The urgency for mainstreaming the apprenticeship system within the continent is evident. That also underscores its substantial adoption by some countries. Low levels of school enrollment, coupled with elevated levels of graduate unemployment, have made it imperative for some West African countries like Senegal and Ghana to rely on the scheme to narrow the gaps. According to the 2008 Africa Economic Outlook, there are about 400,000 young Senegalese in apprenticeships every year. Similarly, up to 80% of the skills development activities in Ghana are through the apprenticeship system.

According to the African Development Bank, the population of African youths will likely double from about 420 million currently to more than 830 million in the next three decades. At present, the young make up about 60% of the unemployed population. One third are unemployed, while another one-third are vulnerably employed. Unfortunately, continental unemployment averages tend to hide the severity of this crisis. Many of the leading economies in the continent already have skyrocketing levels of youth economic inactivity. For instance, the 2019 Youth unemployment in South Africa and Swaziland are 54.5% and 56% respectively. In Libya, Mozambique and Namibia, the rates exceed 40%. In Nigeria, it is unofficially at about 45%.

As the unemployment situation interacts with low levels of school enrollment across the continent, a more dismal picture emerges. According to UNESCO, about 60% of sub-Saharan African youths between the ages of 15 and 17 are not in school. 20% of children between 6 and 11 years of age are not in school. Again approximately 33% of those between the ages of 12 and 14 are equally excluded from formal school education. These statistics put sub-Saharan Africa above the rest of the world in education exclusion.

The growing size of youth unemployment in Africa is a significant driver of the slow pace of African educational enrollment. Youth unemployment is a severe disincentive to those who feel that formal education would be the key to securing an excellent job. Unfortunately, much of the knowledge appears not tailored appropriately to exploit the natural and other predominant economic activities within the continent. For instance, agriculture and agro-processing that are natively dominant economic activities in the continent do not have prime places in the school curriculum. However, if the reverse is the case, graduating students would naturally find employment in several of the agricultural value chains. The same scenario applies to other artisanal trades such as woodwork, carpentry, and metalwork. Increasingly, Asian artisans that seem to possess better expertise in more precise woodwork and finishing are taking up these jobs while many of our youth idle away jobless.

The involvement of African youth in the myriad agricultural value chains is quite limited. The average of several estimates put the indicative involvement level around 35%. We also know, without any debate, that agriculture alone can cut the unemployment rate in Africa by 50% if properly harnessed.

Education, on the other hand, must be relevant for the socio-economic survival of the recipient. Where this test of relevance fails, it should undergo a complete overhaul. This “seeming irrelevance” is pretty much the tag on Africa’s formal education, which has long been due for a total revamp. It is fraught with a gross mismatch between the mind and skill formation vis-à-vis the requirements and demands of the socio-economic environment where they are to be applied.

Apprenticeship system seems to have dealt with this mismatch. The Igbo apprenticeship system has enabled the engagement of more youth in those activities that are in higher demand in the areas of economic life where they are in practice. However, the apprenticeship system generally facilitates the learning of skills that are relevant within that socio-economic environment, given that there is a master craftsman available to transfer the skills. This system of skill transfer is easily replicable across several agricultural value chains within the continent. More importantly, a dual-track version of the Igbo apprenticeship system which integrates formal education can easily be the solution to Africa’s claim to prosperity.

The African Union Commission has long recognized the strategic importance of the apprenticeship system as a way of managing the unemployment crisis in the continent. The Commission reiterated this in its Agenda 2063 and the 1,000,000 by 2021 initiative.

In its Agenda 2063, the African Union identified the provision of youth with skills that respond to the job market through vocational training, on-the-job training and apprenticeships as a critical strategy for increasing incomes and providing decent jobs for working-age adults. It also held that it was crucial to creating the opportunities for transiting from unemployed, vulnerable and informal sector jobs to formal sector jobs. It is one of the priority areas for addressing sustainable development goals is numbers one and five within the continent. The Commission also identified internships and apprenticeships as one of the 12 pathways for action on youth employment within the 4Es framework. The focus of the 4Es structure is to achieve essential levels of youth development within the program, tagged “One million by 2021 initiative.” The 4Es represent four areas of focus, namely education, employment, entrepreneurship, and engagement.

Similarly, the European and African Union Commission at the joint 27 February meeting held and African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa agreed to strengthen cooperation through the expansion of vocational education and training mobility, apprenticeships and other workplace learning and career guidance to address the skills mismatch.

One missing element in all of this is clarity on the structure of the apprenticeship system that the Commission intends to promote. Without such clarity, it will remain an uphill task as it currently is to realize the goal. Although the Senegalese dual-track apprenticeship model delivers profound results, a dual-track modification of the Igbo apprenticeship system will likely deliver faster and more significant impact. On its own, without the incorporation of the theoretical formalizations that come with structured learning, it has continued to provide amazing results. More importantly, it comes with seed capital without necessarily turning to the government, banks, or financial institutions. In effect, it has a strong shock absorption capacity to consistently create prosperity without the usual threats of government policy changes. Be that as it may, the Commission can adopt up to three different models for mainstreaming. The idea of focusing on a well clarified and understood model is that it makes it easier to sell to institutions that may help with grants and other forms of support.

As it is often said, “there is nothing more practical than good theories”. Although the Igbo apprenticeship system is robust with rich practical content, it can benefit immensely with the infusion of theoretic materials in its learning process. There is no point reinventing the wheel here as there are several dual-track apprenticeship examples both within Africa and other parts of the world such as Germany to copy. The perfection of this integrated dual-track apprenticeship curriculum should be the first level of action in the mainstreaming process by the African Union Commission. The Commission should own its brand of feasible apprenticeship model that is replicable across the continent. There could be variations in the curriculum integration process depending on a specific country and cultural differences as well as the activity type. For instance, the quantum of theoretical knowledge required by someone apprenticed to a trader (merchant) will differ significantly from the one apprenticed to a shoemaker.

With reasonable clarity on the choice of the model [or group of models], the African Union Commission now has a commodity to sell to various governments. This is where its primary mainstreaming function will begin. Through strategic suasion, the Commission will get various governments to at least experiment with the models up to an absolute minimum level in pursuance of an a priori defined performance target. As a continental body, it will become easier to approach supportive multilateral organizations for grants to kickstart the program in some African countries. Together with some of these global bodies, the Commission should amplify the engagement of several non-governmental organizations in the program’s advocacy.

Working with country governments, the Commission should identify corporate organizations as well as wealthy African business owners that can be supportive of this program/initiative and make them partners. The role of partners is to supplement the grants and other financial contributions for the effort. The financing supports is necessary to take care of the cost of the complimenting formal education, which can occur once or twice a week during the apprenticeship training. It may also facilitate the acquisition of essential workshop tools for the apprentices.

There are at least four interrelated benefits of the AU Commission taking the lead as suggested. The first is the placement of a seal of authenticity and acceptance of the apprenticeship system as a veritable pathway to orchestrating prosperity in Africa. Secondly, it will foster stronger public-private sector partnerships in employment creation and management of the youth as social assets. With special programs designed to tap into the agricultural value chain, the initiative will help in unlocking the trapped massive economic potential of the African people. Thirdly, the program will set forth a new wave of balanced and relevant education. By fusing productive, practical learning with theoretical knowledge, our school will become more productive while those who graduate from it become more self-reliant. It will also usher in a new wave of scientific and technological progress. It will also slowly banish the era of armchair engineers and scientists who do not have the faintest idea of how some of the things they have read in school work out in reality. Finally, they all sum up to enormous wealth and well-being for the average African.