Toward the Great African Renaissance: Human Capital - Africa’s Missing Piece of the Puzzle

By the end of Mansa Musa’s reign the Sankore University boasted of over 25,000 students and over 1,000,000 manuscripts. Scholars and the learned came from all over the world to study in Timbuktu.

Toward the Great African Renaissance: Human Capital - Africa’s Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Nii Kpakpa Quartey is a writer, a strategist and a fervent pan-Africanist who consults for governments, agencies and the private sector to address the socio economic challenges of developing nations.

There has been no continent whose definition in itself has been as paradoxical as Africa. A continent with an abundance of resources but rife in poverty. A people who are hospitable but torn by war until recent times. A people with an unparalleled cultural heritage of medicinal plants and healing techniques but battling with common diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.

This same Africa that has birthed great minds in the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan is the same continent that has more than 35% of its adult populace as illiterates. The same Africa whose people's built the empires of Europe and northern America cannot seem to even build their own continent to leave the status of the long held title of "under developed" or 3rd world. There certainly is a gap to bridge in order to extinguish this paradox and engender a new Africa.

Africa is continent blessed with an abundance of natural resources. These include diamonds, salt, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, copper, bauxite, silver, petroleum and cocoa beans, but also woods and tropical fruits – the list is inexhaustive. Much of its natural resources however remain undiscovered or barely harnessed. Most Africans are rightly proud to hail from a continent of such great endowments.

African mineral reserves rank first or second for most key minerals. The 2012 share of world production from African soil was bauxite 7%; aluminium 5%; chromite 38%; cobalt 60%; copper 9%; gold 20%; iron ore 2%; steel 1%; lead (Pb) 2%; manganese 38%; zinc 1%; cement 4%; natural diamond 56%; graphite 2%; phosphate rock 21%; coal 4%; mineral fuels (including coal) & petroleum 12%; uranium 18%. In fact much of the land south of the Sahara is arable all year round.

Yes, Africans pride themselves in these natural resource endowments, but ostensibly missing in the list of resources Africans boast of and that the continent is known for is human capital endowment.

In the World Economic Forum 2015 report on Human Resources Utilization, in sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritius (72) holds the highest position in the region. While another six countries rank between 80 and 100, another 17 countries from Africa rank below 100 in the index. South Africa is in 92nd place and Kenya at 101. The region’s most populous country, Nigeria (120) is among the bottom three in the region, while the second most populous country, Ethiopia, is in 115th place. Africa as a continent ranks lowest.

According to the World Economic Forum, Africa produces only 1.1% of global scientific knowledge. The continent has just 79 scientists per millions of inhabitants compared to countries like Brazil and United States where the ratio stands at 656 and 4,500, respectively.

This has however not always been the case. Although the authors of recent history pay little tribute to it, Africa has had an illustrious past in the fields of medicine, scientific discoveries, architecture, art, music, industrial innovations and various advanced forms of knowledge.

In Education, The Library of Alexandria which existed in Egypt well before 300 BC was considered the world’s largest at the time. The same goes for the University of Sankore, Sidi Yahya University, and Djinguereber University -the three philosophical Universities which existed in Mali as far back as the 12th Century. By the end of Mansa Musa’s reign the Sankore University boasted of over 25,000 students and over 1,000,000 manuscripts. Scholars and the learned came from all over the world to study in Timbuktu.

In Mathematics Ancients texts such as the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus and the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus prove that the Egyptians were capable of performing the four basic mathematical operations—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. They used fractions, computed the volumes of boxes and pyramids, and even calculated the surface areas of rectangles, triangles, circles and spheres. They understood the basic concepts of algebra and geometry, and could solve simple sets of simultaneous equations and had grasped the principles of the Pythagorean Theorm. Another major achievement found in Africa was the advance knowledge of fractal geometry and mathematics. This knowledge is shown to have been applied in wide aspects of African life from art, social design structures, architecture, to games, trade, and divination systems.

In medicine, we find that, around 800 BC, the first psychiatric hospital and insane asylum in Egypt was built by Muslim physicians in Cairo. Also, around 1100 BC, the ventilator was invented in Egypt. Tetracycline was being used by Nubians, based on bone remains found between 350 AD and 550 AD. The antibiotic was in wide commercial use only as recently as the mid-20th century.
In 1285, the largest hospital of the Middle Ages and pre-modern era was built in Cairo, Egypt, by Sultan Qalaun al-Mansur. Treatment was given for free to patients of all backgrounds, regardless of gender, ethnicity or income.

