a risk. I think that the opportunity far outweighs the risk.

“If the talents of this rising youth cohort are harnessed and channeled towards the productive sectors of the economy, the opportunities for economic and social development are endless” (AfDB, 2014, p.1).

What we need to pay closer and special attention to in this scenario is the development of relationship management and people skills to all African professionals and leaders in every organisation and institution. It is relatively easier to provide technical skills such as training artisans, finance professionals, and other skills needed to build infrastructure.

The often hidden challenge is to develop leadership skills, relationship-management skills, people-management skills, coaching, mentoring, and emotional intelligence, and other soft skills needed to effectively manage organisations especially during transitional period. The whole of Africa is in a crucial transition towards broader regional development. While a focus on technical skills is vital, it cannot be the only focus for skills development. Every professional across sectors must be exposed to and trained in skills that ensure that the new African workplace by 2063 is among the most attractive in the world. Africa’s children in the Diaspora will finally have a place and opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to Africa’s inevitable development. As Nelson Mandela once said: “It is in our hands to make the world a better place”.

Development finance institutions have a great opportunity to support governments in delivering on this absolutely critical area. Capacity building is everyone’s business. The onus is on every African leader, manager, or professional in every position, to ensure that all required skills are developed both through tertiary education and through short intervention courses aimed at enhancing existing skills to facilitate Africa’s infrastructure and economic development. Africa’s promising demographic dividend will be harnessed if Africans themselves identify mechanisms to grow the human assets that the continent current carries. The fact that Africa has 6 or 7 of the fastest-growing economies in the world in 2015 should be enough motivation to ensure that this is accompanied by the accompanying development of all the necessary skills to build economic resilience to sustain the levels of growth beyond the short term period.

As African economies establish new markets and seek to attract global businesses with the promise of rich investment returns, the continent will need a large pool of knowledgeable, committed and highly skilled Africans to drive the continent’s growth towards new levels of development that benefit the majority of the people is required.

Africa needs to build a large pool of business leaders that represent their businesses, and their national and regional development objectives. This calls for a shared understanding of the priority skills that Africa needs to focus on. These skills will help Africa sustain the current levels of economic growth that have seen Africa become, once again, attractive as an investment destination. The same skills will also ensure that there are capable Africans that are able to drive, manage, re-focus, and sustain high levels of economic development required to address infrastructure backlogs, and other gaps/lags that the continent experiences. Not only does investing in Africa promise rich returns, it also carries with it great potential for growth into so-far uncharted markets and business territories.

It is vital for African businesses and governments to ensure that the thrust to build high-levels skills does not focus only on technical areas, but also addresses management, leadership, and human interrelationship skills. A winning skills development combination requires a suit of multiple skills that help to grow a well-rounded African professional. It is time to think outside the skills box, or to think as if there is no box.

Dr Dumisani Magadlela is a certified international Executive Coach and Leadership Development Facilitator. He is currently the Programme Manager of the Pan African Capacity Building Programme (PACBP) based at the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA). He writes in his personal capacity.

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