We do not need schools; We do not need degrees; We need skills

Okendo Lewis-Gayle, Harvard Kennedy School '17
Efosa Ojomo, Harvard Business School '15

July 28, 2016

In a recent CNBC interview, one of us made the statement that Africa needs neither schools nor degrees, instead the continent needs to focus on building the skills of its growing population. The statement has since drawn some criticism with many noting that Africa needs both, not one or the other. In this piece, we will tell the story of Andela, an African disruptor backed by a $24 million investment from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (founded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan). We will highlight the need for investors, entrepreneurs, and policy makers to focus first and foremost, on building institutions such as Andela, that teach skills, before focusing on institutions which attain expensive accreditation which may then lead to degrees.

The problem is pervasive…
and it is growing

The United Nations projects that Africa’s 1.1 billion people will more than double to approximately 2.5 billion by 2050 and will quadruple to 4.4 billion by 2100. To further complicate matters, many African countries have median ages that range from 18 to 21. If leaders on the continent don’t figure out a way to get these young people to work, chaos could ensue.

While the gross enrollment rate for post-secondary school education in many African countries is less than 20 percent, the employment of those fortunate to attend tertiary institutions is as high as 60 percent in some countries. In Nigeria for instance, Africa’s most populous country, the tertiary education gross enrollment ratio is around 10 percent. In fact, Africa’s education problems are so dire that Fred Swaniker explained, “Even if Africa builds 200 new Harvard-sized universities each year for the next 15 years, it still will not close its prevailing skills gap.”

So, an honest assessment of Africa’s education, and in effect the continent’s employment circumstances, leads to the following observations:

1 — Africa is NOT building 200 Harvard sized universities annually.

2 — Even if it did, that would not be enough.

So what must we do to address this challenge?

Andela — A new model of education for our future

Andela, at scale, is representative of the sort of entrepreneurship that Africa needs in order to solve many of the issues that plague the continent. Motivated by the slogan, “Brilliance is evenly distributed; but opportunity is not,” Andela was established to bridge this opportunity gap. While Andela has gone through several iterations since its founding, the mission has remained simple — Find the most talented young developers in Africa (the company has operations in Nigeria and Kenya at the moment), shape them into technical leaders, and seamlessly integrate them into a company’s technology team. Through this process, Andela is building the next generation of global technology leaders.

Perhaps what’s most exciting about Andela is the company’s business model. Andela turns the post-secondary school and conventional employment model on its head by focusing its business model on existing on-demand technology skills required by some of the world’s leading companies. In 2015, for instance, 59 percent of Chief Information Officers noted that they faced a skills shortage. This model of developing existing talent for readily available jobs is not new. It was employed by South Korean and Taiwanese companies fifty years ago as those countries began their march toward advanced economy status. Instead of the companies focusing on less valuable accreditations, they focused on developing the technical capacity of their employees to fill roles in the local and global economy. Many of these employees eventually became technical leaders who helped propel the Asian Tigers to prosperity. Many of these companies evolved their employee development programs into full fledged higher education institutions when it made sense.

See Table 1 below for more differences between Andela and the conventional higher education business model.

In our first piece, we called this sort of model Disruptive Entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurs, Disruptors. It is this sort of entrepreneurship that can catapult Africa from obscurity into a continent that meets the myriad of challenges it is bound to face in the 21st century, chief of which is unparalleled unemployment and population growth.

But Andela alone is not enough

As great as Andela is, we would be remiss if we failed to note that Andela is not enough. The company’s acceptance rate is sub one percent, with 40,000 plus applicants the company has only hired approximately 200 developers. Andela notes on its website that its acceptance rate of less than one percent is lower than Harvard’s 6.2 percent. While that should give comfort to the companies that work with Andela developers, it should not give comfort to African leaders and certainly will not give comfort to the many young Africans looking for work. What we need is Andela type companies, at scale, that address many of our challenges.

What Andela represents is a model for how we can innovatively tackle one of the most pressing problems on the continent — youth explosion coupled with vast unemployment. While many point to this as a potential demographic dividend, we carefully note that this would end up being a demographic disaster if a different approach to development is not adopted. The Andela model represents that approach; it illustrates that we do not need conventional education and certifications to be successful. Instead, if we focus on a model of education that leverages technology to develop the vast latent talent on the continent, we can begin to put a dent in many of the problems that plague the continent today.

We propose using this model to not only develop the next generation of technology leaders, but also to develop people who could become highly skilled plumbers, graphic designers, electricians, teachers, computer technicians, health-care workers, and many others who have the talent but lack the opportunity. Why do we have to put the young people through an education system that we know is broken and unsustainable?

In the end, Andela, as do other disruptors, provides hope… and perhaps the only viable model for Africa’s development. The Andela way is the disruptor’s way, one that is bound to set the continent on a path towards sustainable development.