Central African Development Aspirations Hampered By Skills Shortages

30 May 2020

Yaounde — Central African countries must upgrade the skills base, competencies and put innovation at the centre of their development if they want to remain competitive, break the vicious cycle of overdependence on the export of commodities and harness the opportunities offered by COVID19 in the pharmaceuticals and food sector.

Antonio Pedro, Director of UN Economic Commission for Africa in Central Africa told the participants at a 29-May-2020 webinar that COVID19 had made it ample evident how the high degree of concentration of exports in primary commodities exposes the sub-region to external shocks, making economic diversification an urgent development imperative for Central Africa. "For 23 African countries, 10 per cent of annual output and 50 per cent of their annual exports are from extractive resources and Central Africa is no exception. Economic diversification is path dependent. We will be forever locked in the lower ends of global value chains, where the terms of trade are less favourable if we do not sophisticate our productions systems. Human capital development is at the centre of it", he added..

The Webinar discussed Skills for Economic diversification: challenges and opportunities and virtually gathered about 100 people, featuring government and Regional Economic Communities officials, academics, business and private sector as well as media. It was organized and hosted by the ECA office for Central Africa. A recording of the livestream is available for watching in the following sequence: 1) https://bit.ly/webi-a 2) https://bit.ly/webi-b 3) https://bit.ly/webi-c.

Experts at the e-meeting stressed that crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic affects both demand for and supply of the commodities, and cause disruptions to supply chains, deepening Central Africa's systemic issues and macro-economic instability.

Economic diversification calls for performant ecosystems with primacy given to the development of human capital as a life-long process from school through work to retirement, said Adama Coulibaly - Head of the Sub-regional Initiatives section of ECA's Office for Central Africa has he gave context to the exercise.

"Skills are not just a question of knowledge - they also boil down to know-how, and we must not approach economic diversification from a purely 'turnkey' vantage point but also from a 'head-key' point of view," he argued.

He further stressed the need for rapid skills development to roll-out the various industrialization and economic diversification masterplans of the subregion in the aftermath of COVID-19, as the first step towards 'building back better.'

Shocking facts of skills development

Professor Mama Foupouagnigni of AIMS Cameroon stressed that there is a shift away from the diploma as a criterion for hiring and pay decision. He said that some companies are now looking at skills and know-how, not just the diplomas obtained. He called governments to provide training and internship opportunities to the students and graduates as well as placement opportunities with leading companies to acquire the necessary practice.

Whereas the participants of the webinar recognized that countries on the continent must give pride of place to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and have all recognised the role of technology in our affairs, Salah Khaled, the UNESCO Director in Central Africa said that the continent has less than 25 per cent students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. For girls, it is shockingly only 30% of the total.

"Most of our graduates with secondary and tertiary-level skills are highly directed towards humanities and social sciences", said Khaled.

He further explained the need to reverse brain drain while developing retention policies and incentives at home to reduce the potential of students and workers seeking opportunities abroad or at least guarantee their return back home.

Khaled said that another urgent and essential investment to make was to equip primary and secondary schools with Laboratories as only 10 per cent of high schools have adequate laboratories in Africa.

Experts at the Webinar also stressed that another industry in crisis is engineering. Africa has about 55,000 women and men in engineering, yet the African Union's Agenda 2063 targets to achieve about 4,3 million people in the field.

Brassou Diawara of African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF), who made reference to these figures, also said that the biggest challenge in implementing Africa's Agenda 2063 remains inadequacy of the critical technical skills, as Africa has to produce at least 300,000 engineers per year till 2063.

Research projections reveal that every year, Africa needs to produce 400,000 medical doctors and specialists, 19,000 geologists and 8,000 agriculturalists until 2023, if it is to meet the demands of its rising population.

Experts discussed also on how countries facing an increasingly widening skills gap could learn from their sister nations on the continent and beyond. Japan and Korea were cited as successful countries that managed to create effective education and skills development policies.

The need to build a competitive advantage; develop visionary leadership and effective governance while developing the necessary levels of skills that create jobs for youth were also accentuated during the webinar.

The webinar was the first in a series of interactive meetings leading up to the 36th session of the Intergovernmental Committee of Senior Officials and Experts (ICE) for Central Africa to be held in Yaoundé, Cameroon, this year under the theme: "Skills for economic diversification in Central Africa".

[Watch a recording the webinar here in the following sequence 1) https://bit.ly/webi-a 2) https://bit.ly/webi-b 3) https://bit.ly/webi-c.]

For Media Enquires on this story, contact ECA Communication officers:

Didier Habimana habimanad@un.org / Abel Akara Ticha akara@un.org

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