#CSRFW: Reaching Africa’s Literacy Target: The Past, Present And Future

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on October 26, 1966 at its 14th General Conference Session declared September 8 as International Literacy Day, with the aim of highlighting the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies.

The Past

  • 50 years ago, 22% of people between the ages of 15 and 24 lacked basic literacy skills

-2016 UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) data

  • In 2011, 182 million adults were unable to read and write.


  • Majority of countries missed the Education for All (EFA) goal of reducing adult illiteracy rates by 50% between 2000 and 2015.

The Present

  • More than 1 in 3 adults cannot read.
  • 48 million youths (ages 15-24) are illiterate.
  • 22% of primary aged children are not in school.
  • About 30 million primary aged children are not in school.
  • Whilst the US has a literacy rate of 99%, sub-Saharan Africa only have 59%.
  • Adult literacy rates are below 50% in the following countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.
  • Youth literacy rates, for the population aged 15 to 24 years, are generally higher than adult literacy rates,
  • Of the 11 countries with the lowest recorded adult literacy rates in the world, ten are in Africa.
  • Southern Asia is home to almost one-half of the global illiterate population (49%).
  • 27% of all illiterate adults live in sub-Saharan Africa, 10% in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, 9% in Northern Africa and Western Asia, and about 4% in Latin America and the Caribbean. Less than 2% of the global illiterate population live in the remaining regions combined (Central Asia, Europe and Northern America, and Oceania).
  • Half of all children reach adolescence without achieving literacy or numeracy.
  • 750 million adults (two-thirds of whom are women) still lack basic reading and writing skills.
  • While 7 in 10 men can read, only half of women can do so.

-2016 UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) data

  • Today, 9% of young people in Africa and Asia, in particular, are far more likely to be literate than they were half a century ago.

Whilst Literacy rates are improving globally, in terms of raw numbers, there are more illiterates than 20 years ago being that there is still in existence; low access to schooling, early school leaving, poor quality of education and lack of books, especially in rural areas.

The Future

Although youth literacy rates (ages 15-24) in Sub-Saharan Africa (70% in 2011) are the lowest of any region, increase over the past 20 years suggests that adult literacy rates will likely increase as the youths grow up.


  • Africa, a continent larger than China, India, United States, Japan, and most of Europe combined is becoming the next frontier market.
  • With rapidly growing population, increased urbanization, and what is soon-to-be the world’s largest workforce, Africa has an opportunity to transform into a global economic
  • Africa’s population is young and growing rapidly.
  • Over 1 billion people live in Africa, half of whom are under the age of 20.
  • Whilst population growth in other regions has slowed, Africa’s has increased by 42%per year for the past 30 years.
  • By 2050, the African population is forecast to rise to at least 2.4 billion and will continue to grow to 4.2 billion, four timesits current size in the next 100 years.
  • Urban share of Africa’s population has doubledfrom 19% to 39% over the last 50 years, which means more than 360 million new city dwellers.
  • By 2030, urban populations will increase by an additional 350 million
  • Percentage of people living in cities is higher than in India and will reach 58%by 2030.
  • Africa has 52cities with populations of one million or higher, the same number as for Europe.
  • Several African cities, such as Dar es Salaam and Kinshasa, are now and will continue to be among the fastest-growingin the world.
  • Africa is the fastest urbanizingcontinent in the world.
  • Good governanceand urban investment will ensure that benefits of urbanization are maximized while negative effects are minimized.
  • Competition, transfer of knowhow, and spill-over effects can make cities a source of rapid economic growth.
  • Although Africa has made good progress towards achieving universal primary education, more needs to be done to improve primary completion rates, the quality of education, and secondary and tertiary enrollments.


  • 35%of the youth have no access to secondary education or technical skills development.
  • For many young people, six years of school are insufficientto build literacy skills.
  • Population growth, higher demand for educationand attrition of resources to hire and train teachers are driving demand in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Public spending in education currently averages around 5%of Africa’s GDP, from just over 1% in Central African Republic to 12% in Lesotho.

The need for skills development

Examining the definition of literacy as posited by UNESCO and the challenges that have faced both informal and formal education, especially in Africa, it is obvious there is an urgent need for a more strategic approach to addressing the literacy gap. One of such options is through skills development. This can be explored for the promotion of decent living amongst individuals, which would invariably lead to the development of the economy and sustainable development in general.

It can be said that Education and training are sound investments for any individual, the employer, and the economy. Skills development for participants in the labor force is important in the world today for several reasons. Technological change and the increased competition flowing from trade liberalisation require higher skills and productivity among workers and as such, skilled workers are more readily able to adapt existing knowledge and processes. Hence, investing in the productivity and skills of people raises the incomes of economically vulnerable groups, thereby reducing poverty.

Agenda 2063 of the Africa Union recognises that the future of the continent, in part, rests on the skills, knowledge, talents and commitment of its young people. Aspiration 6 of Agenda 2063 specifically talks of an Africa where Development is People-Driven, Unleashing the Potential of its Women and Youth.

Skills development in Africa is firmly rooted in Agenda 2063, which considers it a mechanism for eliminating youth unemployment. The aspirations are posited upon speeding up actions in “Catalysing an Education and Skills revolution and actively promote science, technology, research and innovation, to build knowledge, human resources, capabilities and skills for the African century.”

Specifically, skills development can be approached through strengthening of technical and vocational education and training through scaled up investments, the establishment of a pool of high-quality Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) centres across Africa, greater links with industry and alignment to labour markets, with a view to improve the skills profile, employability and entrepreneurship of especially youth and women. Implementation will also be within the wider global framework of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly goal 4 which aims at ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030. SDG 4, target 4.4, talks of “substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship.”

In conclusion

As we celebrate the International Literacy day, come the 8th of September, Governments, parastatals, private sector organisations, as well as Non-governmental organisations must take deliberate steps in ensuring that whilst the rate of literacy as it concerns formal education should be on the increasing side, policies and programs (vocational trainings) that would propel skills development in the populace should also be advocated for.


Skills Development in Sub-Saharan Africa Richard K. Johanson Arvil V. Adams THE WORLD BANK Washington, D.C.





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