Yaounde, 13 November 2020 (ECA) – A major paradigm shift in formal and hands-on training is required in Central Africa if the region is to successfully diversify its economies, ministers, dons, development experts and senior UN officials have agreed.
This was during a virtual high-level policy dialogue on “Revolutionizing skills for economic diversification in Central Africa” organized by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) to pace-set deliberations of the 36th session of the Intergovernmental Committee of Senior Officials and Experts of Central Africa (ICE) held from 11 to 12 November 2020. The session had as overarching theme: “Building skills and competences for economic diversification in Central Africa.”
An intersecting point from both panellists and other experts who joined from all over the world was that education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as well as reskilling and upskilling in soft competencies such as critical thinking, leadership, problem solving, communication and teamwork were critical to accelerate economic diversification in the region. And there couldn’t be a better time for this revolution to happen than now with the structural weaknesses of the sub-region’s economies laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cameroon’s Mines, Industry and Technological Development Minister, Gabriel Dodo Ndoke, said like most countries in the region, his country’s education system was antiquated with priority still being placed on social sciences and the humanities while STEM subjects which are critical to enhancing productive capabilities continued to receive less attention resulting in a huge mismatch between supply of skills, market needs and job availability.
“We must now pursue a double-layered paradigm shift to foster economic diversification,” he posited.
“First, there should be a shift from the education for an extractive, rent-seeking productive system to one that prepares learners for a transformative productive system; second, we should design training curricula for job creation and entrepreneurship development rather than for creating bureaucrats and job-chasers.”
Minister Ndoke said such a paradigm shift would produce the graduates who can pursue the crucial trades necessary for diversifying our economies, adding that Central African economies could learn from countries such as Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria who are now laying emphasis on STEMs. Training curricula should therefore be revamped and revised to meet the demands of the job market, he concluded.
The panellists agreed that it is crucial for Central African countries to undertake a skills gap assessment to identify which skills are lacking in their economies so they can enact adequate policies to build the human capacity needed to foster industrialisation.
“Tacit knowledge or lack of it is one of the major binding constraints for diversifying the economies in Central Africa. We will only be successful if we improve the level of sophistication and complexity of our production systems”, advanced Antonio Pedro who heads ECA’s Subregional Office for Central Africa which organized the event. “This requires placing innovation and technology at the centre of our development processes. Moreover, our education system must be responsive to local, regional and global changes, facilitating a dynamic and flexible training and deployment of new skills, and anchored on a continuous adaptation of course contents and teaching methods to respond better to the new and emerging imperatives”, he added.
“Central African countries can benefit from the example of developing country such as Ethiopia which has successfully aligned its educational and skills development strategies with the national vision. To this effort and to support its import-substitution strategy, the government incentivized training in STEMs leading to a 70 percent intake of student who pursue STEMs in higher learning institutions against 30 percent that enrolled in arts and humanities.
Pedro noted that COVID-19 trade disruptions have made the case for an inward-looking development agenda and resource-driven and trade-induced industrialisation much stronger. Equally so, for local content, a potent industrial policy instrument, as it makes now business sense to domesticate and localize the procurement value chain to reduce supply side risks.
To overcome binding constraints, catalyse productivity gains, facilitate technological catch up, and boost innovation capabilities it is paramount for late comers, such as the majority of African countries, to take deliberate actions to create industrial hubs, clusters and hives of open collaboration between industry, universities and research centres, especially with the opportunities offered by special economic zones (SEZs). Evidence-based analysis and sophisticated decision support tools can improve the identification of growth poles and facilitate optimal spatial planning and zoning. “We are doing this as part of the formulation of the Central Africa Industrial Development and Economic Diversification Master Plan (PDIDE-AC), Pedro went on.
ILO’s Senior Economist, Irmgard Nübler, said changing mind-sets and subscribing to strong work ethics are crucial for innovation and skills development if the region is to successfully change course towards diversified economies through new education curricula.
“Central Africa must build its social capabilities for innovation by establishing society-wide training towards acquiring the competencies for diversification,” she posited adding that “to realize meaningful changes there must be a departure from focusing on individuals to focusing on the collective, thus building a society compact for a skills revolution”.
She maintained that“a coordinated and comprehensive learning process and strategy, which includes the promotion of apprenticeship, is essential for such broad-based and hands-on learning agenda to take place in different stages and places, because how and what we learn determines our abilities to adopt and adapt to big data, artificial intelligence and connectivity.” This will help address labour market imperfections such as the focus on academic credentials rather than skills and competencies, she concluded.
For Jean Luc Mastaki, an Economist with the ECA regional office for Central Africa, promoting innovation and facilitating access to technology is pivotal especially for the effective development of SMEs or the region’s informal sector. He noted that the sub-region can look outward to the examples of Scandinavian countries such as Norway where SMEs and university and training institutions have developed successful partnerships for embedding students in industry to gain hands on experience while trainers observe the real needs of the marketplace to adjust training modules.
He said Central African countries must harmonise and modernise training and policies and regionalise certification to facilitate the mobility of labour which is crucial for economic diversification and industrialisation in the subregion. He further argued that the certification and accreditation of apprenticeship would raise its profile and societal acceptance and value thus contributing for more intakes filling a major supply gap in existing training schemes.
The role of the diaspora in filling skills gap and accelerating technology transfer for Central Africa’s economic diversification was amply recognized during the high-level debate.
Dr Augustine Mofor, a Germany-based computer science engineer from Cameroon spoke of the paramount importance of governance for harnessing the savoir-faire of experts from the subregion in the diaspora. Minister Dodo Ndoke concurred and encouraged engineers and other highly skilled members of diaspora not to relent in their efforts in supporting their countries of origin, noting that in Cameroon, for instance, the architecture for exchange with the diaspora already exists but it must be systematized and better operationalised.
The salient points from the high-level debate are reflected in the outcome statement of the 36th ICE for Central Africa. The latter will be channelled to governments, regional economic communities, universities, think tanks, the private sector and other development partners in the sub-region offering pathways to implement the 2021-2030 Decade for Economic Diversification in Central Africa declared during the ICE.
Abel Akara Ticha - Communication Officer
United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
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