There is a long list of other several contributions to the world’s body of knowledge in almost every field of endeavour. This is however history. The current state of Africa’s knowledge based capital pales in comparison to its illustrious past.

What the advanced nations have managed to achieve with great success is the commercialisation of their discoveries and advancements to create a valuable competitive advantage for their peoples. This translates into a higher per capita contribution to GDP and better standards of living.

As at 2016, Africa's population of 1.216 billion represented 16.4% of the world’s population. Although this makes Africa the second largest and second most populous continent, its contribution to world GDP has been circa 2.5% making it the continent with the lowest productivity per person.

Juxtapose that with Japan for instance that represents only 1.7% of the world’s population but contributes 6.65% of the world’s GDP in 2015. How can Japan be doing three times more than Africa with far less land mass, no natural resource endowments and significantly far fewer people?

The fact is that the value of what is produced by skilled labour is considerably many times that of unskilled labour. According to the Africa development bank, the informal sector in Africa contributes about 55 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP and forms 80 per cent of the labour force. Nine in 10 rural and urban workers have informal jobs (unskilled) in Africa and most employees are women and youth.

This is why Africa’s contribution in the global scheme of things counts for so little. Although Africa is blessed with such resources it is evidently intellectually almost bankrupt in comparison to the rest of the world.

Table 1 represents a list of the top 10 countries that have leveraged their human capital the most.

Their relative contribution to world’s total Gross Production supports the argument that there exists an undeniable positive correlation between having a strong human capital base and strong national productivity.

These countries have mainly only their intellect and human resources to boast of. Not gold, not silver, not diamonds but brains at work and yet they are doing far better.

The Human Capital Report 2015 defines a nation’s human capital endowment as—the skills and capacities that reside in people that are put to productive use—this can be a more important determinant of its long term economic success than virtually any other resource. This resource must be invested in and leveraged efficiently in order for it to generate returns—for the individuals involved as well as an economy as a whole.

This is the open secret of how the developed nations have gotten so far up the prosperity ladder. In fact, the closer you look the more you discover just how far the continent has lagged behind the rest of the world in developing its labour force.

The Human capital heat map (below) paints the bleak state of Africa’s human development when compared to the rest of the world.
Human Capital Heat Map 2015

Several factors however account for this state; some exogenous others self-inflicted.

Colonial Legacy:

Harnessing a nation’s human capital endowment isn’t an ideal that is realised over-night. The nations highlighted in green in the map above spent hundreds of years developing their peoples to be productive, innovative and relevant to the new world order that they foresaw emerging. Africa on the other hand spent the last few centuries specialising in being the world’s pool for menial labour.

For at least 500 years, the African continent has been forced to till the soil to feed the world and mine the depths of the earth to fuel the industrial revolution of many western nations today highlighted in green on the map – tasks that required Braun not Brains. The map above is a reflection of some of the adverse effects of colonisation and slavery. There has simply been no time or need for Africa to develop such advanced skills.

The travesty of this sad story is that the continent will have to play catch up for a very long time even if drastic steps are taken to remedy the situation.

Low Investment in Human Capital:

Post-independence, the colonizers sought to create a permanent class of people who will always be subjugated to them. Therefore little attention and effort was put into developing Africans to possess skilled labour. That way they could still have access to the resources without having to be physically present. What you see in the Human Capital Heat Map is a conspiracy by design and not entirely borne out of lack of effort on the part of the peoples of the continent.

Investors, global companies, colonial governments and even religious establishments conspired and combined their forces to prevent Africa from becoming a powerful force in this world.

The unfortunate reality for Africa is that almost the entirety of foreign direct investment has been either to extract its natural resources or to exploit its vast markets by providing services like banking, telecoms and transport. The little investments that go towards human development in Africa are often grants and charity handouts from Non-Governmental Agencies and donor partners. These as if by design have been often woefully inadequate to equip the continent and keep her at par with the rest world.

Although African governments spend on average 18% of their expenditure budget on education (higher than any other continent) it is still inadequate to make a noticeable dent on the years of exploitation, legacy of colonisation and the reality of neo-colonisation.

