Leveraging Africa’s demographic transition: Malawi’s education imperative

A 2015 report by the African Institute for Development Policy (Afidep) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) observed that Africa’s population structure had more young dependents compared to working-age adults. The report further stated that 56 percent of Africa’s population was aged between 15 and 64, and that by 2050, that age group would grow to 62 percent. Like the rest of the world, Africa will go from high birth and death rates, to low birth and death rates, creating a youth bulge. This is what is termed a “demographic transition.” It presents Africa with an unprecedented opportunity “to accelerate the socioeconomic transformation of the continent.” In other words, the demographic transition can become a demographic dividend. 

For this to happen, governments on the continent need to invest in education, skills development, health, job creation and improved governance. Investing in these aspects will provide the necessary push to transform the continent and achieve the vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own competent citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.” That vision is at the core of the continental blueprint widely known as Agenda 2063, articulated in implementation plans including the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (Cesa) 2016-2025, and the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (Stisa) 2024.  

A 2016 report from the Africa Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) observed that the “single biggest challenge to ownership of Africa’s development agenda and management of its key development programs” was rooted in critical technical skills. The continent was facing serious shortages of critical technical skills and professionals needed to drive key initiatives in the first 10-year implementation plan of Agenda 2063. There was little evidence that governments were making critical technical skills a part of national development strategies, the ACBF report stated. 

To overcome this challenge, the report recommended nine urgent tasks. Two of these are improving capacity in the continent’s training institutions, and overhauling training and education systems. The report further recommended formation of consortia of top universities, research institutes and think tanks to drive the critical technical skills agenda. A demographic country case study helps put into context the education imperatives facing the continent in the drive towards Agenda 2063.

Numbers from Malawi’s most recent population census, conducted in 2018, show that 13.7 million Malawians, out of 17.5 million, are aged 34 and under. That computes to 78 percent of the Malawian population being categorized as youth. The census report also shows that the country has 1.4 million youth aged 14-17 years old. The country has about 5 million primary school students, and about 380,000 secondary school students. Four out of five young Malawians of secondary school age, 14-17, are out of school. 

Between August and September, 2019 the Malawi Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) released results for the primary and secondary school examination results. The primary school results showed that 37 percent of the students who passed had been selected to various public secondary schools, leaving out 63 percent. The secondary school results showed that 50 percent passed, down from 63 percent in 2018.

Recent numbers show that public universities enroll only about 5 000 first year students. Numbers from private universities are not available but rough estimates put first year enrollment at 5 000-10 000. Also unavailable are numbers from tertiary institutions such as teacher training, nursing, technical and vocational, but rough estimates would put their first-year enrollment at no more than 20 000. 

For the past decade Malawi’s education budget has been close to, and sometimes surpassed, the Dakar Framework recommendation of 20 percent of the national budget. The proposed 2019-2020 budget, present in September, has brought that percentage to 10.6. Regardless of whether the education budget falls below or surpasses the 20 percent mark, it has always been insufficient due to the actual size of the Malawi economy. Yet, it is only by making education a national priority that the economy can grow in a meaningful and equitable way.

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