“Our young people are running away from Africa while the Chinese and Europeans are running to Africa. It means we are not equipping our youths with the right skills to see what those coming to Africa are seeing.”
By Charles Dhewa
These words were said by Professor Fanuel Tagwira, the board chairman of the Centre for Coordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa at the end of the Youth in Agriculture Summit held in Durban, South Africa from August 3 to 6.
Unemployment is becoming a time bomb in all African countries.
While more than 17 million youths enter the job market every year in sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of formerly educated young people do not see opportunities in African agriculture although it accounts for about 32% of gross domestic product.
There is a strong view that youths are shunning agriculture because they associate it with production only yet there are many opportunities along the value chain, for instance, logistics, packaging and agro-processing.
While African countries are known for selling raw commodities, there are opportunities for young people to embark on value addition enterprises.
How Western influence on academia is damaging graduate employability in Africa.
An inappropriate curricula is contributing to failure of African graduates to find employment.
Most of the degrees produced by African universities are not demand-driven, but still based on a Western notion of knowledge.
African intellectuals and universities have not been able to question the intellectual origin of some of the knowledge they impart onto their students.
As a result much intellectual work is not in line with African contexts. For instance, communication studies in African universities are still influenced by theories and debates such as modernisation and media effect studies that originated from the United States of America decades ago.
Clinging onto such theories and subjects of inquiry determined by US scholarship produces graduates who think communication is about diffusing information through newspapers, radio and television yet in the authentic African context, communication is more about dialogue.
Knowledge sharing patterns in informal agriculture markets show that African intellectuals should not just tinker with the curricula, but challenge the dominance of knowledge generation theories and ideas imported from the West. There is now enough evidence that western theories and arguments are inadequate in understanding the African context.
African intellectuals should produce knowledge that reflects local realities. The informal market is part of local conditions which offer conditions for relevant intellectual production in ways that will ensure African education systems reflect African concerns.
Toward a two strands knowledge system
The informal market (indigenous commerce) indicates that the African education system requires two streams where a young person can decide to go the more “formal” education direction, or into the more “indigenous commerce” (informal) direction.
That means, from the age of 13 or 14, an “indigenous commerce” inclined young person can already be making informed business decisions and starting their own businesses.
This would stand them in better stead than Ordinary, Advanced levels and degrees would and if they got a business going and established and then decided on formal education, then funding it would not be an issue.
This kind of education will certainly enable young graduates to hold space for the current complex environment that requires smart learners able to engage with smart technologies. Such skills will ensure they are able to see forces that are shaping the future of work.
Unlike the current formal education system, entrepreneurship should not just be taught as general knowledge, but related to specific economic drivers like agriculture.
There is a difference in entrepreneurship demands between agriculture and other sectors. There must be a way of recognising local practical wisdom. Asking rural elders how they cope with difficult circumstances can be more revealing than speaking to a formally educated policy maker.
At the moment, because much of African education is becoming less demand-driven, graduates end up trying to force the environment to fit their courses rather than acquiring education which speaks to the environment.
On the other hand, if you ask farmers what kind of knowledge gaps they have, most likely they tell you. So you can’t just go ahead and craft a course without taking into account the context.
Through a two strands education approach (indigenous commerce and formal education), young people who excel in indigenous commerce can stand out and even show instances where local informal education over-takes Western formal education.
Another big knowledge gap is between secondary and tertiary African education. Since there are fewer options for hands-on training, most young people from secondary school end up enrolling for courses they don’t have a passion for mainly because that is what is available at university.
Someone ends up doing agricultural economics because his academic points are pointing in that direction not because he has a passion for it. Introducing indigenous commerce will address some of these issues.
An additional challenge relates to technology. There are numerous cases where technology is foisting formats that are not compatible with local African knowledge.
For instance, why should a trader be forced to express his or business knowledge through Microsoft Excel spread sheet?
Some of these systems end up constraining practical knowledge application, particularly in indigenous commerce.
Again, rather than putting too much emphasis on trying to improve the capacity of farmers and traders to access knowledge through new ICTs, African policy makers should interrogate the nature of knowledge, contexts and various audiences.
Information alone does not constitute knowledge.
For African intellectuals, understanding the informal market can be the first step in nurturing academic sovereignty.
By ignoring broader impulses from the majority of rural populations in preference for what happens in urban areas, African intellectuals and the “mainstream” media are not only becoming irrelevant, but complicity in the marginalisation of local knowledge.