The glee and alacrity with which African governments hail the discoveries of Oil, Gold and other resources under the misguided impression that these new finds will herald a new dawn of wealth and prosperity easily betrays their wrong prognosis of the challenge at hand and consequently their wrong prescription of a solution. African Leaders are blind to the opportunities that are waiting to be harnessed and lack the political will to bring about the improvements needed.

According to a 2013 study by OECD, South Korea which attained independence together with Ghana in 1957 was the best (ranked 1st) in Mathematics and Science out of 76 countries compared. Ghana ranked 76th.

The difference is the relative levels of investment that goes into education. South Korea invests on average more than $11 billion dollars into education yearly and students attend school seven days a week. The country is nearly 100% literate. In contrast, Ghana's government 2016 budget, allocated approx. $1.4b (1:1.45) equivalent towards education with a sizeable portion of this going towards building educational infrastructure. Africa has simply not invested enough to make it globally competitive.

Absence of Peace and Stability:

It takes many years of persistence in peaceful and benign conditions to build that critical body mass of intellectual assets that the world’s leading nations do boast of today.

Since the 1960s, no continent has known more war and instability than the African continent. Such conditions displace and rob the youth of the safety and tranquillity they need to develop themselves. Instead of investing in their young ones, some African governments tend to invest more in feuding factions by investing in guns and ammunitions. Although there is relative peace in most parts of Africa today, the years invested in the unprofitable ventures of war has left the land intellectually impoverished.

Brain Drain:

Africa continues to lose it best talents to developed nations who can afford to pay several times more for such talents and provide the conditions necessary for them to thrive.
According to Thabo Mebki former South African President, since 1990 Africa has lost more than 20,000 of its academic professionals to other nations. It is estimated that more Africa scientist and engineers live and work in the USA and in the UK than anywhere else in the world.

Competition for the skills of the best and brightest this world has to offer is global and Africa has been intellectually impoverished by this brain drain phenomenon.

Lack of a Clear Strategy and Plan of Action:

Of Africa's 1.2 billion population, 41% are under the age of 15. This is a raw resource that is waiting to be harnessed.
According to a research by Mckenzie, Africa’s labour force is expanding, in contrast to what’s happening in much of the rest of the world. The continent has more than 500 million people of working age. By 2040, their number is projected to exceed 1.1 billion—more than in China or India—lifting GDP growth.

This presents both opportunities and challenges. This human force can either become Africa's new factor endowment that will help it benefit from its natural resources and usher in a golden age of prosperity or can become a liability and a drain on the entire planet.

According to a Mckinsey & Company report of Human Capital in Africa, over the last 20 years, 66% of the continent’s increase in GDP per capita came from an expanding workforce, the rest from higher labour productivity.

But "education is a major challenge, so educating Africa’s young has to be one of the highest priorities for public policy across the continent" the report concludes.
If Africa can provide its young people with the education and skills they need, this large workforce could become a significant source of increased global consumption and production. This kind of advancement takes long term planning and execution to attain. Leaders on the continent are yet to show the devotion needed to make impressive inroads.

There are still Africans living today who continue to make significant strides in adding to the world's body of knowledge

So what is the way forward? What concrete steps can be implemented to accelerate the development of Africa’s Human Capital? What lessons can Africa learn from the developed world?

Make Education Free and/or Accessible.

Free quality education must be a core strategic imperative. One common feature of all countries that take human capital development seriously and are reaping the benefits thereof is that either all or most of the education provided is free and accessible.

Cuba is one of such countries. It boasts of the best educational system in Latin America and it is free.

The entire educational system is fully subsidized by the government, meaning that Cuban students at all levels can attend school for free. To ensure that free doesn’t mean cheap, the largest chunk of Cuba budget goes towards education. This has been the case for the past 50 years.

In the UK, public education is free until secondary school. Once you make it into a tertiary or a vocational institution you can borrow up to your full tuition fee or up to £9,000 a year for university tuition to fund your education.

Apart from these provisions, there are private lending companies and banks that have products to support students once they successfully secure an admission letter from selected schools. Additionally, scholarships and grants abound to help citizens get up the educational ladder. Similar arrangements exist in most developed nations that ensure they remain ahead of the human capital index.

