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Kenya: ‘Some of the more mature economies assume that very little is going on in Africa…’ says Kagia

By Rachel Ombaka

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Posted on August 26, 2022 12:41

My meeting with Ruth Kagia is on a Monday morning – in the midst of the election season. Despite this, she says our conversation is important, as there is a need to amplify what may have been thrust into the proverbial back seat.

Kagia serves as a senior advisor and deputy chief of staff to the president of Kenya. Her research and management portfolio speaks volumes to the president’s choice of having her take the lead on crucial policy development, particularly with regards to education of the girl child.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 32.6 million girls of primary and lower-secondary school age are out of school, with millions more at risk as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The World Bank says without improvements in gender equality, we will not reduce poverty in Africa. We look at the crux of the matter.

Just before re-joining the government in 2014, Kagia worked at the World Bank from 1990-2013 during which she held various positions, including as World Bank global director for education (2002–2008), as well as the World Bank country director for Southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho) and for part of that time, Mauritius and Madagascar as well. Before joining the World Bank, she worked with the Kenyan government in teaching, education management, and research.

I ask her about the status of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in Africa, the challenges in advancing such disciplines and her take on the way forward.

“Too often we talk very generally about education, which is important, but focusing on specific elements, such as STEM, becomes the spearpoint of change,” she tells me, through our virtual interview.

In reference to the continental policy level, Kagia cites Agenda 2063, which is Africa’s development blueprint to achieve inclusive and sustainable socio-economic development over a 50-year period.

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“We have a science and technology programme, which was launched in 2014 and quite a few institutions have been formed around this to support the broad strategic thrust, including capacity building for Africa. Every so often, during the African Union summit they do give an update on where we are, but as you get more granular – at the individual country level – progress has not been as great as what would have been expected,” she says.

Uneven progress

Girls’ education is the key to tackling our most pressing global challenges, but in many parts of the world, girls are still the first to be excluded from it. For Kagia, there is much more appreciation of the importance of educating girls, particularly in STEM, and there have been several programmes led by UNESCO that have emerged, but she says you cannot separate STEM from the school environment.

“If a school environment does not have the learning facilities, it doesn’t matter how much you believe in STEM, you can’t do it. Statistics show that less than 30% of schools [in sub-Saharan Africa] have electricity. If you don’t have electricity, doing some of the lab work that will be required becomes difficult,” she says.

According to Kagia, countries that have made the greatest gains in education, such as Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Senegal, have subsequently made progress in STEM education because it is encompassed in the overall framework. However, she adds, the progress is uneven. “Less than a third of science researchers are women. Less than 25% of higher education students pursue STEM programmes. We are not there yet.”

This is in contrast to the demand for it, Kagia says, in reference to the over 60% of farmers who are women. “Unless you equip them [female farmers] with the scientific and innovative capacity, you will never transform agriculture,” she says.

Link to food sufficiency

Indeed, in April 2022, FAO – through its Director-General Qu Dongyu – said though “a promising transformation has already started in Africa’s farmlands, this shift can go much further with the addition of digital tools, increased links to markets, and greater efficiency along agrifood chains, especially if the private sector and national policies also support the effort”.

If Africa does not transform agriculture, Kagia says, it will not become food sufficient. “It requires much more of a concerted effort to break that cycle, and this is the same with climate change. If Africa is going to get on top of the climate change challenges, it will require very careful adaptation to make sure we have a very fast economic growth trajectory that is climate resilient.”

Closing the gender gap in STEM has a fundamental component, but we have got three levels of challenges, which Kagia lists as 1) improving the overall level of quality across the continent, 2) improving the quality of STEM education for both boys and girls 3) to make it more gender-balanced.

In terms of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic to the education system, Kagia says Africa had already begun to overcome some of the basic issues of access (such as poverty, child marriage and gender-based violence) when the effects of the disease hit, taking the content 25 years back – with regards to STEM education, and about a generation back, on overall education.

“The one year when children were out of school, a very large proportion of girls dropped out because they got pregnant or they got married. Demand for education from the parental point of view reduced because they had been diverted to support the basic household economy. That loss has an intergenerational impact,” she says.

Kagia further highlights the fact that only a third of children in Africa were able to access online, mobile-, radio- or TV-enhanced learning. “A study we did in Kenya showed that most of the children were getting 2-3 hours of learning. There was lost learning momentum,” she says, adding that there was an increase in inequality between children who could access computers and those who could not.

Lessons from Covid-19

For Kagia, however, Covid-19 was a wake-up call for teachers, parents and the community – in general – to find new ways of overcoming the hurdles. She affirms that the Covid-19 pandemic brought into sharp focus the importance of education technology and how it can help to close the gap of distance or environment.

“You don’t have to be sitting in a classroom to learn,” she says. “It opens up opportunities for new learning programmes”, such as the simulated lessons created by Carl Wieman, winner of the 2020 Yidan Prize for Education Research

She adds that the acceptance of digital technologies in learning comes at a time when there are opportunities to access materials from far-flung areas.

Covid-19 also released creative energies, such as NGOs that worked to ensure that children continue learning, understanding that there are great ideas outside the mainstream learning channels. “I hope those partnerships can be maintained, going forward,” she says.

There is an assumption from some of the more mature economies that very little is going on in Africa, which is a misconception.

Kagia says she often asks her colleagues: Why is it that the health sector was able to create a vaccine within two years, which would normally take a decade, yet in the education sector there isn’t similar versatility in innovation?

“I hope that Covid-19 has triggered a transformative desire to reinvent education, not the way we looked at it 50-100 years ago, but [in a way that] can help us to manage the future more effectively,” Kagia tells me.

Influx of tech start-ups in Africa

According to Kagia, there are many “islands of excellence” scattered across the continent, but there is a need to make them better known. “One way of amplifying them is creating an opportunity for them to describe the work that they do and make that information globally and regionally available.

She intimates that one of the frustrations she has encountered is the idea that if you can’t see it then it doesn’t exist. “There is an assumption from some of the more mature economies that very little is going on in Africa, which is a misconception. The challenges that our education systems face are big. There is a lot of creativity that is required to overcome them, but we need to platform creativity as part of the innovative response to Covid-19, going forward,” Kagia says.

…We will have achieved this objective when girls have the same comfort in their intellectual comfort level about STEM as boys do.

On the influx of tech start-ups in Africa, Kagia sees this as part of a broader response to strengthening STEM. “Rather than doing a specific STEM program, start-ups should be creating the work environment experience for those who are in such programmes,” she says.

One of the best ways of strengthening STEM programmes, Kagia says, is to assess what the labour market provides and what kind of opportunities there are. She argues that a lot of tech companies can serve as an avenue to sharpen the ambition of students. “Girls, in particular, are now able to join tech companies and other online opportunities that are emerging. The idea is not to create a STEM programme in the workplace, but create a workspace that attracts students.”

Kagia adds that though development may seem like a mirage, Africa will attain gender parity in STEM education “when there is a 50-50 split in numbers, right from primary school to the university [level]. We will have achieved this objective when girls have the same comfort in their intellectual comfort level about STEM as boys do”.

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