Redefining education

Editor, Anver Versi, speaks to Peter Materu, Chief Program Officer at the Mastercard Foundation.


Image : Dane Robison/

This article is sponsored by Mastercard Foundation

In 2019, we spoke to CEO, Reeta Roy, on the important work that the Mastercard Foundation is engaged in on the continent, through the Young Africa Works strategy to enable 30m young Africans to access dignified work over the next decade.

Given the unexpected and unprecedented nature of this year’s events, we wanted to touch base with the Foundation and learn about how they are responding to this crisis, as well as explore one of the key initiatives they’ve been engaged in this year: the launch of their Secondary Education in Africa Report. Editor, Anver Versi, spoke to Peter Materu, Chief Program Officer at the Foundation.

What impact has the pandemic had on the roll out of your various projects?

Like others, we and our partners were impacted by the various measures taken to address the pandemic and mitigate its spread. We realised early on that we needed to be flexible in supporting our partners in the critical work that they do—much of which has only been rendered more, not less, important and relevant in the wake of the pandemic.

In response to the pandemic and its effects, we launched the Mastercard Foundation COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Programme. One of our key goals was to support the public health response, which we are doing through strategic partnerships with organisations like the Africa CDC. Increasingly, the Programme is also helping to address and mitigate the socio-economic effects of the pandemic. It includes work in the education sector to enable learning continuity. And will double down on key drivers of transformation, particularly access to finance and digitisation across sectors such as agriculture. Interestingly, these are many of the same areas we typically focus on under Young Africa Works. So we are now engaged in a process of harmonising the two programmes and realigning our Young Africa Works strategy to the needs and priorities that will define the landscape over the next few years.

In August you released your Secondary Education in Africa Report. Why this special focus on secondary education?

Good question. We know that education has been disrupted globally, which has raised serious concerns about the potential reversal of learning gains. Ultimately, we know that even in the best of times, investments in secondary education are important for transforming the lives of individuals, communities, and economies.

According to some estimates, GDP per worker could be 2.5 times higher if everyone reached the benchmark of complete education and full health. For individuals, each additional year of schooling raises individual earnings by 11 percent for young men and 14 percent for young women in Africa.

In the wake of Covid-19, investments in Secondary Education become even more imperative for countries that are pursuing economic recovery and the protection of vulnerable groups. Secondary education is an area that the Foundation has been working on over the last decade, and we believe that it has become more urgent than ever.

What are challenges facing secondary education and what can be done about them?

Now more than ever there are opportunities to reimagine how we think about secondary education. In addition to the challenge of access, we need to rethink its purpose. To rethink its practice—from the content we teach, to how we deliver that content and train teachers. And to make it more inclusive.

One of the greatest needs is alignment between the practice and purpose of secondary education. At the Foundation, we believe that the primary purpose of secondary education should be to lay the foundation for, and prepare young people for the world of work. At the moment, only a small fraction of young people pursue tertiary education. The vast majority will have, at best, some level of secondary education training before transitioning into the world of work.

It is clear, from assessments and from the reports of employers, that secondary education is falling short in terms of preparing young people for work. Too often, young people exit the system without basic skills, without the soft skills they need to be employable, and without a practical skill they can parlay into income.

With that said, some of the key areas that we can focus on are: incorporating digital, vocational, STEM, and soft skills training into curricula; incorporating opportunities for remedial learning into secondary education; and investing in developing flexible education systems – there are still many barriers that keep young people from pursuing or completing secondary education.

So we need to design a system that works for all young people—that allows all of them to complete their education, even if they don’t do it at the same pace or in the same way as their peers. A system that isn’t “all or nothing” in the way it delivers education.

How is Secondary Education related to Young Africa Works?

Young Africa Works is about enabling young people to access dignified and fulfilling work. When we typically think about youth employment, we think about job creation in a broad sense—and that’s an essential part of the equation.

But we also have to ensure that young people are equipped to carry out those roles. What we are saying is that secondary education is a key platform for ensuring that relevant skilling and mindsets are in place.

Quality secondary education – indeed education at any level – requires quality teachers. Is Africa producing sufficient high quality teachers?

There is absolutely a need to invest in teachers. Over 10 million additional secondary school teachers will be needed by 2030 to meet demand for secondary education on the continent. So yes, teachers are critical—and they need to be equipped to do their job and motivated. This is something that we have sought to do through our programs over the last decade.

For example, we had one partnership in Uganda with an organisation called STIR, to encourage and enable teachers to develop low-cost, low tech solutions to the challenges they face. This support motivated teachers to own and solve the challenges around them – and it is amazing how impactful their innovations were. It is also a lesson: that we need to listen to teachers and hear their solutions to this issue.

Another area that we need to work on to ensure we have a pipeline of high-quality teachers, is attracting more young people to the teaching profession. We need to reinfuse the teaching profession with the status it once had, and to frame it as an opportunity for dignified work.

Finally, we also have opportunities to use technology to help teachers do more with less. For example, we are supporting an organisation called Litemore, which is using digital technology to ease the administrative burden from teachers, such as recording and analysing test scores, communicating to parents and so on, so that they can focus on their core work—teaching.

We live in world dominated by science yet the teaching of this subject is still lagging far behind in Africa compared to other regions. What are you doing to help boost the quality education of science?

There are many countries that have taken investments in STEM education very seriously, which is great to see. Rwanda is one example. In the wake of the pandemic, we will likely see many more awaken to the need to invest in this area, particularly as we see probable shifts in the region towards greater domestic production of things like pharmaceuticals or technology so that we are less externally reliant.

At the Foundation, we do recognise and believe that investing in STEM is critical to creating new opportunities for young people on the continent. That is one of the recommendations of our report. We have a few partnerships dedicated to this. We recently entered into a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University—Africa, for example, to train more young people in the area artificial intelligence, which is an emerging opportunity globally.

What do you see as the role of philanthropy in delivering quality secondary education for all?

Clearly the scale and scope of investments needed in Secondary Education are significant. No actor or sector can tackle them alone. There is a role for all of us. Governments, of course, must lead the charge. But this is also a time of significant economic strain and governments are facing more competing demands than usual, with fewer resources at their disposal. Now more than ever there is a critical role for the private and philanthropic sectors to play. And this goes beyond financing, although that is part of it. It is also about helping governments to identify the cost-effective solutions that can easily be scaled to address some of the key issues facing the education sector.

Anver Versi

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