Opinions, Trends

Skills and Credentialing in the General Context of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)

The countries of the African Union (AU) are blessed with many natural resources – the greatest of which may be their youthful, talented, and dynamic peoples. Recognising the significance of this for the continent’s development, with the Kigali Declaration of 2018, the AU’s member states founded the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). This African single market region will offer unprecedented employment opportunities for its members’ citizens.

This enormous talent pool constitutes a workforce without borders whose skills need to be transferable across markets. However, African national education systems are often burdened with relatively inflexible traditional structures which fail to match the demand for skills with the actual supply.

Among the disruptive “weapons” in the struggle to overcome this hindrance are concept areas that include terms like alternative credentials, micro-credentials, short courses, verified digital credentials, badges, certifications, and others.

The issues at hand are clearly recognised in Africa. For example, in the context of the project AU EU Skills for Youth Employability: SIFA Technical Cooperation – Developing the African Continental Qualifications Framework (ACQF), a September 2020 working paper on the regional qualifications framework of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) stated:

The region is cognisant that most adults and young people acquire skills, knowledge and competence through non-formal and informal learning settings. (SADC RPL 2016). This is due to socio-economic challenges such as poverty, high unemployment, inability of most formal education systems to recognise non-formal and informal learning, and high prevalence of an informal economy. Accredited qualifications and certificates are a pre-requisite for finding decent jobs and accessing further education and training.

The importance of alternative methods of valuing and recognising different forms of knowledge, skills and competencies as well as to transit the economies of the region from informal to formal has been acknowledged. (SADC RPL 2016). In 2016, the region adopted the recognition of prior learning (RPL) as a mechanism for recognition of informal and non-formal learning, and developed a regional guideline. … It serves as a framework for regional harmonisation and benchmarking of RPL across the region in the promotion of lifelong learning; employability; social inclusion and self-esteem of individuals (SADC RPL: 2016) … and places emphasis on development of relevant skills required to formalise the region’s predominantly informal economy. …

RPL in the region is understood as a process that makes all learning outcomes and competencies visible, entailing the identification, assessment and certification of knowledge, skills and competencies – regardless of how, when or where the learning occurred – against prescribed standards for a part (modular) or full qualification. Establishment and implementation of RPL systems should be guided by the principles of integration and comprehensiveness; a systemic approach; inclusion and non-discrimination; participation; transparency and sustainability towards the establishment and implementation of an RPL system. Member States in the region are at various stages of development and implementation of RPL Systems.

Description-> https://nepad.org/skillsportalforyouth/publication/african-continental-qualifications-framework-acqf-mapping-study
Download-> https://www.etf.europa.eu/sites/default/files/2020-10/sadc_acqf_mapping_2020_final_reviewed_web_engl.pdf

The following is a concise discussion of the state of play formulated around five questions. The answers offered articulate the observations and opinions of the selected sources. They do not pretend to be either exhaustive or authoritative, but rather represent voices of expertise in the field.

Which skills and competencies are particularly relevant for Africa in the short and medium terms?

The African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) prepared a background paper for the 2018 MasterCard Foundation report Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work. The paper discusses the creation of decent jobs in line with future expectations of what has become known as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR). The work focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), but certainly bears relevance for the entire continent.

The paper identified “five potential pathways with high potential for job creation”. In the following, these are listed, and an excerpt from the paper’s comments is presented for each.

