The Entire World Will Benefit If We Get It Right for Children in Africa
By James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Folawe Omikunle
Adesuwa Ochonma, a teacher in Nigeria, recently took her students on a class trip to the lagoon, where she showed them huge islands of plastic trash built up in the water, explaining its devastating effects. Nearly 3,000 miles away in Uganda, children at St. Jude Muwangi Primary school, in an environmental club led by teachers Charles Obore and Carol Seera, learn about recycling, planting trees, and how to advocate to their parents and communities.
Change starts by teaching children to understand the perils of climate change and the value of clean air, water, and earth. Due to youth mobilization, New York City let 1.1 million children skip school on September 20 to attend a climate protest march ahead of the world’s biggest political gathering in the city.
Climate change dominated the 74th United Nations General Assembly’s agenda. It’s not the only one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that needs attention. Reaching the fast approaching 2030 targets will demand heroic efforts.
Meeting our global aspirations, including reversing climate change, requires a revolution in education. Africa is home to the fastest-growing youth population. By 2050 it will be home to one billion children. We must provide tools and opportunities to allow these children to fulfill their potential and shape our rapidly changing societies.
In Nigeria, almost 40% of children are not in primary school — approximately 13.2 million — accounting for almost one in every five out-of-school children in the world. Of those who do graduate primary school, fewer than 25% can read a paragraph. The effects of climate change are impacting Africans, but many can’t even read a “Do Not Litter” sign, let alone advocate for stronger climate policies.
Yesterday, the World Bank published a new report “Ending Learning Poverty: What Will It Take?”, noting that nearly 87% of all children in sub-Saharan Africa are not able to read proficiently by age 10. They call this “Learning Poverty”.
The latest data by UNESCO Institute of Statistics reveals that across sub-Saharan Africa, one in every three children, adolescents and youth are out of school, with girls more likely to be excluded: 4 million girls and 2 million boys will never attend school. The proportion of teachers with at least basic training has fallen in sub-Saharan Africa — the issue is worse now than at the turn of the century.
We need the next generation to commit to education and social impact so we can meet our aspirations. The good news is that young Africans want to do this. There are many examples of local leadership initiatives but not enough attention towards their massive impact and potential.
The African Leadership Academy equips promising adolescents from across the continent with entrepreneurial leadership skills, on top of core academic subjects. 1,180 ALA alumni are catalyzing transformative change, with 177 ventures started such as a South Sudan school that develops peace-building skills. Within the next 50 years, ALA aims to cultivate the leadership of 3 million individuals across the continent.
In sub-Saharan countries, CAMFED has helped over 3 million girls to attend school and gain leadership abilities. Of its over 138,000 alumni, close to 20,000 have started their own businesses, and 61,000 are in leadership positions in their local communities, nationally and internationally.
The Teach For All network organizations in Ghana, Liberia, Morocco, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda are working to recruit promising future leaders who will expand educational opportunities for all children. Through our two-year teaching fellowship in under-resourced classrooms, we’re already seeing already big results. Young people in our countries are clamoring for a chance to shape their country's future: since 2017, Teach For Nigeria received 98,000 applications. We’re also seeing the results of recruiting and investing in leadership — our graduates have: started a girl’s school; created tech tools; brought solar-powered lights to pupils; mobilized resources to buy school uniforms; and created an initiative to educate students on sexual health.
As the CEOs of Teach For Nigeria and Teach For Uganda, we were in New York for the 2019 UN General Assembly to share our message and the results of our collective action to create a positive impact, but it continues to be hard to get our voices heard.
Africa needs a new generation of leaders. We need investment in the local leadership capacity required to create a sustained pipeline of leaders working both inside and outside education. Of those 98,000 Nigerian applicants, only 261 were accepted. Why? Because there aren’t enough resources.
Education is the Development Goal that must gain more attention, especially if we are going to solve climate change. The SDGs can’t be fully reached until education becomes a top priority. We must build a formidable network of determined leaders who understand the root causes of inequity and the many problems wrought by an under-educated citizenry. We choose to work in education because we must get this right in Africa: it is what will create a better world for our children — and for all of us.
James Kassaga Arinaitwe is the CEO and Co-founder of Teach For Uganda, and Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow. Folawe Omikunle is CEO and Founder of Teach For Nigeria. The two organizations are part of the global network Teach For All. Along with 50 other Teach For All independent partners, the two organizations recruit their countries’ promising future leaders to teach in under-resourced schools and invest in their development as collaborative leaders who will continue to pursue lasting change for children.