There are over a billion people in Africa, yet there are only 2,000 colleges and universities.  In Sub-Saharan Africa 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30, but only seven per cent of Africans enrol in tertiary education. [2, 3]
Tertiary education is essential. However, the continent faces a number of challenges that must be addressed if it is to truly educate — and empower — the next generation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) leaders.
Here are seven ideas on what can be done to improve STEM education across Africa.
Create centres of excellence
Resources in many of Africa’s universities are already stretched, and covering a wide range of subjects does little to help the situation. Centres of excellence can provide leadership, best practices and research, among others, in a specific field. This allows institutions to focus their resources on a handful of key areas, and the pooled funding results in better resources and improved facilities. By addressing regional challenges these centres can establish a sustainable business model, and their graduates can have a direct impact on improving their local community.
“Governments need to invest in education and create a legislative framework, which allows tertiary education, particularly in STEM subjects, to prosper.”
Sarah Hambly, Planet Earth Institute
The Institute of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin has done just this. The institution’s mission is to equip Africa with young scientists who can become future teachers in the field, to promote cooperation and partnerships in research and training within the continent, to prevent scientists from leaving the continent and contributing to so-called ‘brain drain’.
Keep improving digital technology
Technological advances have had a huge impact on learning across Africa. Online learning platforms, including mass open online courses, or MOOCs, have the potential to revolutionise education, with students able to access high quality learning materials regardless of their geographic location, if they can connect to the internet.
Rethink, an e-learning start up created in South Africa in 2012, illustrates how effective these platforms can be. It can be accessed on any device and uses multimedia elements such as videos and interactive questions. Rethink also aims to provide quality education while removing the usual barriers, such as cost and location.
Improve links with tech hubs
Tech hubs in Africa have been popping up at a considerable rate, and in all corners of the continent. According to Disrupt Africa, there could be as many as 300 tech hubs by the end of 2016.
Habaka, in Madagascar, offers training, working spaces and events – and runs the Coderdojo programme, an international ‘coding club’ to teach those aged between 7 and 17 years old.
Meanwhile, Malawi’s mHub focuses on developing young technology entrepreneurs and has set itself the target of enlisting and training 5,000 youngsters by 2019.
The Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) in Ghana runs a programme which takes top graduates from local universities and provides them with a fully sponsored, intensive two-year programme, including how to run a technology business.
Measure performance and labour markets
For education to be effective, institutions should regularly monitor and evaluate their programmes. Information about the local labour market should be used to determine the needs of local regions and the relevance of the institution’s curriculum in being able to meet these demands.
Meanwhile, regular inspection of other standards can ensure universities are maintaining a high level of quality and efficiency. There are a number of organisations in Africa that gather data which can be used by universities, enabling them to effectively evaluate their programmes without putting a huge burden on their already limited resources.
The African Capacity Building Foundation is one such organisation, which works with a number of multilateral partners, African and non-regional partners to provide capacity building data. This ‘knowledge hub’ publishes and disseminates regular reports on the state of play across the continent. Resources such as this can help universities and other educational institutions to tailor their programmes to the needs of specific regions and sectors, without having to do the groundwork themselves.
Increase links to private sector
The Planet Earth Institute’s chairman, Álvaro Sobrinho, has stressed the need for universities to work with the private sector. Given that the private sector is the continent’s main source of job creation, it could help universities to establish how best to equip Africa’s youth with the skills needed to enter the work place.
“Resources in many of Africa’s universities are already stretched, and covering a wide range of subjects does little to help the situation.”
Sarah Hambly, Planet Earth Institute
An example of a partnership in action is that of Hecate Energy Africa and two universities in Tanzania. The company has joined with the University of Dodoma and the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology to implement undergraduate and graduate programmes in the field of renewable energy. The aim of this collaboration is to increase access to clean and reliable power in Tanzania, and the wider region, and it will harness the talents of their students to do so.
Link education and job creation
It is also necessary to ensure that millions of young people who do complete tertiary education are incentivised to remain on the continent to ensure science-led development, rather than contributing to the ‘brain drain’.
Burkina Faso’s 2iE International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering understands the importance of a student’s return on investment, and says more than 95 per cent of its students find a job within six months of graduating. The institution attributes this to the quality of their programmes, strong partnerships with companies, human resources and the aim to offer solutions to the continent’s challenges. By getting this right, they are creating a successful and sustainable model.
The stakes for Africa are high. For the continent to prosper, it is essential that ‘Generation Science’ - the generation empowered by an understanding and appreciation of science and technology - succeeds so young people can harness STEM skills to overcome the many challenges facing the region. Speaking in 2013, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission, said: “We must go beyond universal education and focus on higher education, science and technology, and innovation, for both young women and men. If we invest enough in the young population we have, this population will be one of the drivers for the future of the continent. But if we do not invest in the youth, they will be our greatest liability.” 
For Africa to succeed, the brightest young students need to be given opportunities. Governments need to invest in education and create a legislative framework, which allows tertiary education, particularly in STEM subjects, to prosper.
If equipped with the right skills, especially in the STEM fields, Africa’s increasing youth can continue to innovate their way into a sustainable, science-led and bright tomorrow.
Sarah Hambly is communication manager at Planet Earth Institute, an international non-profit organisation and charity working for scientific independence of Africa. She can be reached through [email protected]
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.