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Educating for the 21st Century

My grandmother grew yams. Not only did she grow yams –but she also had a ritual that she followed with military precision.

The first had to do with a fresh tuber of yam. While cooking the tuber for food, she dried the peels in the sun for yam flour, which would be made available for eating during periods of scarcity. Part of the yam peel that was not good for her consumption was given to her goat. She knew that she would later profit from it when the goat was killed for consumption or sold for cash. And of course, the head of the yam was kept for planting in the next season.

In short, nothing was lost.

Only much later did I come across research that has shown that flour made from yam peel is more nutritious than the one made from yam itself. Except for carbohydrates, most of the essential nutrients necessary for good health like vitamins, minerals, and fiber are stored under the peels.

How my grandmother perceived this, I would not know. For sure, she had no textbook on nutrition.


Skills for the future workplace

I remembered my grandmother when I came across a survey of Fortune 500 Companies. It showed that the most valuable skills an employee can have in the twenty-first century are teamwork, problem-solving, and oral communication. Students who have mastered these skill sets will be the ones who will navigate the labyrinth of the future.

When today’s students graduate, they’ll be asked to fill the jobs of tomorrow—ones we can’t even imagine now. And they’ll be asked to tackle problems like climate change and global poverty. Unfortunately, too many schools in Africa aren’t preparing the next generation to meet these challenges and seize these opportunities.

By some estimates, almost half of today’s professions could be automatable by 2035. Speculation about what will replace them ranges from predictions of unexpected opportunities to forecasts of large-scale unemployment as machines displace most human labor.

This only means that we must educate our children to make a difference, more so than at any time in the past. We must inspire and encourage them to become individuals who challenge themselves, look outside the box, network and think for themselves.

Above all, as a continent, we must help our children become people who are determined to succeed, relish challenges and seek solutions wherever they may originate. Children of tomorrow’s Africa must be prepared to become the innovators of tomorrow.

CEOs of global institutions believe that acquiring and develop "talent" will be one of the top challenges for growth in the future. Talent is hard to find and even harder to replace because the demand for talented people is permanent and relatively high.

And our youth are the biggest opportunity for our continent. Population geographers call it the demographic dividend.

Demographic Dividend

The demographic dividend is a scenario in developing countries where they end up with young populations because of recent decades of high fertility. This is coupled with improvements in child survival. This results in a bulge in the working-age population. When there are more working-age adults, then working-age people have fewer people to support with the same income and assets. This creates wealth for the country and personal wealth.

East Asia’s “economic miracle” provides the best evidence of the potential impact of the demographic dividend.

A strong educational system and sound economic management made it possible to absorb a large generation of young adults into the workforce. From 1965 to 1990, growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita averaged more than 6 percent per year—spectacular growth compared with countries in other regions.

Today, the living standards in Singapore and Malaysia are some of the highest in the world.

The first way to reap this demographic dividend is through education. Education does not begin and end with literacy, but should also include practical and life skills, with a greater focus on improving critical thinking, formulating opinions, and increasing one's capacity to learn.

The Four “Is”

A World Bank study found that boosting economic growth in Africa would depend on four “I”s: expanding infrastructure, improving the investment climate, harnessing new innovations, and building institutional capacity.

With proper education and planning for our youth, we will literally be building the infrastructure for their success. And their success is our success. The most successful countries will be those that manage human capital in the most effective and efficient fashion-investing in their young people, provide a good learning environment, and yes, including social capital as well as skills and training.

In this respect, proper education will provide the skills needed to thrive in the new sustainable economy. It will broaden access to opportunities and bolster the resilience of our continent- all while fueling economic growth.

Unlocking Africa’s latent talent, and thus its full capacity for growth requires us to look beyond the here and now. The future is full of potential, but only if we are smart enough – and courageous enough – to grasp it.


Our youth are that tuber of yam and the ingredient necessary for our continent to take off.

Back to my grandmother. She always had a saying: Don't eat your seed corn.

In simple terms, it means that every seed that comes through your hands has the potential to either be eaten or planted for next year's harvest. You need to make sure that your farm always has enough seed corn to replant the fields on your land so you enjoy another harvest next year.

The dangerous thing about seed corn is that you can eat it instead of planting it. In the olden days, a desperate, starving family would divide the hard kernels of seed corn and eat them, knowing they were destroying their hope for the coming season. They prolonged their lives for a while at the expense of their future.

Our youth is our seed corn. Ultimately this window will eventually close. Our workforce will age and relatively fewer workers will have to support increasing numbers of older people. But the period of the potential bonus can last for several decades.

We may not get another chance.


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