The Promise and Challenges of Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

Access and Inclusion July 10, 2017

Whether or not we live in Africa, all of our futures will be affected by the success or failure of education on the continent. Progress has been made, but not enough.

Around two years ago, we decided to start an investment and advisory group, Caerus Capital, drawing on our mutual experience working with the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank. Our experience investing in and advising education companies globally showed us that the private sector can help address Africa’s daunting educational challenges, but that both investors and policymakers must seize opportunities if it is to maximize its ability to do so.

More than a year ago we set out to describe these opportunities in a tangible and actionable way. We secured the support of eight sponsors, including DFID and USAID, and commissioned a report, “The Business of Education in Africa”, which was supported by Parthenon-EY and Oxford Analytica. The report, which launched at the World Economic Forum on Africa in May 2017, is a primer on the role and potential of private education in Africa. 

Education in Sub-Saharan Africa – Progress and Challenges

SSA has had the best record of improvement in primary education of any region since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were established but, of course, this is from a low base. And daunting challenges remain. The region’s education systems continue to confront three basic key issues: access to, quality of, and relevance of education. SSA still has 30 million children who are not receiving any form of schooling, and tertiary education is capacity constrained. SSA is also the worst-performing region globally for learning outcomes, with up to 40% of children not meeting basic targets in literacy and numeracy.  Moreover, by 2035, the number of Africans joining the workforce (15–64) will exceed that of the rest of the world combined, but SSA’s education systems are not meeting workforce needs. Complementary solutions from the private sector, both for-profit and not-for-profit, can help to fill the gap.

The private sector is already making a significant contribution to education in SSA. Publicly reported data indicates the proportion of private sector enrollments in SSA is 13.5%, but this fails to take account of non-formal education. When accounted for, this number could be as high as 21%, and our analysis suggests that this figure is set to rise to one in four youth, or 66 million students, by 2021.

A vibrant private sector, particularly when operating in an engaged, flexible, and concordant relationship with government, can help drive access, quality, relevance, and innovation in education. Governments remain the key actor in any education system that seeks to be equitable and comprehensive, but they are increasingly engaging private sector capital and delivering solutions to provide services and products for rapidly growing populations.

The WISE movement, especially through its annual Awards, Prize, and Accelerator, has showcased innovations in education in Africa that are moving the needle for students and families, and we showcase many of these in the report. These include PEAS, a not-for-profit, low-cost school network that raises funds to build schools, then uses a mix of government subsidies (provided through a public-private partnership), lunch fees, and boarding fees to run 30 secondary schools. Kepler in Rwanda is a new university model that leverages Massive Open Online Courses to offer American-accredited degrees for a fraction of their typical cost. And organizations like GreenShoots, a not-for-profit/social enterprise hybrid in South Africa offering an online math curriculum, support public schools through edtech innovations that deliver improved learning outcomes.

These examples illustrate that the future of education in emerging markets, within Africa and beyond, will be hybrid systems — not a monopoly of public financing and public provision of education services, but mixed public and private. The potential for investment and the potential for impact have rarely been greater.

This article is part of a series focusing on the current role and potential for private education in sub-Saharan Africa. The articles draw extensively on the authors’ work on The Business of Education in Africa, a report commissioned by Caerus Capital and supported by Parthenon-EY’s Education Centre of Excellence and Oxford Analytica.