  1. Agriculture-Driven Transformation
    For many countries, agriculture presents the easiest path to industrialisation and economic transformation by leveraging their relative comparative advantage in abundant low-wage labor and land. It’s the largest employment sector in the region – in 2015, around 205 million people in SSA were employed in agriculture and employment is forecast to grow by just over 2 percent on average, each year, out to 2030 (ILOSTAT, 2017)
  2. Export-Oriented Manufacturing
    Export-oriented manufacturing not only can be labor intensive, it can spur productivity gains throughout the economy as exporters compete with foreign firms and adopt foreign products, services, processes, and technologies. Growing regional markets, an expanding middle class in Africa and potential relocation of manufacturing production out of China caused by rising wages should create opportunities for export-orientated manufacturing in Africa.
  3. A Modernised Services Sector
    The services sector would perhaps benefit most from 4IR. It is already the fastest growing sector in terms of job creation and value added to GDP in most African economies, employing around 111 million people across SSA in 2015. It is forecast to grow by 3.8 percent on average each year out to 2030 (ILOSTAT, 2017). And, although highly informal, the majority of sought-after wage employment jobs are in this sector (largely public sector, followed by commerce and transportation … And the potential for increased job creation is even greater with 4IR.
  4. Tourism
    Tourism is one of the assured pathways to economic transformation due to its capacity to create jobs (particularly for women and youth) and create linkages with other sub-sectors (ACET, 2014). In 2017, the sector directly supported just under 7 million jobs (around 2 percent of total employment) in SSA, and the sector is projected to support more than 2.5 million additional jobs by 2028. Including jobs supported indirectly by the industry, the total employment contribution is expected to rise from around 17 million to 24 million in 2028.
  5. The Creative Industries
    Only recently recognised as a bona fide economic sector, the creative industry is one of the more resilient and fastest growing sectors in Africa.

    The AfDB points out that creative industries can play an important role by:
    1. using African culture and creativity as a unique selling point
    2. boosting productivity and structural transformation
    3. creating jobs for women and youth (labor intensive, generating more skilled and unskilled jobs)
    4. generating local content, building micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and developing skills
    5. accelerating economic growth and industrialisation; and
    6. enhancing regional integration and new trade patterns, and boosting exports.

      The sector is huge, with a global value in 2012 of around $2.2 trillion, while world trade in creative goods and services was US$624 billion. … Sector forecasts are hard to come by, but PWC project growth of around 6-7 percent annually over the next two years in the entertainment and media sectors in Kenya and South Africa and around 10 percent a year in Nigeria.

However, beyond the technical realm, a broader question has arisen: Besides their technical abilities, which competencies and characteristics should job seekers possess that make them attractive potential employees?

Again, the ACET report offers some direction. It emphasises that young people need “… solid foundational skills: good basic cognitive, basic STEM and digital, and non-cognitive skills, including interpersonal and socio-emotional skills, such as resilience and curiosity.” Furthermore, “Higher order cognitive and technical skills … also will be crucial … For example … unstructured problem solving, learning, and reasoning …”. (Preparing Youth for the Future of Work, p. 30)

The World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report 2020” expands the topic somewhat: “Since its 2016 edition, this report has tracked the cross-functional skills which are in increasing demand. Figure 27 shows the top skills and skill groups which employers see as rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025. These include groups such as critical thinking and analysis as well as problem solving, which have stayed at the top of the agenda with year-on-year consistency. Newly emerging this year are skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.” (p. 35)

An important caveat assessed as being significant in Africa is presented in an ILO document entitled Migrant Workers’ Skills Portability in Africa at Regional Economic Community and Continental Level – Guidance towards an African Qualifications Framework. It explains, “Technical recognition of competences is relatively easy to organise, provided the existing assessors are able to assess competences: it is often called validation. Societal/labour market recognition is what matters for job search and other labour market or further training-related activities. In fact, without societal recognition, almost all assessment and validation processes are useless because they provide learners with qualifications that have no currency in the society and in the labour market.” (p. 10).

Who is offering courses that supply these skills and competencies?

Stated simply, there is no way to provide a meaningful answer to this question. Though hardly scientific, an indication of the magnitude of the issue can be seen in the fact that entering “Africa skills and competency training” into Google produces “About 63,800,000 results”!

Suppliers include both private and public organisations and institutions worldwide, and thus needless to say, finding online providers in a specific realm is a daunting task. Fortunately, numerous “aggregators” present course titles in a relatively straightforward manner.

One aggregator, which identifies 186 courses offered by African institutions, can be found at https://www.academiccourses.com/Courses/Africa/

Another, classcentral.com, focuses on American sources. For example, searching for courses in general areas related to two of the above-mentioned sectors from the ACET report revealed the following:

  • Agriculture -> https://www.classcentral.com/subject/agriculture
  • Manufacturing -> https://www.classcentral.com/subject/manufacturing
    ‘Drilling down’ is of course necessary to see whether a particular course is of direct relevance.

The United Nations also offers courses, and the site https://unric.org/en/sharpen-your-skills-during-lockdown-with-united-nations-e-learning-courses/ mentions the IDEP eLearning Platform. The platform is under the auspices of the ECA – Economic Commission for Africa, African Institute for Economic Development and Planning.

