2. From dependence to innovation
We long to move from poverty to dignified livelihoods for all. Education that is inclusive, nourishing and helps young people prepare for their future. Work that is creative, purposeful, beneficial and justly compensated. But our current economic and education systems hinder the ability of citizens to participate fully and to innovate in response to emerging challenges and opportunities. We need to support and invest in models that foster innovation, inclusion and communities.
Africa has been perceived and approached as dependent on others for its survival. Our continent receives more foreign aid than any other. In recent decades, Africa has been very reliant on global foreign direct investment, but this is expected to drop by between 25-40% due to the COVID-19 pandemic79 and is unlikely to improve within the next few years. This has accelerated the need and opportunity to look within our continent and our communities to create an innovative economy that benefits the environment and people of Africa.
Our economic development has emphasised dependence on big business and government to create jobs. This has fuelled the Africa Rising narrative but has not translated into reality. The highest unemployment rates in the world in 2019 were in sub-Saharan Africa.80 Over 20 million jobs may be lost in sub-Saharan Africa due to COVID-19. And in just two decades, Africa expects to have 450 million people added to its working population.
This booming population of young Africans could become a source of energy and innovation in the decades to come – but existing broken systems limit the potential of “Africa’s greatest resource”. Our education fails to create independent young people or prepare them for the reality of the jobs available. Africa has the world’s highest growth rates in the numbers of young people, and the highest rates of educational exclusion. One in five children are not in school; this escalates to one in three youth. The demand for school places is predicted to grow from 60 million to 106 million in the next decade.85 Africa would need to build ten, 10,000-student universities each week for the next 12 years to meet the demand for tertiary education.
This cannot be achieved by building traditional schools alone. We need also to invest in online education, which is affordable and growing in scope.
This shift should be accompanied by an overhaul of the antiquated rote educational approach, which leads to those who remain in school often learning very little due to low educational quality. We need a new academic model to match learning, skills and capacities with current and future opportunities in the local economy.
Even when young people do get a good education they often find there are no jobs for them. Young people represent more than 60 per cent of those unemployed across the continent; every year around 10 million young people join the workforce but only 3.1 million new jobs are created. Where unemployment is low, the informal economy is often key – as high as 65 per cent of all employment in countries like Nigeria and Tanzania. But governments often still ignore investing in it, favouring big business instead. Small- and medium-sized businesses often focus on retail, rather than innovation and the creation of products and solutions.
Historically, innovation has been dependent on elite institutions such as universities and centres of excellence. There is a growing trend in Africa for innovation hubs, which are business incubation centres that cater to established mid-level formal businesses. But both of these ignore and exclude the capacity of ordinary citizens innovating within the informal economy and their communities. To truly shift from dependence to innovation, Africa also needs a strong grassroots-based innovation approach, supported through policy and funding, which creates businesses that provide jobs to young people.
Dependence syndrome can be caused by the breakdown of relationship, especially when this breakdown happens through systems of subjugation and control, like colonialism or dictatorship. We need God to restore our relationships and interdependence with other people and the environment, and our true identity as co-creators with Him. This will break our dependence on others and allow us to fulfil the creation, or innovation, mandate given to us by God.
If the release from dependence requires the restoration of relationship then true innovation is not about the individual, it’s about communities coming together to innovate for the common good. This innovation could extend beyond science and technology to other spheres, including social arrangements and governance. It should align with the AU aspirations of development that is prosperous (Aspiration 4) and people driven (Aspiration 6), and the SDGs for education (4), decent work (8) and innovation (9). African innovation should be centred on the community – not the individual pursuit of wealth so often seen in the West, which has destroyed the environment – and therefore embedded in ubuntu relationships to retain the value of diversity with a commitment to the common good.
Abundant ideas for innovation
Churches are able to tackle dependence syndrome by restoring relationships and identity. But they also have space, infrastructure, and relational networks with youth groups, government and businesses on which to build a strong innovation foundation.
Support and establish community innovation and business hubs as vibrant local spaces for information and capacity sharing, entrepreneurship, innovation and business activation. These hubs should be simple service points to access free tools such as internet access, training, legal support, financial services and mentoring – with a particular focus on young people and women. There are existing examples of innovation hubs, but none that resemble this community model that includes all the components of: centring on and strengthening networks of community relationships; building the capacity of individuals and families within communities; pioneering family or community businesses and cooperatives; and generating income opportunities. Churches should partner with local government and businesses to pilot these, ensuring they avoid elite capture by being formulated on communities’ needs and indigenous knowledge.
Create partnerships to scale up existing best practice in early childhood development, church schools and universities. The church in Africa has often played an important role in education in the absence of a strong state system. Churches should seek partnerships with government and the private sector to scale these models, where possible using church buildings and land. In the past, the church has been elitist in some spaces; these models should seek instead to be inclusive. They should move from rote learning to focusing on methods that enhance critical
thinking, learning and problem solving to elevate entrepreneurship and innovation; natural strengths of African youth.
Develop financial instruments and institutions that allow the church to engage in large-scale development at both local and institutional levels. Whether setting up banks; impact funds; enterprise income; or microfinancing systems, this will allow the church to align broader financial structures with its shalom development values. This can be measured through the quadruple bottom line of financial returns, social returns, environmental returns and spiritual returns.
National governments can set the right processes and create enabling environments. They can: Include young people and women in decisionmaking processes around economic policy and implementation particularly at a city or local level. Develop technological infrastructure, establish a flexible integrated curriculum and train teachers for online education,90 to create opportunities for secondary and tertiary students who are unable to access traditional educational institutions. Young people who are unable to access quality formal schooling will be able to self-teach online if they are given access to technology; internet data; and a space to learn. If they are not given access to these essential tools then the digital divide will expand inequality even further. The migration online has been accelerated by COVID-19 lockdowns and the forced shift towards online education caused by school closures. The church can become a partner in providing opportunities for blended learning using church infrastructure to gather self-guided learners and provide support for self-guided learning.
The African Union can make real its vision for releasing our continent’s greatest resource by: Calling on all African nations to establish an ecosystem of locally-controlled ‘future funds’ to build strong, inclusive and sustainable economic opportunities for youth and safeguard future generations. These should be funded by governments and development partners.
Researching and promoting cooperative business models. Historically these have failed when governments have driven the agenda, bringing disparate community members together without the necessary foundation of trust. But Africa has many successful cooperative models built on strong relationships in families, extended families, clans, tribes and villages. The AU should establish a unit to research and resource best practice on all types of cooperatives, in partnership with faith-based and civil-society organisations, including community innovation hubs.