In the end it is a win-win situation. If Africans can have access to such levels and varied sources of funding, then those investments will go into the various institutions of learning to improve delivery and in the end produce high calibre graduates for the job market. The productivity will increase as would the GDP. Africa will have created a viscous cycle of prosperity. African governments need to make education free, underwrite loans for academic purposes and enter into private-public initiatives to open up their financial markets to those who want to advance their skills. These interventions must be targeted and focused on those particular fields of study that will promote productivity.

Make it Relevant:

African educational systems have been cast on the module of their colonial masters with no particular effort being made to tailor the investments to meet local needs. According to Thabo Mbeki, “Africa recruits and hires expats and pay more than $4 billion dollars a year…the $3.6 billion dollars we spend training professionals who we lose every year is equal to the $4 billion that we pay the 150,000 that we import."

There is clearly a mismatch between the talent we produce and the talent we actually need. Some of what we produce is clearly irrelevant .This has the ripple effect of the continent ultimately being unable to achieve synergy between its natural resource endowment and human capital stock.

As aptly put by Ali Mazrui, “Africa produces what it does not consume and consumes what it doesn’t produce”. There is clearly a strong argument for a re-alignment of local talent to meet local demand and opportunity.

Bring Back our Brains:

Directly derived from the point above is the need for Africa to become an attractive destination for its own talent. There are millions of talented Africans living abroad with diverse skills and expertise critically needed for nation building.

By appealing to the patriotic feelings and nationalistic sentiments of its citizens in the diaspora, African governments can win the global price war in attracting its talents. This drive will however not be effective if consideration for competence and efficiency doesn’t begin to outweigh the culture of nepotism and the “whom you know” syndrome.

Also, you cannot ask someone to leave the comforts and allure of the developed world to join you in furtherance of an African dream when the same government officials are pilfering the state coffers and living in extreme luxury at the expense of its poor. It won’t work.

Leverage on Technology:

Technology can provide a robust platform on which significant gains can be made quickly in providing access to cheap but quality education.
Countries like Japan, Singapore and China are good examples of countries that are leveraging on e-learning tools such as open course (crowd source), online class room sessions, chat rooms, e-books and e-libraries to provide access to many millions. Why not Africa?

Although internet penetration in Africa is around 28% compared to 57% for the rest of the world, one can take comfort in the fact that the rate of growth in Africa is higher than anywhere else in the world. The internet penetration in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria for instance are growing at 41%, 27% and 17% respectively year on year and effort must be made to harness this opportunity.

Garbage in Garbage Out:

African governments must be ready to invest their best human resources into developing the next generation of human resource. How can the worst produce the best? It just doesn’t make any sense but unfortunately that is what is happening across most African countries. The system is designed to accept the worst university entrants to train as educationists.

Finland has for many years ranked as one of the nations with the best educational systems. Several factors account for this but chief amongst these is the quality of their teaching staff. Finnish Universities regularly turn away 9 out of 10 applicants. The 10% (the best of the best) that make it in have to undergo series of interviews and psychological assessments to confirm their suitability as teachers and then finally go through a 5 to 6 years master’s programme before they are allowed to teach their first primary class. Finnish teachers are amongst the best rewarded anywhere on this planet. The quality of the final product is equally unmatched.

African governments must make the teaching profession lucrative and fulfilling enough to attract the best minds as the quality of input invariably determines the quality of the output.

If these developed nations in spite of their lack of factor endowment in natural resources have created such significant wealth by harnessing their intellectual resources, then why not Africa? Africa’s error of the ages is in believing that all endowments have to be God given. No. Endowments can be nurtured out of nothing.

In conclusion, African governments must begin to de-emphasis their obsession with their natural resource endowment. The real jackpot is in human capital.

To harness this great potential African governments must develop long term strategic plans that will address Africa’s current skills gap and takes cognisance of the world’s future demand for human capital. Both government and the private sector must invest heavily in this vision and the technology to make it a reality. The financial markets must be structured to provide funding for the investment in human capital. The millions of Africa talent living abroad must be encouraged to return and supported to successfully embed the best practises from around the world.

When the African story is told in the future it should be full of pride in innovations, inventions, knowledge and advancements in science and technology and of pushing the frontiers of space travel and of major discoveries.

Africans must start writing the lyrics and the melodies today for a new song; not only of Nature gifts of resources but of its human exploits and achievements.

Note: Nii Kpakpa Quartey is a writer, a strategist and a fervent pan-Africanist who consults for governments, agencies and the private sector to address the socio economic challenges of developing nations.

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