The description states, “Since its creation, IDEP works to assist African governments in their training efforts and capacity building in the areas of economic management and planning. In this regard, it works closely with African member states to assess their needs and develop general courses, …”

As might be expected, it appears that the broadest selection of online courses is offered by universities and the private sector in the USA. Among the major players are Coursera.org, Udemy.com, Ed2go.com, and Lecturio.com.

Coursera, for example, offers more than 6,000 courses.

N.B. Inclusion of this information is not an endorsement, either implicit or explicit, of the quality of any of the companies’ offerings or their suitability for the learning environment in the countries of Africa.

Yet another source of skills training, though not in the classical “course” format, is the WorldSkills organisation, which currently has 85 member countries that by its own account, “connects two thirds of the world’s population.” Their website explains further,

“WorldSkills builds confidence, empowers communities, and helps to fuel economies. We inspire young people to develop a passion for skills and pursuing excellence, through competitions and promotions. We develop skills through global training standards, benchmarking systems, and enhancing industry engagement. We influence industry, government, and educators through cooperation and research — building a global platform of skills for all … Competitions, alongside the WorldSkills Conference, are the main ways the organisation promotes skills globally.”

Eight African countries are currently members of WorldSkills, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, and Zambia. The types of skills WorldSkills will help develop for Africa through capacity building programmes and skills competitions are:

  • Automobile Technology
  • Bricklaying
  • Electrical Installations
  • Joinery
  • Plumbing and Heating
  • Refrigeration and Air Conditioning
  • Wall and Floor Tiling
  • Water Technolog
  • Cooking
  • Hairdressing
  • Restaurant Service
  • Mechatronics
  • Welding
  • Mechanical Engineering CAD
  • Fashion Technology

“Digital Challenge” is a special category that focuses on digital solutions created by the competitors for tackling social issues addressed by the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The solutions, which use IT and digital related skills, e.g. coding, web design, graphic design, and app development also target problems faced by local communities.

How are micro-credentials and other less traditional forms of credentials viewed by prospective employers in comparison with a full degree?

The simple answer is that there is very little research on this topic – not only in Africa but globally. It would seem logical to surmise that the more innovation-oriented the prospective employer, the broader and more flexible the view. Company size is also likely to play a role: a large firm with hundreds, or even thousands, of employees can afford to “take a risk”, whereas one with fewer than fifty is not likely to have this luxury. These conjectures receive some support below.

In his Keynote at the Satellite 2020 event, Elon Musk said, “I think college is basically for fun and to prove that you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning”. Musk’s comments were carried in an article in the African edition of the Business Insider magazine, whose title added, “- and Apple, Google, and Netflix don’t require employees to have 4-year degrees either”.

Regarding Apple, at the inaugural meeting of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board in 2019, Tim Cook said, “So we’ve never really thought that a college degree was the thing that you had to have to do well. We’ve always tried to expand our horizons”, and he added, “… about half of our U.S. employment last year were people that did not have a four-year degree. And we’re very proud of that, but we want to go further.”

As a concomitant, it is of interest to note that the above-mentioned Business Insider article states, “… college degrees seem to pay off. Workers that hold at least a bachelor’s degree earned $502 more in median weekly earnings than those with just a high school education, according to a May 2020 report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, the unemployment rate among those with less than a high school degree is more than double that of bachelors degree holders.”

A valid reply to the question at hand may be complicated by the fact that general knowledge regarding alternative and micro-credentials seems to be lacking among employers. A 2019 article in University World News explains, “… but even as millions of micro-credentials are being issued, it is still very early in the development of a new market. In our recent US survey, only 30%-40% of hiring leaders had ever encountered a given micro-credential on a résumé and just 16% reported they had hired an individual who held one.”

Also, another 2019 article, this one in Inside Higher Ed, observed, “These new programmes don’t appear to be yet tickets to job mobility. There’s a lot of promise in micro-credential programmes helping people advance at their current employer or attaining jobs, but this data shows that there’s still a long way to go before that happens … Employers aren’t really aware of micro-credentials and are still reliant on degrees to evaluate candidates.”

