Untapped Talent: Why Companies Should Invest in Africa’s Workforce

With an average age of 19.5, Africa has the youngest population in the world.  By 2035, Africa will be home to the largest workforce: over a billion people. Statistics such as these are motivators to invest in talent development and higher education in Africa.

Fred Swaniker,  cofounder of African Leadership University (ALU), says “we don’t have to replicate what’s not working in other parts of the world.” Swaniker believes that unleashing the talent in Africa will entail redefining higher education altogether.  The western model that includes a classroom taught by a professor won’t work for Africa, where there is a massive shortage of people with terminal degrees.  Approximately eighty percent of African college graduates earn degrees outside of Africa.  In order to create an opportunity to transform the continent, the need exists to create universities that can compete world-wide.  However, with a lack of finances and resources, investors in Africa’s higher education will have to be innovative.

ALU empowers its students to design their own learning experiences through technology and peer-to-peer learning.  Instead of choosing an academic major, students choose from a range of challenges and opportunities that directly impact Africa.  Swaniker gives the following example: 800 million people will move into African cities over the next 30 years.  Students have the opportunity to create solutions and business proposals to help combat the population challenges around housing, urban planning, civil engineering, and healthcare.

Since the university does not pay professors, it can bring its tuition down to as low as $4,000 per year, per student.  ALU also offers free tuition in exchange for 10% of post-graduation earnings for 5 to 10 years, an innovative financing model that allows more students the opportunity to enroll.

According to Swaniker, “there is an abundant source of talent in Africa…and the talent is driven, hungry, and willing to learn—all they need is an opportunity.  Companies that succeed in Africa need to look beyond the rough edges that they might see in a young African that they interview—someone who hasn’t necessarily been to a fancy university and doesn’t speak English the way they might expect. They need to really invest in that talent; that investment will reap significant rewards for them as they grow.”

Companies are becoming more aware of the value of talent development as an ability to obtain competitive advantage.  To tap into Africa’s talent pool, companies don’t necessarily need to seek out students with degrees.  Rather, a training program could be enough to access potential talent.

Kentz Corporation, a global engineering company, tackled the shortage of skilled labor by developing training centers and has experience tremendous success. “Addressing scarce construction skills for competitive advantage: a case study”, by Hayley Barker, regional human-resources manager, Africa, Kentz (Pty) Ltd and Hadyn Ingram, principal consultant, Corporate Learning Consultants Ltd, considers the benefits of investment in training for scarce skills in the South African construction and engineering industry. The authors suggest that reducing skill shortages provides benefits for organizations, individuals, families, regions and national economies.

Cisco also plans to invest in Africa’s talent.  The company just announced that it will launch a Repair Partner program, which aims to repair and restore Cisco hardware to make high quality, refurbished technology more accessible.  Cisco plans to train one million students over the next five years in Africa through a Networking Academy Program.

Business in Africa is booming and opportunities for growth abound.  If eighty percent of Africa’s higher education continue to seek education outside of Africa, this is likely to lead to a global crisis.  By redesigning higher education and investing in talent development in Africa, this could lead to a massive opportunity for the global economy.

Brandi Kuhn



Barker, H. and Ingram, H. (2011), “Addressing scarce construction skills for competitive advantage: a case study”, Training & Management Development Methods, Vol. 25 No. 4, ISSN 0951-3507

Kentz builds south africa’s workforce of tomorrow. (2012). Human Resource Management International Digest, 20(6), 10-12. doi:http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.tulane.edu:2048/10.1108/09670731211260807