Finally, in an unhappily similar vein, a March 2020 OECD Working Paper entitled The Emergence of Alternative Credentials, in Section 5 Stakeholder perspectives on alternative credentials (Subsection 5.1 “Employers”), the authors state, “On balance, employers do not yet seem to view alternative credentials as substitutes for formal higher education qualifications; rather, they appear to see them as complements to formal qualifications.” And they go on to explain, “This limited function as a signal may partly be explained by employers’ unfamiliarity with these credentials. The study of 750 human resources executives in the United States shows that only 20% have hired a person with verified certificates … , 30% have encountered these certificates in a recruitment process, and 24% have never heard of these. A smaller share of the respondents reported the experience of hiring an individual with digital badges (14%) and micro-credentials (around 10%) …”

If this is the situation in the US, one might imagine the situation in African countries as being even more dismal. However, not all the news is negative.

On a national institutional level, African countries (specifically, countries in southern Africa) clearly understand the need for a system that contributes to facilitating the movement of learners and workers, and also promotes lifelong learning opportunities across the Southern Africa Development Community and internationally. Efforts in this direction go back several years and are well documented. The Community’s ten-level reference SADC regional Qualifications Framework, referred to as the SADCQF, was established in 2011 and launched in 2017. In fact, it goes beyond the issue of micro-credentials, intending “to facilitate … the recognition of studies, certificates, diplomas, degrees and other academic qualifications in higher education in African States.”

Yet another upbeat view is to be found in an article on the QUARTZ website that confidently claims University Degrees Are Not the Answer for Africa’s Unemployed Youth. Although it is somewhat dated (2016), the article’s author explains, “In my work at West Africa Vocational Education (WAVE)—getting unemployed young Nigerians ready for the workplace and connecting them to entry-level jobs—I meet with employers all the time, and I ask them what makes a successful employee. The answer usually focuses on character, behavior and soft skills, not a university degree.”

It is reasonable to expect that over the past five years, this type of thinking has gained traction, and while the following statement bears the hallmarks of a platitude, it is indeed arguable that the upheavals in the world caused by the pandemic have created more “new realities” than most of us realise. I frequently find myself thinking of the Avicii / AloeBlacc hit “Wake me up when it’s all over”.

How are pan-African institutions, e.g. the AU, as well as regional and national institutions, government, industry groups, etc. addressing new credentialing trends?

As indicated above, African countries and organisations have been dealing with job-skills as a feature of their labour-market endeavours for at least a decade. Micro-credentials, though, are a much more recent component.

The African Union Commission, with funding from the German government, has launched the Skills Initiative for Africa (SIFA). The effort strives to achieve four results:

  • Selected institutions are capacitated to provide employment-oriented skills development
  • Access to employment-oriented skills development for young people is improved, in particular for women, students from low-income groups, refugees and migrants.
  • The private sector contributes to improving skills development by participating in the design and the delivery of employment-oriented skills development programmes
  • Lessons learned and best practices are disseminated at national, regional and continental level

Although no credentials-related projects have yet been added to the SIFA palette, given Germany’s – and Europe’s in general – promotion of micro-credentials, an extension in this direction would not be surprising.

An article entitled The Recent Rise of Micro-Credentials appeared in October 2020 on the website of QS Quacquarelli Symonds. The author’s analysis was based upon a relatively narrow definition: “A micro–credential is a sector-endorsed short course that provides the recipient with specialist skill” and she opened with the claim, “The coronavirus crisis has prompted a surge of interest in short, low-cost, online courses (micro-credentials) at higher education institutions.”

Casting an eye on Africa, she opined, “… micro-credentials can … help encourage the globalisation of higher education, offering international students the opportunity to attain an accredited course from a prestigious university, without having to live abroad. This is particularly beneficial for countries suffering from brain drain, as young people are more likely to remain in their home countries if they are given remote access to higher education abroad.”

In regard to qualifications and credentialing, South Africa has probably been the most active country in Africa and one of the most active in the entire world. The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) is a statutory body dating back to 2008. It is mandated by legislation to oversee the development and implementation of the country’s National Qualifications Framework (NQF). The NQF, in turn, traces its origins back to the labour movement of the early 1970s.

A 2018 UNESCO report entitled Digital Credentialing – Implications for the recognition of learning across borders recognises the country’s achievements in this field, saying, “South Africa stands out as an example of the development of a sophisticated relational database linked to its qualifications framework. The National Learners’ Records Database (NLRD) has allowed for the verification of qualifications to be handled from within the national system. Not all governments have repositories of degrees … with this level of sophistication, particularly in the developing world.” The agency’s director goes so far as to state that the NLRD is, in fact, “the first such system in the world.”

However, South Africa is by no means alone in its credentialing efforts. In 1997, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) signed its protocol on education and training, which in 2017 consolidated into the SADC Qualifications Framework (SADCQF) and the SADC Qualifications Verification Network (SADCQVN). At present, the SADC members (Angola, Botswana, Comoros, Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) are working to finalise the alignment of their respective national qualifications frameworks.

What can this mean for the AfCFTA and united Africa in terms of trade, particularly in regard to the movement of goods and talents?

In an article entitled 6 reasons why Africa’s new free trade area is a global game changer, the World Economic Forum expressed guarded optimism regarding the AfCFTA’s benefits. While observing that the African nations’ endeavour seeks to be a model of cross-border cooperation in an era of growing isolationism and has the potential to transform the continent’s economic prospects, it also recognised that the agreement has various challenges to overcome, in order to realise its many benefits.

One of these challenges is summarised in the title of an article by the Jobs for Africa Foundation: For AfCFTA to succeed, Africa must focus on skills development. In the article, the Foundation expresses its belief that because it is ultimately Africa’s private sector that will drive trade among the free-trade area’s member states, their governments will have to cooperate to create an enabling environment for the private sector to produce the goods and services to be traded. Finally, with regard to skills, the author observes that “African countries need to put more emphasis on making TVET a ‘cool thing’ for young people. It is important to change the mindset that you can only succeed through university education and that TVET is a ticket to failure.”

Regarding the movement of talents, it would appear that few things are more crucial than having job seekers’ credentials recognised across AfCFTA’s internal borders. The member states are well aware of this and working toward various types of continent-wide accreditation schemes.

Perhaps the most ambitious of these is the African Continental Qualifications Framework project, whose partners include the African Union Commission, the European Union, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, and the European Training Foundation. A seminal document entitled MAPPING REPORT Towards the African Continental Qualifcations Framework contains a wealth of relevant information, but the project partners decided that no part of the publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or otherwise without the permission of the publisher. Unfortunately, the present article’s time frame rendered securing this permission impossible.

A preparatory Working Paper, though, provides good insight into the thinking and approach the project takes toward credentialing.

At least one other intercontinental organisation is also aware of the issues and clearly addresses the topic of alternative credentials. In the G20 Compact with Africa Private Sector Investment Report of October 2020, the members advocate that “Governments and employers should demonstrate a new openness and willingness to treat alternative credentials gained through online/distance education as being valid and acceptable for the purposes of employment so that vulnerable population groups who have shifted to online modes of learning are not unduly affected in the job search process. Micro credentials, digital badges and other alternative credentials should be accorded due recognition.” (p. 41)

Needless to say, the process still has a long way to go.


A GIZ discussion paper entitled A Fresh Chance for Africa’s Youth – Labour Market Effects of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) states, “The AfCFTA, if properly implemented, could provide more, and better jobs that are sorely needed for Africa’s sustainable development. Political will and a commitment to reform will nevertheless be necessary to tap into the huge potential of Africa’s young labour force and ensure that the gains from economic integration are distributed fairly across the continent.” (p. 5)

Alternative credentials – encompassing the definition that comprises both the training opportunities and the documentation of their successful completion – have an important role to play in facilitating the mobility African job seekers require to help realise the positive labour market effects the AfCFTA’s creators are striving to achieve. It appears the political will exists in abundance, but the degree of commitment to reform is yet to be proven.

The aspirations of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 would appear to be formulated within a timeframe that is generous enough to permit their realisation. However, as an American baseball star is reputed to have profoundly stated

One Comment

  1. Michael Adedotun Oke

    A great write up and more and more
    Best Regards,
    Michael Adedotun Oke
    Founder Michael Adedotun Oke Foundation Plot 232 Kaida Along Old Kuntunku GwagwaladaP.O.Box 11611,Garki,Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Nigeria.

    A member of Federal Capital Territory Union Of Journalism

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